MAD for MARTHA

Idol: Guess who's marching behind the world's most famous homemaker? Pre-teen and teen girls who think Martha Stewart is just so cool.

June 25, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Dear Martha:

A surprising thing has happened. While you've gotten older and plumper -- more matronly, really, although you still look great, don't get me wrong -- you've developed an unexpected audience: young, hip girls.

I don't know if it's a national trend, although it could be from what the market research people tell me.

But in Baltimore, Martha rules.

Well, not exactly. There are plenty of teen-age girls around here, I'm sure, who think that spending more than two seconds figuring out a creative way to sort and store ribbons is a really ridiculous waste of time. But at least they've noticed you, perhaps watched your segment on the CBS "Early Show" with the same guilty fascination that we adults do.

Here, for instance, is what 14-year-old Stephanie Kallab, who lives in Towson, thinks about you:

"Everyone knows Martha Stewart," she says. "She takes ordinary things around the house and makes something wonderful out of them. It's usually stuff you'd never think of using, like crayon shavings. She'll layer them between waxed paper and iron it and cut out hearts from it and make a mobile."

And it's not just the younger teen-agers who admire you.

"The arts and crafts she does aren't targeted to just one group," says 18-year-old Leena Krisnaswamy, who lives in Stevenson. "They're not just for middle-aged housewives. I think of her as being a classy, creative person who represents not just the typical homemaker. She's someone who has great ideas that appeal to young people, too."

Like what?

"I've made things with the dried rosebuds I've saved from my proms. It's stuff I actually try. And my friend threw a tea party based on one in her magazine. It's becoming more and more trendy to throw little parties."

There's no irony there, no sniping about the fact that you and your projects are too, too perfect to be believable. They just like your ideas.

"It makes sense," says Michael Wood, vice president of the Northbrook, Ill.-based Teenage Research Unlimited. "Crafts, collectibles, hobbies are all important to teen-age girls. [With Martha Stewart] you're adding style. When you think about it, there isn't really something for them once they've outgrown the children's crafts and Highlights projects, but they still like to do them."

Last year Bryn Mawr, a private girl's school in Baltimore, added a Martha Stewart club to its middle school extracurricular activities, which competed for the girls' attention with such other clubs as fitness, Photo Shop, film and Harry Potter. An astounding 80 of the 212 girls signed up for yours. Note that it wasn't a craft or decorating or cooking club that attracted them. It was a Martha Stewart club.

"Part of Martha's appeal for girls is that she's almost like a Madonna," says Irma Zandl, president of the New York teen market research firm the Zandl Group. (She's comparing you to the singer -- in case you're not up on your rock stars -- not the Christian icon.) "She calls her own shots like Oprah. She's so stylish, and her take on things is so contemporary. Crafts have been popular [among teen-age girls] for the last few years, and she's tapping into something novel for them to do."

Some of us might worry about you as a role model for our teen-age girls. After all, those of us who have actually run a household and made a marriage work without making our own Roman shades or individual apricot tarts can sit back and enjoy your lifestyle vicariously without confusing it with reality. But will our girls grow up thinking this is how a woman should live her life?

"Kids were begging to get into the Martha Stewart club," says Cornelia Donner, the director of the Bryn Mawr Middle School, who helped run the club. "At first I thought, 'This is not the image we want to create. What about the physicists and the mathematicians?' But I decided she's a good model as an entrepreneur who's made it doing things women have done for centuries."

The girls created valentines from Martha Stewart Living magazine, put together photo albums, learned napkin folding and made their own wrapping paper and envelopes. A professional chef came to demonstrate cake decorating.

"But her draw isn't just the crafts," says Donner. "I overheard the girls talking about her TV shows, which they taped and watched. I was flabbergasted."

You see, Martha, your TV show, which airs here weekday mornings at 9 on CBS, also appeals because of its cooking and home decor advice, unlikely as that last seems. But it's news only to marketers that teen-age girls are really interested in decorating their own spaces -- usually their bedrooms. Not only that, parents are willing to spend the money, which means that teen-age girls, in effect, control some major interior-decorating dollars.

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