THE HOSTESS WITH THE MOSTEST

Camille Paglia loves her; Hillary Clinton is a fan; Time Warner backs her to the hilt - but who is Martha Stewart? The definitive American woman of our time, that's who
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The Independent Culture
ON TELEVISION screens across America, Martha Stewart stands blonde and perfect in her sun-soaked kitchen on Sunday mornings to deliver her message: home is where Martha is. On other stations, Baptists and Christian fundamentalists are delivering their sermons; The Wizard of Oz is playing on cable, as is The Silence of Adultery. But these have nothing on Martha: none of the sensual mini-epiphanies that go down like spoonfed elixir, that enter the bloodstream like narcotics, that rock the soul...

Issues like: don't you hate it when your iced coffee turns watery from melting ice?

"There is a very easy solution to this problem," says the media star who has focused the American mind on how to organise a junk drawer, how to "antique" an urn, how to build a raspberry trellis, how to master anything and everything to do with house and garden: make the ice-cubes out of coffee. "There's no chance of dilution there!" she chirps.

"It's a good thing," she adds, as she always does, smiling into the camera before the cut-away, and you feel as though she's just tucked you in to bed. Doing things the Martha way has become what the cakewalk was to the Twenties: a joyful craze replete with its own ribald ironies. "I fast- forward through the chocolate curls," says a New York fashion consultant who tapes each and every Martha Stewart show. "Never in my life will I make chocolate curls. But I watch her. And I love it."

It's impossible not to find Martha at once sublime and ridiculous. Blonde, perfect and 54, she is, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, compelling in her tireless pursuit of "home". By her own example, she has rehabilitated homemaking after decades of social stigma. A stockbroker turned country caterer, she spent the Eighties producing best-selling coffee-table books on cooking and entertaining; by 1991, she was starring in her own sumptuously photographed magazine, Martha Stewart Living, which now earns advertising revenues of $12m a year; by 1993, she had launched a nationally syndicated television show, which recently won two Emmies. Today, she is a phenomenon apart: a domestic diva with the following of a rock star. As New York magazine put it, "Her blue-chip perfectionism has made her the definitive American woman of our time."

Camille Paglia agrees: "Martha Stewart is one of the most important forces at a time of crisis in America of the female sex role," Paglia has said. "She is someone who has done an enormous service for ordinary women who identify with the roles of mother, wife and homemaker. She has star quality. She got rid of the husband. [Stewart is div-orced.] She cut her hair. Now she's a self-complete man/woman on her estate, run by invisible serfs. She exudes something sexually ambiguous."

There have always been media homemakers in America - public figures from Julia Child to Heloise, author of those Helpful Household Hints. But none ever saw the big picture - the great big interactive picture - that appeared to Martha Stewart. Think Delia Smith with the brain of Bill Gates. Think Maggie Thatcher if her medicine tasted good. Think Madame Mao in China. The corporate captain of Martha Stewart Living Enterprises, Stewart is a synergistic communications empire that embraces books, videos and such products as $110 gallons of paint mixed to match the shade of the eggs laid by her chickens, or "Martha's Signature Giant Cookie Cutter Set". Perhaps the only professional homemaker to look right in an Armani suit, she marries home and hearth to the great wide world in one stupendously successful package: herself. For it, she gets more press than Madonna and appears in gossip col-umns from Hollywood to the Hamptons, the supersmart summer playground of the rich.

Since April, her shows have been seen by cable television subscribers in Britain (on The Learning Channel), and there is talk of a UK launch for her magazine. In America, the growth of her cult shows no sign of slowing. This autumn, Sixty Minutes, the CBS news show, will profile her; so will People and The New Yorker. She has appeared on David Letterman; guests on her fortnightly spot on the Today show have included Hillary Clinton. And Karen Finley, the controversial performance artist, is currently contributing a Martha-inspired event at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The culture vultures have descended, lured by chocolate curls.

"I THINK for a very long time women felt forced to choose," says David Steward, Exec-utive Vice-President of Martha Stewart Living Enterprises. "She is the first to say that being intelligent and sophisticated is compatible with caring about your home and garden. That touched a nerve in American women." It is as if she were speaking a lost language, one that intrigues the daughters of the sexual revolution who grew up cultivating domestic ignorance on their way to conquer the world. She presents the inglorious facts of women's work - how to cut up a chicken, say - as "knowledge", as food for the soul, not entrapment. More than things, she is selling "inspiration and information" - a phrase that has become the mantra of the booming interiors magazine business.

According to recent polls, 76 per cent of Americans would like to be more creative. In this inner "interiors" market, they spend a total of $260bn annually in and around the home; $121bn on renovation; and $22bn on gardening alone. That is why Conde Nast will relaunch American House & Garden (defunct since 1993) next year; why Meredith Corporation is launching Renovation Style and Home Garden; and why the EW Scripps company recently launched HGTV, a 24 hours-a-day house and garden cable channel that hopes soon to reach 10 million subscribers. Stewart's formula - the humdrum detail of how-to couched in dreamy visuals - has set a new standard.

"We take our teaching very seriously," says Martha, using the royal pronoun. "In our educational way we are teaching people that they do have a sense of aesthetic, and we can strive for better. We see ourselves as a confidence booster. That's why our appeal is so broad."

For the wide-bottomed folk waddling through the malls, Martha is a Messiah, meeting the people at frequent lectures for up to 2,000 devotees at a time, decoding the formerly classbound clues to living well and passing them around like a cribsheet. Across the tundra of suburbia, there are signs that Martha was here: the "yard", that grid of grass formerly reserved for mowing and touch football, has begun to sprout graceful appertenances, bowers, trellises, things for vines to climb up; more people are likely to know what a hyacinth glass is, or to know that there are nine different types of basil; more living-rooms are likely to turn up mellow yellow - the colour of eggshell.

As Conran did for London in the Seventies, Stewart has raised the tone of appearances. "Casual elegance, simple yet complex," is how she describes her visible influence, built on good design bones and a nearly Scandinavian prettiness fit for these eclectic times. According to Marian McEvoy, editor of Elle Decor (which has doubled its circulation since 1989), "Martha has made our job easier. She has made housekeeping into something sort of wonderful and sophisticated - caring about how you live, how you serve a fruit cocktail dessert, caring about not having your lightbulbs too bright, caring about how you iron a shirt, or how you wax your floor, or plant your kitchen herbs. By the time they get to me they're a more visually astute group of people if they've been with Martha."

BORN Martha Kostyra, Stewart showed signs of industry from an early age. She grew up in New Jersey, the eldest of six in a Polish Catholic family; her mother was a homemaker and teacher, her father a pharmaceuticals salesman who taught her to garden. She modelled her way through school and university, and was married to Andrew Stewart, now an art book publisher, before graduating from Barnard [an Ivy League college] in New York. Since divorced, they have a 29-year-old daughter, Alexis. After more than a decade as a Wall Street stockbroker, Stewart repaired to Westport, Connecticut, with husband, child and proceeds just prior to the recession of 1974. Their "homesteading" experience, as she calls their purchase and renovation of Turkey Hill, her now famous 1805 farmhouse, charted her destiny. She launched a catering business and by 1980 was working on a book, Entertaining, which was published in 1982. It put the commercial stamp to her style, and has gone into 28 printings and sold 500,000 copies worldwide. Twelve titles followed (many published by Ebury Press in Britain); two more, Hand Made Christmas and The Martha Stewart Cookbook (an anthology of 1,600 recipies) are to be published this autumn.

In 1987, she struck a deal with K-mart Corporation - the lowest common denominator in mall culture, for whom she remains a "lifestyle consultant" - for bed and bath products. The mass market was buying her brand of homespun sophistication - a simplified chic that looks like it should cost a lot, but is often all ingenuity. In 1988, she produced four cooking videos. And then, in 1990, she made her big deal with Time Warner, who provided backing for Martha Stewart Living and later, in 1994, founded Martha Stewart Living Enterprises, turning her into what Vanity Fair calls "Martha Inc". With it, her unstyled caterer's hairdo became an executive's soft crop. An appearance in an American Express commercial clinched her standing as a pop icon. In it, she spoofed herself in full obsession - tiling the bottom of a swimming pool in the image of the Venus de Milo with cut up credit cards. "It's a good thing," she says at the end, guying the phrase she has made famous. It was perfect imagery: Martha making myths of womanhood from stuff you might have thrown away.

AT FIRST it was a joke, this image of haute bourgeoise perfection bending over her rose beds on the cover of her eponymous magazine, showing you how to do it her way: baking, canning, sewing, gardening, pruning, restoring flea market finds with a glue gun. She seemed a holdover from the Eighties, a high camp Heloise for Reaganites. Then circulation of the magazine jumped in four years from 250,000 to 1.3 million, and it was harder to laugh.

"Women's magazines have been too narrow in their approach," Stewart told Advertising Age. "Ultimately, my niche is bigger than anyone else's because it has to do with a subject called `living'. That's the biggest subject matter of all."

Exactly: not since Pierre Cardin pioneered the concept of licensing - putting a designer name on such formerly unstylish objects as sheets and towels - has there been an opportunity quite like it. "Living" is more subtle and interpretative than "Lifestyle", its Eighties antecedent - and it doesn't require four walls, showy presentation, or keeping up with a crowd who can pay for interiors by Mario Buatta. ("Another part of the success," according to Eric Thorkilsen, a Time Inc publisher, "is that the brand was developed as a multi-media property. From the first issue, she was appearing on the Today show with segments related to the content of the magazine. After a year we launched the television show, books, videos...")

"It's not just home furnishings. It's the clothes you wear, the cars you drive, the foods you eat, the perfume you wear," says Stewart. "The interest in high quality, good quality and lasting quality is what has spurred this tremendous interest in living. People want quality in their lives." Does that mean they feel there's not enough quality in their lives? "That's too depressing a way to put it," she snaps.

Stewart speaks in bite-size sentences, emphasising sensory trigger words like "cool", "soft" and "smooth". The effect is mesmerising, like that of The Muppets' Big Bird, or of soft porn. You watch her trustingly. The pearl stud earrings and wholesome blue jeans reassure as she presents a "problem" you hadn't noticed was there: that your scissors are disorganised (they need to be labelled according to what they cut); that your copper pans need cleaning with lemon and salt. As she elucidates, you start to engage the fantasy of total command over this one facet of life. Maybe there is hope after all. Horns honk outside your window, birds twitter outside hers, yet you bond in the "information". How to keep salt from sticking in the shaker? Put it in finger bowls instead. You've just been Martha'd, and you feel so grateful.

Some see the Martha phenomenon as a kind of home economics department of the far right's survivalist movement, with its instinct to retreat and fend off intruders, to escape the incursions of modern life. As a divorced, insomniac, workaholic control freak who admits to sleeping just three hours a night, Stewart confounds the notion of "family values"; nonetheless, she represents harmony and balance, and her communicated industry generates a domestic bliss that is failsafe, no-fault and satisfying in a way that, often, family life is not.

Stewart has recently bought a $3m modernist glass box of a house in the Hamptons. The purchase has inspired forecasters to predict modernism in mass America's future; will Martha, who naturally leans towards minimalism, do a Madonna and reinvent the wheel of her trademark traditionalism?

Certainly, like all the best teachers, she is a perpetual student - seen struggling at the helm of a small sailing craft, Stewart refused offers of assistance: "I'll get this right if it takes till the next century," she said. It's an endearing trait even if, in her case, it's a little scary.

In fact, the Martha Stewart experience is fluid, individuated, and fit for cyberspace - into which she expects to be travelling soon. "We're very interested in the on-line area," says David Steward, talking about the possibilities of CD-Rom and the Internet. "We're looking to integrate everything we have, via photographs, text, video, sound. If somebody's interested in cake decorating, they should be able to pull up all the different cake tips, the recipes, a video demo, and purchase a cake kit at the end."

"I can see very clearly how I'm going to learn in 10 years," Stewart told a reporter recently, speaking as if through a crystal ball. "I will watch a very clear screen... It's going to be my computer screen.

"That is what I think about," she said. "How am I going to work within the system? How am I going to teach within that system? I think I am going to have a big part in it."

Today chocolate curls. Tomorrow the world. !

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