The Divine Ms. M?

Like Madonna, Britney, and Cher, the woman is known simply by her first name. She has die-hard, devout fans and an astounding net worth. She has the press following her every move. And now Martha Stewart, though not a musician, even has her own Behind the Music-type expose, full of gaspy revelations and suggestive, read-between-the-lines dot-dot-dots.

Christopher Byron, a financial journalist who exuberantly kissed Martha’s tootsies when her company went public in 1999, has just published a book -- Martha Inc. (Wiley and Sons) -- which concludes that everything isn’t coming up roses for the powerful businesswoman these days. The book’s release comes at a time when dirty-laundry reports about Martha’s finances are airing daily. It seems every week brings a new account of poor earnings, failed forecasts, and layoffs -- most of which are caused by her relationship with the bankrupt Kmart, with which she has an exclusive partnership.

Her reaction to Byron’s book? Public temper tantrums. Martha, 60, reportedly used her muscle to have the tabloid Globe’s account of the book, which led with the headline "MARTHA THE MONSTER," pulled from Kmart’s shelves last month. According to the New York Post, a few weeks later, fear of Martha’s wrath compelled New York’s National Public Radio station WNYC to turn down underwriting dollars from Martha Inc.

Though Martha was once the supreme doyenne of domestic bliss, the maven of multitasking, her garden, it seems, may be filling with weeds. The ratings for her television program, Martha Stewart Living, are below those of even small-time newcomer The Ananda Lewis Show; for the first time since 1991, her once astoundingly successful magazine of the same name has taken the expensive measure of soliciting new readers by mail; and her earnings as a company have fallen more than 50 percent from last year, according to first-quarter information.

As Martha publicly unravels -- and more of her infamous screaming fits turn up for mass consumption -- it becomes increasingly hard to suspend disbelief, to buy into the fantasy that this woman does and has it all: that she actually spring-cleans her canary cage, lunches with her estranged daughter, and bakes pies for the weekend (as a calendar in her magazine neatly proposes). Martha may have spoken -- and spoken brilliantly -- to needs that were important in the 1980s and 1990s. But these days, is Martha’s goose cooked?

Longtime business maven

There's no doubt about it: Martha’s long been a business maven. Relentless, driven, and impressively single-minded, the girl born in Nutley, New Jersey, to a family of "modest means" went on to create an intricate web of businesses around the "perfect lifestyle." According to an extensive profile in Vanity Fair, her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO) has even been held up as a model of successful brand management at Harvard Business School. Martha may have written books about place settings and other such seemingly trivial matters, but the one-time Connecticut homemaker is also sitting at the helm of one of the most successful ventures in media synergy and branding this country has ever seen. And if you believe her, she did it all herself.

Born Martha Kostyra, she wed Yale Law student Andy Stewart while still a student at Barnard College. Early on, she demonstrated a drive to better herself, commuting to college, modeling for Bonwit Teller, and eventually scoring a coup by getting named one of Glamour magazine’s "Ten Best-Dressed College Girls" in 1961. After graduation and a few well-placed phone calls from friends, Byron reports, Martha got a gig at a low-rent Wall Street firm, just in time to take part in a financial scandal involving Levitz Furniture in the mid 1970s.

Meanwhile, Martha and Andy bought a fixer-upper in tony Westport, Connecticut. There, Martha threw herself into renovating what is now called Turkey Hill. At the same time, she embarked on a new endeavor: combining her homemaking and business-world savvy, she and a friend launched a catering company called the Uncatered Affair. Martha set up shop outside a Ralph Lauren boutique in Westport, selling pies and cakes for $20 apiece. She quickly met with success and expanded her business.

Fast-forward a few years to the early 1980s, when Martha started to make real money, writing books that zoomed up the bestseller lists. Around this time, she linked up with Kmart as a spokesperson, snagging a sweet deal that left her in the driver’s seat, primping all the way to the bank. The chain sold millions — and millions — of items from her merchandise line, Martha Stewart Everyday. She started off with an annual salary of $200,000 as a "consultant," with added per-appearance fees. But the shrewdest aspect of her arrangement, reports Byron, allowed her to "get a piece of any sales of her books and tapes through Kmart and not have to share any of her royalties with them."

Add to that a magazine, more best-selling books, a catalogue business, a syndicated television show, and a radio show, and you have the American dream: a woman who used the domestic arts to take from American commerce her own lucrative slice of pie. The ultimate revenge for homemakers everywhere.

As she later summed up in Vanity Fair, research you do for, say, a magazine "can be used in a different way for television, radio, books, and so on — and that would lead to products that would lead to creating desire, to fulfilling desire, with merchandising, all in one company."

Martha, the one-woman show. Ka-ching.

Martha, Martha everywhere

Today, Martha is everywhere. On any given morning, it is entirely possible that someone could watch Martha Stewart Living on CBS while sitting in a Martha Stewart "luxury cotton bathrobe" ($68), sipping Japanese green tea from a Martha Stewart gift basket ($178) on a Martha Stewart "woven garden square coffee table" ($560), upon which is displayed Martha Stewart Living magazine ($4.75) and a crafty Martha Stewart Snow Globe kit ($32), for a total haul of $842.75. And apparently many people do just that: MSLO’s 2001 revenues were $296 million, and the media empire reaches 88 million people every month.

In fact, many find Martha’s television show positively mesmerizing. On a recent episode of From Martha’s Kitchen, a companion show to CBS’s Martha Stewart Living that airs on the Food Network, Martha used her trademark flirty facial tics to spice up her demonstration of the myriad uses for okra. A twinkle in the eye here, a little wink there, sharply pronounced t’s in her little knickknacks, and then the old standby, "It’s a good thing." Uh-huh, it is a good thing, you think to yourself. I must go out and buy some okra and make that deeelicious dish!

After all, Martha speaks with totally convincing authority on the matter. Okra is good, okra is easy, okra can be blended into your repertoire. Even her occasional culinary flub — "Oops, I forgot to put in the salt" — makes the show more compelling, adding an element of reality: even Martha forgets to add salt sometimes, albeit with striking poise. You are not a lost cause in the kitchen.

In her new book From Catherine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice (University of North Carolina Press), Sarah Leavitt puts Martha in perspective. "I would say she’s definitely addressed a need in our culture, but it’s certainly not new," explains Leavitt by telephone. "There was an upsurge in the middle class in homes in the mid-to-late 19th century," which ushered in a crop of these domestic-advice manuals. Martha has modernized the genre, adding today’s consumerist twist to yesterday’s advice. "She’s definitely part of a tradition," says Leavitt, "and she’s put her own stamp on it, quite literally, with her brand name."

Leavitt admits she enjoys Martha’s magazine and television shows, but acknowledges that Martha’s world is a fantasy rather than an attainable lifestyle. "It’s a lot about voyeurism," she explains. "You might do some of the things she does, but certainly she sets up an impossible standard." Indeed, Martha’s recipes have a reputation for turning up as duds on the average dinner table. And unless one were to tape her shows and play them back in slow motion, it would be virtually impossible to follow her lead in craft-making.

But whether Martha’s wares, recipes, and crafts are doable in the real world is irrelevant, says Leavitt. "I think that [fantasy] is what people enjoy about it — it’s neat to see. It’s similar to what you see in Gourmet magazine, or other travel and food publications." While you might take some of her advice, Leavitt says, for the most part, Martha speaks to armchair aesthetes who fancy themselves crafty.

Leavitt herself has tried a few of Martha’s tips, once even toiling for hours to make her own potato chips from a Martha Stewart recipe, for a Super Bowl party. The response? Her guests preferred the Chex Mix.

Even if Martha’s tips and guides aren’t feasible for most of us, though, some argue that that isn’t the point. Debbie Stoller, editor of Bust magazine, firmly believes that Martha has been good for modern feminism. She says there’s even a crossover between Martha fans and readers of Bust, which bills itself as the "Voice of the New Girl Order" and recently put out an issue themed "Fight Like a Girl."

"This may be a controversial statement," says Stoller, "but I think Martha Stewart is the most important woman for feminism we’ve seen over the past 10 years." She says that Martha has added value to womanly roles given short shrift over the past few decades and kick-started "domesticity as a site for feminist reclamation." "I think Martha’s a great businesswoman," Stoller asserts. "I don’t think she necessarily thought that this would be good for feminism, but I think it’s really positive and important."

Of course, Martha claims that was her goal all along. On Charlie Rose a few years back, she explained her early motives: "I was serving a desire — not only mine, but every homemaker’s desire, to elevate that job of homemaker."

Erin Franzman wrote an ode to Martha in the online Web magazine Ironminds last year, explaining why she loves the 60-year-old blonde: "My friends are always shocked when they discover that I watch her religiously on television. Martha Stewart provides the kind of instruction that 25-year-old single city gals don’t often need: cooking tips, household decoration and organization, crafts projects, and gardening hints. I live in a fourth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn; I do not need a whole lot of gardening hints. But Martha gives me something else I crave: criticism ... Martha trades in the stuff our mothers were supposed to teach us, but probably didn’t because they were working.... Martha Stewart has surpassed Oprah in the national female psyche. While Oprah is like a kindly aunt who tries to help us love ourselves and feel proud and empowered and all that other mushy self-helpy stuff, Martha is strictly here to improve you, by example and instruction."

"We love her and we hate her," confesses one twentysomething woman. Meanwhile, it goes unsaid, we buy her stuff.

Byron's book, the latest in an increasingly popular shadow industry of Martha-the-shrew takedowns, doggedly seeks out the facts. It is an unflinching — and at times sensationalistic — account of Martha’s rise to fame and wealth. According to Byron, there’s a lot of foul play, financial trickery, and backstabbing in her history. She’s famous for using and abusing her friends. A few of the book’s juicy tidbits: Martha is so cold that she chose to have a hysterectomy after bearing her only child, Alexis. She screwed people, left and right, out of their fair shares. She treated her parents as props for her television show.

"I set out to write a business biography," Byron explains by phone from his home in Connecticut. But, he discovered, the personal aspects of the Martha saga are wrapped up in her finances and business practices. Martha the woman and Martha the brand are inseparable. And that may not be a good thing for her business — especially if something were to happen to her. Where would Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia be without Martha?

And that’s only one of the wrinkles in the MSLO business scheme. All apparently isn’t color-coordinated bliss in Martha’s house. While MSLO stock burst on to the scene with its IPO in October of 1999, reaching an intraday high of $49.50, these days, the price has plummeted to less than $20 a share.

And Kmart’s demise sure isn’t helping things. In early January, the discount-retail chain declared bankruptcy. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, that action had a profound effect on MSLO, whose merchandising division — the most lucrative piece of the pie — sells through Kmart. So it came as no surprise that, three months after the bankruptcy announcement, MSLO reported a 53 percent drop in first-quarter earnings. That’s certainly not a good thing.

In March, Martha started slashing positions at the Internet/direct-commerce division of her company. The tally so far is 40, out of 600 employees. As George Nichols, an analyst at Morningstar.com, told the New York Post: "Sales at the Internet and mail-order business have been particularly soft."

Proponents might argue that television and magazines are where it’s really at for Martha. But even there, things aren’t looking so great. Martha Stewart Living has a household rating of 1.4, compared to The Oprah Winfrey Show’s 5.9 and The Rosie O’Donnell Show’s 2.5 -- a substantial gap, says Marc Berman, an analyst for Mediaweek. (Each ratings point equals a million households.) Even Sally Jessy Raphael, whose show will soon go off the air, beat Martha with a rating of 1.7. "Martha has half of the audience she had four years ago," says Berman. "She’s long since peaked."

Martha’s magazine has been pilloried, but it pioneered what’s turned out to be a lucrative genre (witness O and Rosie). On the face of things, the magazine appears to be doing well, boasting rising ad revenues. But as Byron notes, it’s merely a clever re-jiggering of the numbers: the magazine upped its circulation from 10 issues a year to 12, in addition to throwing in the occasional supplemental issue. "If you make that 11th [issue] a year available to subscribers who already have signed up for a full year," Byron explains, "it looks as if your advertising is increasing, but it really isn’t. You’re just adding another copy of the magazine." Investors Weekly reports that because the magazine raised advertising rates by 5.6 percent in January, "some analysts say [Martha’s publishing business] may show growth in coming months." But again, that may have more to do with financial finessing than true growth. At the same time, the magazine has fallen behind Oprah’s and Rosie’s in circulation, though Adweek lists the circulation at a still-high 2.5 million.

It appears that Martha herself has started to sweat. She recently sold three million of her shares in the company, reducing her total stake by nine percent (though with 60 percent, she still holds the lion’s share). "I think she’s scared to death of [Byron’s] book," a source told the New York Post’s Page Six. But the investment banker who handled the deal — and later took a seat on her board — attributed the sell-off to "estate-planning purposes."

One could simply blame it all on saturation: there’s not much room to grow when you’ve cornered the market. As Forbes magazine noted back in March of 2001, the reason for Martha’s declining revenues -- especially in television, her company’s third-largest division -- is "too much Martha, too often."

The beginning of the end?

But it isn't only on the business side that Martha’s garden appears a little wilted. As a cultural icon, she’s also starting to crumble.

While people like Erin Franzman may have thought their idolatry of Martha a dirty little secret as late as last year, the secret is now out. Transgressive as it may have seemed to harbor love for the mistress of all things crafty and Connecticut, loving Martha has become clichZ. It’s, like, last year.

Byron compares Martha Stewart to Playboy. "Playboy’s great growth days were before it was okay to be seen in public carrying it around," he explains. "Once it became okay to do that, a lot of the novelty value and surprise aspect began to wear off. There may be an element of that in Martha Stewart Living as well. She may be overexposed."

Certainly there’s always been a strong market for people hoping to find fault with Martha -- as with any woman shattering the glass ceiling. "People always want to see women fail," says Bust’s Stoller. "Not only is she is woman being successful, she is a housewife. It’s standard backlash."

Wherever one stands in the Martha debate, few are forecasting the end of her empire. The company is still relatively strong and diversified. "I think Martha will always be around in some way," forecasts Mediaweek’s Berman.

The question is, where? At the end of the day, Martha may have paved the way for others, scrubbed down the threshold, and written the postmodern primer on how to make and keep a nice house. But now it might be time to make room for friends.

Nina Willdorf can be reached at nwilldorf@phx.com

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