From TV shows to books, iPhone apps to cupcakes, Martha Stewart can turn anything into a triumph, even a prison term. Rick Arthur meets her and recalls a somewhat frostier encounter two decades ago.
The wonderful world of Martha Stewart
Oprah. Madonna. Bono. Beyoncé. Sting. Cher. Prince.
Celebrities universally recognised by just one name form a small and exclusive club, one that barely existed - Elvis and the 1950s curiosity Liberace and that's about it - when Martha Helen Kostyra, the daughter of middle-class Polish-Americans, was growing up in the US state of New Jersey. But she seemed driven to succeed at an early age, and evidently always knew she would make it big.
"I do what I please, and I do it with ease," read her motto in her high school yearbook the year she graduated, and whether the editors bestowed it upon her or it emanated from self-observation, the words were telling. She became a model in her teens, a stockbroker in her 20s, a caterer in her 30s, a global domestic diva in her 40s and today we have: Martha. Martha Bakes. The Martha Blog. Martha's Everyday Food. Martha Stewart on Facebook. Martha on Twitter. MarthaStewart.com. Ask Martha. Ask Martha's Vet (!). Martha's Everyday Food iPhone App. Martha by Mail. MarthaStewartweddings.com. Martha Stewart's iGoogle Gadget. Martha Stewart Living. Martha homes. Martha floor designs. Martha wine. Martha at Kmart. Martha at Walmart. Martha at Sears. Martha at Costco. The Martha Rules.Female Force: Martha Stewart, a comic book due out this month. Martha pies, Martha tarts, Martha cakes, Martha cupcakes, Martha cookies, Martha hors d'ouevres, Martha crafts, Martha flowers, Martha paints and, we wouldn't put it past her, Martha particle accelerators, the Martha Middle East peace plan and Martha's proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.
And Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, her vast company.
No wonder she claims to sleep only about four hours a night. So it's not surprising, then, that in a recent whirlwind visit to the UAE, Martha over two days:
- Visited the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai.
- Shopped for ghutrah in the fabric souq of Old Dubai.
- Charmed hundreds of her fans at a magazine signing at Tavola kitchenware shop in the Mall of the Emirates.
- Enjoyed the luxury - especially the lavish bathtub - of one of the One and Only hotels in Dubai.
- Dined at Dubai's Bice Mare and Baker & Spice.
- Rode a camel.
- Discovered a new "best drink" - club soda, fresh mint, fresh lemon juice and sugar.
- Went falconing in Ras Al Khaimah.
- And toured the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, where M magazine and our Ask Ali columnist, the cultural adviser Ali Al Saloom, were privileged to join her (although photographs were disallowed).
"She can outrun all of us," says Martha's host for her visit, the affable media mogul Youssef El Deeb. His company, Takhayal Entertainment, publishes the magazines Martha Stewart Everyday Foods and Martha Stewart Weddings in the Middle East, and operates Fatafeat, the first and only television food network in the region and which airs her cooking show. He expects to add Martha Stewart Living magazine to his lineup before the end of the year.
"She's the most inquisitive person over the age of 12 I've ever met - questions, questions, questions," says El Deeb, and that's certainly the case when Al Saloom escorts Martha on her tour of the mosque.
As is required of all female visitors, Martha wears the abaya and the sheila - both with elegant silvery trim in a floral motif - and it's no doubt one of the rare times when she could be seen barefoot in public. She seems not as tall as she appears on camera, but the lack of shoes must be the reason. She is suffering from the 40-degree heat, but still appears cool and collected.
As she snaps away with her digital camera at the marble, the gold leaf, the Swarovski crystals, she peppers Al Saloom with questions, not unfriendly but nonetheless demanding: What makes it the largest carpet? Why is it the largest chandelier? How many names does Allah have then?
"She was very calm," Al Saloom says later, "in harmony with the whole surrounding of the building. She did say that she is definitely surprised and also amazed by the amount of architectural beauty of the buildings in the whole country. She took lots of photographs, and the highlight was when she asked to be in the centre of the largest handmade carpet in the world and took a picture of the largest chandelier in a mosque."
And Martha herself makes it clear she is impressed. "It's the grandest mosque I've ever been in," she says, "and I've been in mosques in Turkey, Morocco, Egypt and New York."
Al Saloom - who knows a bit about branding himself, with a large and growing presence on various platforms in the UAE - was taken with the queen of omnimedia.
She "is gifted with an easygoing personality, and you can sense the motherhood touch in her voice and her smile", he says. "I felt so at ease just seeing her walking in the abaya and the sheila like she had done it a hundred times before. Not many people can wear the abaya and the sheila and look good in it, but she did look really beautiful."
Al Saloom is not alone in his admiration for this demi-goddess of domestic perfection. Her appeal is such that her net worth is estimated to be $US638 million (Dh2.34 billion), and that's down considerably from when Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia stock went public in 1999 and its shares skyrocketed. Many in her legions of fans have been with her since her first book, Martha Stewart's Entertaining, was published in 1982, and they ardently defend her against the crimes - notably lying to investigators in a stock trading scandal, which earned her five months in a federal prison camp - that critics lay at her handsomely decorated doorstep.
Recipe theft? (James Beard first garnished roasted baby potatoes with sour cream and caviar when Martha was still in her nappies.) What recipe is ever really original?
Fussy food? ("Sunbelt Junior League" offerings, Joan Didion sniffed in a gimlet-eyed profile in The New Yorker in 2000.) It's elegant, not fussy!
Husband abuse? (As alleged in the unauthorised biography, Just Desserts.) He cheated on her - and with her assistant!
Hard to work for? (The stories abound.) What successful boss isn't?
Conspicuous consumption? (Turkey Hill, an SUV lift to her ninth-floor office in Manhattan, Skylands and so much more.) She's earned it! It's inspiring!
Stock scandal? She was no worse than others!
Unrepentant? Look at all she's done since!
"There's nothing she can't fix or do without bringing creativity into it," says one devotee, Shaima Al Tamimi, a 26-year-old business development associate in Abu Dhabi. "She appeals to women in so many different ways. When I was little, I used to watch her on TV on Channel 33. It was the only English channel available, if I remember. I find her home decoration tips very useful. Cooking- wise, her recipes are great and adaptable.
"She is a domestic goddess."
Or at least demi-goddess.
I have, as it happens, something of a history with Martha. I regularly accompanied my mother, an aunt or two and a cousin to several of the author's book signings in the 1980s and early 1990s in southern California, this being before Martha's first television show and before MSL magazine, when she was still doing such promotional events. She was big, you see, just not mega, not yet omni.
And full disclosure: I, too, was a fan. I had several of her books, used her recipes and ideas - especially those from Entertaining and Hors d'Ouevres - and, like the distaff side of my family, I sought and obtained our idol's autograph, and posed for photos with her. ("Dear Rick: Happy cooking and collecting!" reads the inscription inside one of my Martha books; it carries the author's unmistakable Palmer Method-writ-large signature.) Those tomes now rest in a storage unit in Seattle, where I last lived in the States, and since I'm seriously considering shipping my 200 or so cookery books over here, I may be reunited with them later this year.
I'll never forget one candid view of the celebrity we were privileged to obtain at the upscale Rizzoli bookshop in the swank Orange County shopping mall South Coast Plaza. The queue snaked through the mall, down a corridor and practically out to the car park. Mum and I somehow happened to be in position to see Martha enter the mall through an obscure side door and grimly, even angrily, confront her handler:
"How many people are here?"
The reply: "About 400."
Martha: "Oh. My. Gaaaaawd."
You have to understand, this was the second of three appearances that day; the itinerary began in Beverly Hills in the morning, stopped at Orange County in the afternoon and continued south to San Diego in the evening. That's a lot of road and hours (even in a limousine), not to mention hand cramps from signing at least 1,200 books - and the weariness that grips a celebrity from having to be "on" for three such long stretches.
After Martha voiced her dismay at the size of the crowd, in the next instant she made eye contact with two of her adoring fans - Mum and me - and saw that we had been privy to her innermost feelings of disdain for those who had made her rich. So then, in a flash, she smiled and beamed: "Hello! How are you? Thanks for coming!"
We weren't fooled by the attempt at charm, Mum and I, but did appreciate the gesture, if only for its theatricality.
And from that cousin of mine, in an e-mail after she had learnt I'd be interviewing Martha here in Abu Dhabi:
"Sounds exciting. I went along with you to see Martha, with [newborn son] Dan in his little 'bucket' carrier. He is now 20, so that was 19-plus years ago. I set him on the desk while she signed my books, and she commented on how beautiful he was - and I snapped a picture. She really did have an impact on my little life. I started to set prettier tables, and bring in fresh flowers on the average day. When any of us did an exceptionally nice job on something domestic, people said, 'Oh, how Martha!'. [Daughter] Sarah and I have both been purchasing lots of her craft line. She has great products out there - very nice quality."
Oh, how Martha, indeed.
When I get a few minutes with the grand lady after the mosque tour, she still seems cool and composed, but I have to wonder if it's something of a façade. Of course, she's done thousands of interviews in the last three decades, and she must be weary from the heat, but I can't help but feel she needs a script to be at her best.
We don't, perhaps, get off to the best of beginnings.
"We have a bit of a history," I tell her, hoping to break the ice by bringing up the times I saw her in southern California.
"We do?" she replies, somewhat archly, as if to wonder how a lowly journalist like me could possibly have a history with such an exalted person like her.
I blunder on, mentioning the book signings I'd attended - and I exchange a glance and a sly smile with her principal handler, the Martha look-alike Susan Magrino. I'm suddenly certain she, too, was at that Orange County mall some 25 years ago, and I think we share a moment in her knowing that I just got another glimpse of the real woman behind the public persona.
Still, Martha goes on to tell me why she is here. The UAE, she explains, provides the perfect stop in her first round-the-globe trip, along with the chance to get together with the media mogul El Deeb.
"I've always wanted to circumnavigate the world," she says. "We came here from South Korea, then went to Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. Next stop is France, then home."
She has lovely brown eyes and long lashes, and the ash blonde hair peeking out from under the sheila can belong to no other. It strikes me that she has a large-ish head; no wonder the camera loves her. And there are no apparent signs of Botox or surgery, but she stills looks a decade and a half younger than her actual pushing-70.
We're in a comfortable corner of the mosque's library, and we go on to talk about:
- Her camel ride ("for 15 minutes").
- Her falconry excursion ("There's this guy out in the desert. I know falcons - peregrines, kestrels, goshawks. I stuck my arm out and they landed right on it").
- Bridging the western-Arab divide ("People everywhere are thirsty for hospitality tools").
- Her two latest Emmy Awards ("It's a blessing").
- And MSL magazine at 20 ("We're doing a special anniversary issue, an extra, both a retrospective and a look at the future. We're proud that we still have some 30,000 subscribers who've been with us from the beginning").
But the only time she seems even remotely energised is when she talks about an occurrence in Dubai that surely fed her ravenous ego. "We made an unscheduled stop to eat at Baker & Spice, and there was a table of 20 or so women, some kind of women's club meeting," Martha says, smiling at the day-old memory. "One of them recognised me and I waved and the next thing you know they all stood and cheered."
And, perhaps her weariness showing, she all but snaps in reply to another question, the old chestnut "Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?"
"Oh, I've been asked that question in my last four interviews," Martha says. "I'm bored with it."
"Well, we can move on then," I reply, serving her up another softball that I hope is more to her liking - but not before I get a subtle nod and another wry grin from the handler Magrino, whose foremost virtues assuredly must be patience and the ability to say, "Yes, of course, Martha, whatever you want."
After all, the domestic demi-goddess is, and remains, unmistakably, radiantly, maddeningly and imperiously:
The Stewart file
FAMILY Daughter Alexis Stewart, granddaughter Jude
BiGGEST REGRET Not having more children
MOST PROUD OF 20 years of Martha Stewart Living magazine
CAN'T STAND Inhumane treatment of people or animals
CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT Human contact
HEROES Artists, writers, people who create amazing things
LAST BOOK READ Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
PETS Champion show chow chow dogs, French bulldogs, Himalayan cats and Friesian horses
HOMES Formerly Turkey Hill, an 1805 farmhouse she and then-husband Andy Stewart restored in Westport, Connecticut; currently Katonah, New York, and a 35,000-square-feet residence on Mount Desert Island in Seal Harbor, Maine, known as Skylands