Few people have the ability to nab a headline or a hashtag like Martha Stewart. Three days after Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus performed their now-infamous duet for the MTV Video Music Awards, a cover image of a special Halloween issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine was released online. The retweeted jpeg—which depicts Stewart as a wand-wielding, tulle-wearing “Fairy GrandMartha” and promises recipes for scream puffs and instructions for turnip Jack-o’-Lanterns—became the most-read story of the day on People.com, out-clicking the tabloid’s slew of twerk-obsessed reports.
This piece of trivia does not surprise Stewart at all. The 72-year-old mogul, known for her empire of DIY-driven lifestyle magazines, products, books and television shows, admits she can hold her own alongside the Hollywood elite. “I went to the U.S. Open tennis singles match last night and I was as well photographed as pretty much any celebrity there,” she says via phone from her office in New York City. (David Beckham and Leonardo DiCaprio were among those in attendance.) “Maybe even more so,” she considers. “Fortunately, through the years, my public perception has not changed much.”
Stories in Vanity Fair and the New York Times beg to differ. Both publications have been tracking Stewart’s financial woes and messy breakup with J.C. Penney, the U.S.-based retailer who recently dropped Stewart’s line of home-decor, food, furniture, and craft and party-supply items. Stewart’s company, Living Omnimedia Inc., has also been called out for its plunging stock and the worrisome $56.4-million loss it reported last year. All the bad news, however, has not discouraged the New Jersey-born homemaker.
“Every day there is something made up about me and my company but I think we’re all targets,” she says, referring to fellow food TV stars such as Nigella Lawson (whose divorce played out in public after her husband was photographed choking her at a London restaurant) and Paula Deen (whose series was dropped from the Food Network after she recently admitted to using racial slurs).
“In poor Paula Deen’s case, she has contributed a lot to the world of culinary arts and had a very unfortunate and very bad slip of the tongue,” Stewart explains. “I know both Nigella and her husband as well and they are very nice people. Sometimes it’s just media exploitation . . . ploys to sell newspapers and magazines.”
No matter how many articles on Stewart’s alleged decline appear, her schedule continues to be hectic. She hosts a radio show on Sirius XM, supervises numerous photo shoots for several Omnimedia content properties, stars in two PBS shows (Martha Bakes and Martha Stewart’s Cooking School) and plans to tour her 80th book, Martha Stewart’s Cakes (on shelves Sept. 24) this fall. Then there are the personal appearances—including a stop in Toronto to headline the Delicious Food Show on Oct. 25. The New York Times estimated that she regularly works up to 70 hours a week, but she is quick to correct that inaccuracy: “70 hours seems like such a tiny part of the week,” she explains. “It is more like 80 or more!”
Notwithstanding predecessors such as Julia Child (whom she refers to as her “teach”) or the trail of TV beauties of the Nigella-and-Giada variety who followed her lead, Stewart is still regarded as the grand dame by thousands of party throwers and home cooks. And in a year of news about fallen domestic goddesses, she has shrewdly discovered a new market: the senior citizen. Her book Living the Good Long Life: A Practical Guide To Caring For Yourself and Others, released in April, is full of health tips for the 60-plus crowd. It coincides with another new venture: Martha Stewart Essentials nutritional supplements, a line of whole-foods-based vitamins for women. This foray into wellness is part of what Stewart refers to as her “journey to successful aging.” The assorted tips in the book are motivated by the connections (from yoga instructors to dieticians) she made at what’s now known as the Martha Stewart Center for Living in New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital. The facility specializes in geriatric care; Stewart donated $5 million, and her decorating services.
“We are suffering from what I call a silver tsunami,” she says. “In America, we are going to have over 65 million people who are over the age of 65 in two years. Who is paying attention to that population?” In a recent interview with Forbes magazine, she noted there is only one geriatrician for every 10,000-12,000 Americans over the age of 65. She said geriatric medicine is seen as an unpopular practice—“doctors are much more interested in things like plastic surgery or sports medicine.”
Martina Stritesky—owner of Canadian party-planning company White Bow Events (which boasts a client list including fashion house Balenciaga and Justin Trudeau), regards Stewart’s ability to foresee new markets and trends as uncanny. “She’s a psychic when it comes to entertaining,” Stritesky says, noting that Stewart predicted the rise of the kitchen party and the popularity of informal, family-style restaurant service long before they happened. “Her story also motivates all the late bloomers,” Stritesky says. Stewart, a former housewife, had her inaugural taste of fame at the age of 41, when she published her first book, Entertaining. “Martha’s life goes against all the Miley Cyruses and Mark Zuckerbergs out there—or any person who made easy millions before turning 25,” says Stritesky.
Stewart says her favourite flavour is lemon—at her upcoming stop at Toronto’s Delicious Food Show she’ll bake one of her favourite desserts before the crowd: a lemon meringue cake filled with tart lemon curd and finished with a cloud-like layer of Swiss meringue. And it’s hard to miss the metaphorical echo; she’s good at making lemonade, and life doesn’t have to hand her the lemons; she’ll pick them herself (Meyers, preferably).
Celebrity chef David Rocco, who co-headlines the Toronto event with Stewart, is expanding his own business following a model that he says was “very much based on Stewart’s genius moves.” “She dwarfs all of us: Nigella, Paula, everyone,” explains Rocco, whose shows, Avventura and Dolce Vita, have also been turned into a cookbooks. “People tried to write her off when she went to jail,” he says, referring to Stewart’s conviction for charges related to insider trading in 2004. “But she’s a scrapper. She works her ass off, never takes no for an answer. That is why she comes back stronger every time anything goes wrong.”
Her intensity has earned Stewart portrayals as a campy, cartoonish character. A mock magazine published in 1995 called Is Martha Stewart Living? ran a story about making water from scratch; Martha Inc., the 2003 TV movie based on an excoriating book, cast Cybill Shepherd as a rabid version of the cuisine queen barking out lines like, “For God’s sakes, did I not ask for merlot!?” But in an era in which supermarkets sell pre-boiled eggs, Stewart’s fanaticism about doing things right seems charming. “I am a serious teacher of the home arts,” Stewart says. “I don’t do anything frivolous. Good taste is acquired. Bad taste is developed.”
It’s not always about aesthetics. A 2011 trip to Churchill, Man., opened her eyes to an ecological issue she knew very little about. “I was horrified by the global-warming effect on the polar bear migration over there,” she says. “Ever since, I have been very aware of the plight of the polar bear. I can tell you, the picture is not pretty.” She says the trip motivated her to incorporate energy-efficient tips for the home into her TV programs and website.
Talking about the success women can achieve in corporate America, the woman who was a billionaire, and is today a millionaire, says there are still limitations. “Powerful women have not been able to penetrate the upper echelons of big business as much as they should have by now,” she says. “The disappointment we all experienced when Hillary did not [win the nomination] for president was a big blow.” But then comes a truly Martha moment. When Hillary Clinton was still first lady and a freshly elected U.S senator in 2000, Stewart filmed a one-on-one in the White House to chat about Clinton’s book, An Invitation to the White House. Between takes, she toured the executive mansion. “The situation room needs help!” she says. “It’s too small! You’re not supposed to see it but I got a good view of it and I think it’s too crowded. Believe me,” she says, excitedly, “I could do wonders with it.”