Measuring Up To Martha

Can lifestyle upstarts take a household name's place on the domestic pedestal?

March 16, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Martha Stewart may no longer be chief creative officer of the universe, but her flock must be overjoyed to know she'll continue to dream up new projects and products - even if she's doing it from a modestly decorated, minimum security cell.

After all, who else knows as much as the domestic dominatrix of Turkey Hill about the good things in life, like growing Black Emerald grapes, fashioning candle slipcovers, piping buttercream pansies?

As Stewart's empire collapses like a non-believer's souffle, consumer culture vultures ponder whether any one person, or even five Queer Eye guys, can - or should - replicate her conglomerate's chokehold on the way we play house.

As an elite stable of lifestyle celebrities jockey for position in the high-stakes race to take Stewart's place, the question arises - can there ever be another Martha?

"I don't think you could ever replace that peculiar combination of hauteur, wild spending and self-righteousness," says Karal Ann Marling, a professor of art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota who wrote an article titled "The Revenge of Mrs. Santa Claus or Martha Stewart Does Christmas" for the journal American Studies.

In the past, the only way to defy the Stewart juggernaut was to "get marketed as some form of anti-Martha," says Tsia Carson, editor of Getcrafty (www.getcrafty.com), an online magazine. "Now that the queen is dead, I don't really know if there is a contender to the throne."

"There's a lot of people clamoring for that top piece of pie," says Candice Olson, the Toronto-based host of HGTV's Divine Design. Although wider recognition would be great, Olson, an interior designer, isn't compelled to branch out into gardening and cooking solely to emulate Stewart's image of domestic omniscience.

Besides, the Martha model is unrealistic, Olson says. With a career and a new baby, "I'm a firm believer that you cannot have it all. ... Martha can't do it all, either. We all know that."

An icon who paved the way for dozens of imitators, as well as a glut of design and cooking shows and Web sites, Stewart has "made it both easier and harder for future people [to follow in her footsteps]," says historian Sarah A. Leavitt, author of From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice.

It became easier, Leavitt says, because Stewart "expanded the market in books and magazines and television programming." By cornering that market so ruthlessly, "She's also closed it up."

Martha Stewart, the person, became indistinguishable from Martha Stewart, the product, in a masterful feat of cross-over branding. But primers on housekeeping and related arts have long been linked to specific personalities, Leavitt notes.

The eldest daughter from the famous family of writers and social activists, Catharine Beecher was well known for her work A Treatise on Domestic Economy. First published in 1841, and reprinted many times, the book championed the notion that women belonged in the home. "She certainly reached an audience," Leavitt says.

Like her less sophisticated predecessors, Stewart exploited nostalgia, religious ritual and patriotism to forge emotional connections with her audience, Leavitt notes in "It was Always a Good Thing," also part of the Martha Stewart Roundtable published in American Studies. The would-be heirs currently fielding calls from investors, networks and design companies might be wise to do the same.

But Stewart's complete reliance on her name brand may become a textbook example of what not to do, Leavitt says. Initially, "A lot of people were leery about her putting her name and face so prominently on anything," she says. "But they were mostly worried about her getting hit by a train and weren't anticipating that she would become a convicted felon."

And yet, "publishers really want to see a personality. ... It seems like the idealized figurehead, the perfect domestic goddess, is the more perfect way to go, even if she's accused of a felony," Getcrafty's Carson says.

The Scripps Networks, which operates HGTV, the Food Network, Fine Living, DIY: The Do It Yourself Network and Shop@Home, has consciously avoided pinning their brand on one name, says Cindy McConkey, vice president for communications at Scripps. "We've always wanted the content to be the star first," she says.

As for whether another lifestyle peddler will rise to the top by virtue of personal charisma, timing and strategy, that's for consumers and viewers to decide, she says.

The next Martha should avoid being tainted by the corporate side of the enterprise, says Steve Appel, co-owner of Nouveau Contemporary Goods in Baltimore and a devoted Martha observer. "A person that is this incredible homemaker and chef and cook and has all these talents; I would not like to see them involved in the business world," he says.

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