Last month, on the clean, white ninth floor of Chelsea’s Starrett-Lehigh Building, a small stage and podium were set up to launch Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia’s new PBS television show, Everyday Food, in precisely the same place where Martha Stewart announced to the world that she would serve her jail term before an appeal. Even the backdrop was the same—a rainbow of colorful paint samples from Stewart’s Sherwin-Williams collection, featuring paints inspired by the shades of eggs laid by Araucana hens in her “Palais de Poulet.” There was a large poster of Martha, too, pouring batter into a bowl as she hovered above, her expression much like the one on the cover of Entertaining, a coffee-table cookbook first released over a quarter-century ago: folding a napkin at an elaborately set dinner table, her lips pursed in a benign, energetic Fairfield County homemaker’s smile.
The person who wasn’t here was Stewart herself, obviously, but there was someone else almost as good. After three quick blurts of an errant fire alarm—one speaker joked, “It’s never dull here at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia”—Susan Lyne, the company’s CEO since mid-November, strutted to the microphone. Lyne doesn’t wear skirts or dresses, and today she was outfitted in Capri-length pants. Tall, blonde, and elegant, she was prettier than Martha and younger by a decade, but they looked uncannily similar. In fact, in the early nineties, when Lyne was editor of Premiere and Martha had begun to crest as a household name, Lyne walked the red carpet at a movie premiere to paparazzi calls of “Martha! Martha! Over here!”
Lyne brushed a lock of hair off her face and spoke into the microphone in a measured, soothing manner. “I’m still new enough at this company that I actually discovered Everyday Food when I picked it up at a checkout counter,” she said. (Everyday Food magazine, a pocket-size monthly, celebrated its first anniversary in September.) “I took it home with me, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. I’ve raved about it to all my friends, I’ve given subscriptions to my sisters, and even my 19-year-old daughter is now a convert.”
Food processors and blenders buzzed as chefs made olive dip, tofu-raspberry smoothies, and green-apple slices with peanut butter and crunchy granola. These didn’t seem like dishes Martha would approve. In fact, Martha had explained the creation of Everyday Food this way, saying of her potential readers: “They have been neglected by society.”
Lyne put a warmer, fuzzier human face on this arid formulation. “No one loves entertaining and cooking big, special meals more than Martha Stewart,” she said. “But she also recognized the need for everyday cooks to have simple recipes, things that were easy to make and that were balanced.”
Martha Stewart is, patently, a kind of genius. But talent often comes in inconvenient, unbalanced packages. The damage to her image by her obstruction-of-justice trial last year wasn’t only that she was convicted. She was revealed as an ego monster, a martinet—someone who might run into anger-management difficulties running a deli, let alone a billion-dollar public company. The question has been how to manage her deeply conflicted image—the perfectionist home commando with the out-of-control emotional life, the saccharine “homekeeping” authority and the greedy social climber. How do you create a happy ending for the Martha Stewart story—and, not incidentally, for the company she built?
Susan Lyne is part of the answer. She’s Stewart’s blonde doppelgänger, a front woman for a front woman, Martha’s stunt double. Lyne, the president of ABC Entertainment until April 2004, joined the board of MSLO in June, recruited by a headhunter a day after she was fired from ABC. (Lyne, too, is a martyr—she green-lit Desperate Housewives and Lost, thus saving the network in the rating wars posthumously.) She’s the Good Martha—calm, focused, grounded. Her nickname at Premiere was “The Goddess,” because she was motherly but also sexy. She is also the anti-Martha—empathetic. Whereas Martha is the image of a nurturer, Lyne, by all accounts, is an actual nurturer. Interestingly enough, though, she was the primary advocate for making MSLO’s new message all about Martha.