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Like eager schoolchildren begging the teacher to call on them in class, a group of TV critics shot their hands into the air in response to Martha Stewart’s request for a couple of volunteers.
When she picked me to help with her demonstration, it was like winning the lottery—and even sweeter that she was going to teach me how to make my first omelet.
“How have you avoided making an omelet for so many years?” she asked.
I told the truth. I can’t stand runny eggs, and I tend to panic and go into scramble mode when I see an almost-cooked omelet start to ooze. Stewart wore a don’t-disappoint-me look as she proceeded to give instructions.
After whisking and carefully folding the mixture into the pan, my fellow sous-chef and I stood by while Stewart worked the crowd of TV critics gathered last summer at the Beverly Hilton ballroom. She aimed to sell them on her new Public Broadcasting Service series, Martha Stewart’s Cooking School.
With carefully tousled blond hair and minimal makeup, the 71-year-old former model appeared at least a decade younger, and seemed remarkably refreshed for a woman who sleeps an average of four hours a night. She dressed casually elegant in a loose white blouse, smoky blue legging-like pants and strappy heels, her large pearl-and-diamond earrings swinging saucily as she spoke.
“I really think that people need to know how to cook,” she told the writers. “Well, not everybody. If you hate cooking, you don’t have to watch the program.”
The crowd laughed. Stewart had won them over in record time.
Meanwhile, the eggs seemed determined not to cook and I felt that familiar urge. But before I could make the wrong move, I heard a stern voice say: “Do not scramble.”
The perfect omelet, it seems, is also a metaphor for life. Panic never helps in any situation, Stewart explains. You have to stay calm and trust that your preparation will see you through. And, just like that, Stewart the teacher imparted the same wisdom that has gotten her through some famously turbulent times, including a five-month prison sentence for charges stemming from an insider trading scandal.
Through this and other travails, including business ups and downs and a divorce in 1989, Stewart has remained remarkably resilient. Upon her release from prison in 2005, she launched a highly publicized comeback, including a return to daytime TV with The Martha Stewart Show, which ran until last year; a new (but short-lived) primetime show, The Apprentice: Martha Stewart; a business book, The Martha Rules; and expansion of her product line. By 2012, she regained her position as chairman of her company.
Speaking generally, in an exclusive interview after her cooking demonstration, I ask how she’s able to bounce back after setbacks. She chuckles. “Believe it or not, I’m even-keeled about stuff like that. I multitask. I’m always thinking while I’m doing stuff and you just get through the hard part,” she says. “I try to compartmentalize and proceed as if there is some nice area just around the corner.”
Born in 1941, Martha Helen Kostyra was the second of six children born to Polish-American professionals (her father was a salesman, her mother a teacher) who imparted strong Catholic sensibilities and a strict work ethic. Growing up in Nutley, N.J., Stewart learned from her father how to garden and use tools, and her mother taught her to cook and sew. And all on her own she discovered she had an artistic gift and an entrepreneurial bent.
“I always had a mind for business,” Stewart tells me. “It was just taking what I loved and turning it into a career.”
Yale Business School professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld says that, in itself, is noteworthy. “Many people see forks in the road between false paradoxes like art versus business, designing versus building, media images versus tangible products, but not Martha Stewart. She has found a path to blend aesthetics, communications and commerce while also bringing the world more beauty and spirit.”
Stewart tries to boil it down further, as she explains how straightforward it can be to build a mega-organization around one’s passions.
“It’s just that I centered on a subject matter—living—that I could really excel in,” she says. “We started a new genre of business, the lifestyle business, and it has continued to grow in importance and volume. We certainly have had an effect on the American home and I think we’ve elevated the subject of homemaking and home-keeping to a level much more respected and beautiful than ever before.”
Stewart’s career could’ve taken a different path. As a teenager, she modeled to help pay for college, appearing in a Lifebuoy deodorant soap commercial. She also posed for print ads that included Tareyton cigarettes’ famous “I’d Rather Fight Than Switch” campaign. As a student at Barnard College, she met her future husband, Andrew Stewart, then a Yale law student. They married in 1961, and she took a year off from college, returning to graduate with a double major in history and architectural history.
In 1968, three years after giving birth to their daughter, she became a stockbroker but gave that up in 1972 when the family moved to tony Westport, Conn. Instead of following the traditional stay-at-home-mom route, she undertook the massive renovation of an 1805 farmhouse, capturing the attention of her well-heeled neighbors (the house would later become the model for the set of Martha Stewart Living). She then parlayed her domestic skills into a catering business she ran from the basement.
When talking about her thought process for dealing with problems, she recalls a catering job for Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. She wowed them with her idea for an exotic Moroccan buffet, complete with a recipe adapted from one she picked up on her travels.
But as she prepared the flaky-crust squab-and-chicken pies that day, she got momentarily distracted and the pies’ sides burned. She didn’t have time to re-create the dish, so she improvised. Rather than serving individual pies, she cut them up, tossed the bad sections and served the perfect parts in wedges, as if that was how she originally envisioned the presentation. No one was the wiser.
“There’s a process for almost any obstacle,” Stewart says in her conversational, matter-of-fact tone. What you are going through “may not be pleasant, and some obstacles might be more difficult to solve, but you work through it step by step.”
What began with the home-based catering business began to morph with publication of her 1982 book, Entertaining. Then came more books, newspaper columns and magazine articles, TV specials and guest appearances, her own products, her own shows and her own magazines. In 1997 she created Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO) to bring all the assets of her brand—in publishing, broadcasting, e-commerce and merchandising—under one umbrella. In 1999, she took the company public on the New York Stock Exchange.
Although Stewart has always maintained that she cornered an underserved market, others might say she succeeded in spite of her timing. After all, crafting and making a comfortable home weren’t exactly at the top of the post-feminist-movement to-do list.
“There was a time in the ’80s and ’90s when the idea of being a housewife meant you weren’t living up to your potential,” says IMDb TV Editor Melanie McFarland, who nonetheless became hooked on Stewart’s TV shows, books and magazines. “The cool thing about Martha is that she navigated both worlds and married them so she not only honors and celebrates keeping a home, she founded a highly successful corporation.”
Stewart acknowledges in our interview that “hospitality fell out of favor. We went back to work, and tried to work friends and family into our lives, and we didn’t know how to balance it all.” And, of course, that’s where Martha Stewart comes in: “People need to realize they need to learn how to balance the job with their lives. I hope we will all live better-balanced lives and be productive.”
Today she continues to generate business ideas like a winning Vegas slot machine, always thinking about how she can put an entrepreneurial spin on any interest she may have. She tells the group of reporters that she and daughter Alexis, 47, are collaborating on a children’s business. “My greatest personal accomplishment, of course, is my daughter and her two beautiful children. That’s what it’s all about,” she says.
“I’m crazy about my grandchildren, and I spend probably what a lot of you may think is an inordinate amount of time with them. But babies are another business, so I’m learning everything I can about babies again.”
Stewart says when she first launched her products, she wanted the merchandise to be well-made yet affordably priced. “So we did our first merchandise at Kmart, which was a great store when I joined them in 1987. Then we transferred over to Macy’s, making beautiful merchandise. So we have been up and down the retail pyramid and will continue to do so.”
Stewart’s brands are ubiquitous, including her Staples office-organizing products, the Martha Stewart Living collection at The Home Depot and even pet supplies at PetSmart. For crafters, there’s now a Martha Stewart Craft Studio app for the iPad. She mentioned to the reporters at the cooking event that it was free. Later it was pointed out that it actually costs $4.99.
“Well, it was free to the first 400,000 people, but definitely worth the $4.99,” she said, moving on to the next subject.
The company’s merchandising division continued to do comparatively well through the third quarter of 2012, showing a 7 percent gain with revenues of $13.2 million. But this wasn’t enough to offset sizable losses in MSLO’s publishing and broadcasting divisions, which brought total third-quarter earnings to $43.5 million, down almost 17 percent from the same time last year. The losses prompted MSLO to announce plans to sell Whole Living magazine, scale back publication of Everyday Food from 10 to five issues a year delivered as a supplement to Martha Stewart Living, and to lay off 70 of its roughly 600 staff members. The cutbacks will leave the company with just two magazines: its flagship publication and Martha Stewart Weddings.
In a statement, MSLO President and CEO Lisa Gersh said the actions were designed to cut costs and position the company for growth. “We are transitioning our content operations to digital, mobile and video platforms that feature lower fixed costs and align with evolving consumer preferences for how and where they engage with our content. We are seeing some encouraging early results, particularly in video.”
In September, the company announced new partnerships to extend its content online. MSLO will develop an e-commerce site in 2013 in a joint venture with JCPenney, programs featuring Stewart and other MSLO talents such as Emeril Lagasse will be available on streaming services Hulu and Hulu Plus, with AOL On Network distributing shorter video clips. Digital media company Fullscreen will work to boost Stewart on YouTube, where you can already find a variety of Stewart clips.
The company is expanding across multiple platforms in response to demands from consumers who view media on an increasing number of screens, Gersh says. “We’re connecting with audiences who are hungry for do-it-yourself guidance with our expertise,” she says. “We want to provide the most relevant, high-quality answers to their questions about a range of lifestyle subjects: from how to cook your Thanksgiving turkey and decorate for the holidays to planting bulbs for your garden and advice on home decor.”
By keeping the brand fresh, Stewart has engaged with a new generation of consumers and fans. Among them is actress Kat Dennings, who plays a budding entrepreneur on CBS’s Broke Girls. A longtime reader of Martha Stewart Living, Dennings was thrilled to work with Stewart last season in an episode in which her character, Max, has a hilarious impromptu meeting in a bathroom with Stewart, who plays herself.
“She’s smart, regal and hilarious. She’s a legend and a powerhouse and she’s been a resource for me in how to organize and how to live a beautiful life,” Dennings says. “Meeting her was the ultimate ‘Max’ dream, and I was honored just to be around her. She’s a powerful businesswoman who has a wealth of knowledge and is respectful of others. She came from humble beginnings and isn’t stuck-up.”
While Stewart’s lifestyle embodies the American Dream—and then some—she says the thriftiness learned as a child remains with her.
Her primary residence is Cantitoe Corners, a 153-acre estate in Bedford, N.Y., where she entertains in the elegant mansion amid manicured gardens. The property is also home to her Friesian horses, three miniature donkeys, French bulldogs Francesca and Sharkey (who have their own blog), Chow Chow dogs and Himalayan cats. Naturally she also has three hayfields to feed the livestock. Among her other homes are Skylands—her Maine summer home—an East Hampton Victorian home; and a New York apartment.
Stewart appreciates quality but insists she’s not a spendthrift. “I’d rather splurge on things that I can use well into the future than anything else. I am not a consumer of throwaway stuff.”
Growing up, Stewart’s family used fresh ingredients, often out of their own garden. Stewart calls her parents “the original organic people.”
“My dad grew everything and had six kids. We ate very well and very healthily, and very few of us have cavities, and we have good skin. I think it’s all about the upbringing. No junk food, no soda. Anathema.”
She does admit to one indulgence shared with a friend whose father worked for Pepsi. “Every now and then we had a Pepsi with whipped cream in it,” she grins mischievously. “Delicious.”
But those stolen moments were rare for Stewart. “We never opened a can or a box or a bottle in our house unless it was a milk bottle. Never ate fast food. I proudly can tell you that I’ve eaten one Burger King and I think maybe two McDonald’s, and today I ate an In-N-Out Burger,” Stewart says. “It was OK. It was not my favorite kind of food. I would much rather have a salad or sushi or something like that.”
Perhaps because of the way she was brought up, she pushes aside the idea that the nation’s current economic troubles should hinder people who want to pursue their own entrepreneurial dreams.
“Things don’t come to a halt because there is a recession. Some of the most innovative things occur during hard times,” she says. “You just have to get busy and try to move on.”
She says she finds strength in the success stories of others. “I think about my friend [TV producer] Mark Burnett, and how he tries things and if they don’t work, he moves on. Maybe some ideas work, maybe some others don’t. But once [you get something that works], it gets easier each time.”
If there’s a secret Stewart can share about how to face down any fears in moving toward your goals, it is one that’s surprisingly simple. “It’s all about preparation. You must prepare, make sure what you are talking about before you do a presentation. It’s part of the job to be prepared. Preparation makes people more comfortable. After a while it’s a habit to prepare. You can’t wing it unless you are a comic or an actor.”
In typical Stewart fashion, on the day of her media presentation, she left nothing to chance. Her preparation was perfect, from her early morning trip to the local Santa Monica Farmers Market to pick up fresh herbs to bringing eggs from her Bedford farm chickens to make the omelets. No mere Rhode Island Reds for Stewart. Her 200 hens are the more exotic Marans, a French breed that lays chocolate-colored eggs, and the Araucana, which pops out blue eggs.
“At the farmers market today, they were $6 a dozen. Six dollars,” says Stewart to her audience, playfully adding, “it costs me about $20 a dozen to have them at home.”
Even her most ardent fans might think of Stewart as being unapproachable, but in fact she has an affable charm in person. Stewart may exude an aura of perfection, but she’s quick to note that she has dealt with her own imperfect performances.
And she just keeps moving forward, always thinking, always striving to stay engaged. “I try something new every day, whether a new recipe or tying a bow. It’s very important that you deal with the best people, the most creative, clever and intelligent people. I want to be with people who will teach me things.”
She’s also an avid reader of newspapers—at least three a day—and books. She also enjoys watching movies. She says her curiosity has contributed significantly to her success. But more than that is her state of mind.
“I’m a strong, healthy woman who doesn’t get stressed about things,” Stewart says. “I have a lot to do and I can’t let things distract me. And I’m an optimist.”