Alexis calls her mother “Martha,” a habit she says was born in adulthood from so frequently being in crowds with her and feeling mortified at having to shout “Mom!” into the throng. Sometimes she’ll refer to her as “Mothra,” which seems to crystallize her conception of her mother as a thing that is willful, persistent, and more than a little scary, but, like Godzilla’s winged nemesis, too humorous to be treated with any real scorn. On the first episode of Whatever, Martha!, while the women pipe icing onto cupcakes along with an old segment of Martha instructing a group of toqued youngsters, Alexis recalls being forced to endure something in her youth called “cooking school,” where she and her friends “had to wear those stupid chef’s hats” for after-school lessons with her mother.
JENNIFER: Does she like little children?
ALEXIS: She didn’t like me. But then again not many people do like me.
And then later …
ALEXIS: People like to say that Martha didn’t pay attention to me, and that’s just not true. [Beat.] Maybe not the right kind of attention.
JENNIFER: Well, that’s your flair for dramatics …
ALEXIS: Oh, you think so, hmmm? That’s not what my therapists say. And that is plural. Therapists. Plural.
Alexis and Jennifer met three and a half years ago in the halls of the Starrett-Lehigh Building, where Martha had offices since 2000. Jennifer was working as her father’s secretary; Alexis, who spent practically no time at Starrett previously, was there to make her big network-television debut as Martha’s chilly deputy in her mother’s post-jailhouse comeback, Martha Stewart: The Apprentice. Jennifer started saying hello to Alexis when they passed in the halls. “I would grunt,” says Alexis of her response. “But there was a smile behind the grunts,” Jennifer qualifies.
Eventually the grunts became hellos, the hellos conversations, and soon Alexis mentioned that she might want a partner on the radio show she planned to host on Martha’s Sirius channel. Jennifer perked right up. She had once wanted to be a singer, but her dad declined to put his considerable industry muscle behind her. Then she tried acting but changed her mind when a Broadway casting agent told her she was too plump to be considered for leading-lady roles. Her big break finally came when she was summoned to Martha’s huge, sun-drenched corner office. “So you’re going to do a show with Alexis,” Martha told her. And that was it.
“Listen,” Jennifer says. “Alexis will never admit to loving me, but I know that she does.” Considering the pair’s on-air chemistry, the possibility hadn’t even occurred to me that she might not. Later, Walter Sabo—the talk-radio consultant considered a guru for coaching Dr. Ruth and Sally Jessy Raphael and who now acts as a consultant to many neophyte hosts on Sirius’s roster—asks me a little provocatively how the Whatever girls were doing. “What’s interesting about teams on the air,” he says, “is that they may succeed for many, many years, and usually at some point they stop speaking to each other off the air.” Jennifer and Alexis speak off the air, but not nearly as much as they did in the early days, owing to a showdown of sorts. Jennifer, it seems, was calling Alexis too much. “She and her friends call each other every five minutes,” says Alexis. “I can’t handle that. I freaked out on her and said, ‘You gotta stop.’ ” Jennifer put a bright spin on the curtailed communications. “She doesn’t really need to be taken care of,” she says of Alexis. “It was oddly liberating to know that.”
Not that this has solved all their problems with each other. Two years ago, Alexis went on an on-air tirade about how much she dislikes Jennifer’s friends. “I hate all her friends, and if I don’t do exactly what they’re expecting me to, they’ll freak out because I’m a bitch,” she tells me. “I don’t tap-dance.” But Jennifer gets along with Alexis’s friends. “Because I have nice friends,” Alexis stage-whispers. “I have nice friends, too,” Jennifer says, a little wounded. “Your Jappy Long I sland friends?” asks Alexis.
Sniping aside, Jennifer swears Alexis’s heart is in the right place, and she must be judged not on words but deeds. “The day my mother died, I called her and said, ‘I don’t know how to get a house ready for a shiva,’ ” Jennifer says. “She got here within 60 minutes, and went through my mom’s house and helped me set up. It was horrible, and she was there.”
“So you’re going to spin this as a bad-mother thing?” Alexis demands to know at lunch. Her eyes are wide and her mouth agape in a way that expresses a mixture of boredom, contempt, and acute mortification. This is her trademark expression, frequently accompanied by a dramatic shrug and two upturned are-you-kidding-me palms. “My mother is difficult. How could she not be?” The bad-mother question, I point out, comes from Alexis talking about her mother hating her. “I was being funny!” she says. “I poke fun of everybody and everything. And who’s easier to make fun of than your mother?”