Fix-it lady builds a role with BGE

Allegra Bennett's image as a self-taught `renovating woman' is an expanding career


Allegra Bennett thought she got a good deal when her ex-husband said she could keep the house the couple once shared in Baltimore's Ashburton neighborhood as part of their divorce agreement.

Then, the garbage disposal broke one day while she was cooking shrimp and crab cakes and Bennett found herself playing the role of "damsel in distress." After a couple of calls to her ex-husband, who she discovered wasn't the fix-it man he claimed to be, Bennett tinkered with the disposal herself and fixed the problem.

Little did she know at the time that it was the beginning of a new career for the former newspaper journalist known today as the "renovating woman."

Bennett is the publisher of Renovating Woman magazine, the author of three books aimed at teaching women home improvement skills, the home repair expert on a television show - and, most recently, the new face of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

The utility company launched an ad campaign last month with Bennett as its centerpiece. But the high-profile role comes just as a public relations nightmare has descended on BGE. The utility is under political fire for a plan to raise rates by 72 percent on average when price caps set six years ago are lifted in July.

The company knew rate increases were coming and months ago put aside $6 million for a campaign to educate consumers on conserving energy and reducing their electric bills. The Bennett commercials were a part of that plan.

So far, the commercials haven't eased the outcry from customers who believe that BGE should be the one trying to figure out how to keep electric costs low. But Bennett said that so far she hasn't been the focus of the criticism. Consumers seem to be separating her from the company and its problems.

"While the commercials say `Allegra and BGE,' it's about Allegra and the consumers," Bennett said.

"So, no, I'm not a spokesperson for any of the caps or energy issues going on. I simply show people how to plug the holes so they can keep their money from going out the window," Bennett said.

Some compare her to Odonna Mathews, the former consumer adviser for Giant Food, who until her retirement last year gave shoppers nutrition and shopping tips in commercials and newspaper advertisements as the grocer's most visible employee.

"The persona that she created with the `Renovating Woman' is `If I can do it, you can do it, too. I'm self-taught and you can be, too.' She doesn't come across as this technical geek," said Kevin O'Keefe, president of Weber Shandwick, the Baltimore advertising and public relations firm that BGE hired to produce the campaign. O'Keefe said that Bennett immediately came to mind for the commercials because she could relate to the average consumer - and her bubbly personality helped.

Like many women, Bennett used to turn to her husband when things broke down in the house. When the marriage fell apart after 23 years, that was no longer an option.

"In this society, we create roles for men and women," Bennett said. "That was his role. He was the fix-it man."

Fixing the garbage disposal was a turning point for Bennett. The next day, she went on a shopping spree at Sears. She bought a hammer, a power drill, screwdrivers and a chainsaw to cut down an irritating apple tree in the backyard.

"It liberated me," Bennett said. Over the years, she would learn other home improvement skills through trial and error and befriending people working in the field. When she couldn't figure out why she kept collecting mold in the basement, she called a home renovator a friend recommended. The man, whose name was Handy, looked immediately at her gutters, which had never been cleaned, and knew what the problem was. They found a bird's nest and a dead squirrel amid the debris. Handy eventually went on to show Bennett other home improvement techniques.

As her skills were improving, she was developing a second career. Bennett chronicled her experiences in a column for The Washington Times. She is also a former reporter for The Sun and occasionally freelances for its advertising sections. From 1991 to 1993, she was the host of a radio show on WBAL about home improvement.

While at a party in 1996, she mocked a 30-something man who said he was writing an autobiography. She joked to those in attendance that if he had enough life experience to write a book, so could she. Someone took her seriously, and a literary agent called her the next day.

In 1997, she released her first book, Renovating Woman: A Guide to Home Repair Maintenance and Real Men. Last spring, she launched Renovating Woman: The Do-It Herself Magazine.

Martha Stewart is widely known for dispensing home decorating tips, but advice in home maintenance has been more the realm of male celebrities, such as Bob Vila and Ty Pennington, the hunky carpenter on ABC-TV's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

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