Martha Stewart Has Always Been in Control

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What’s your mental image of Martha Stewart? Is it Stewart in her classic cookbooks, like Entertaining, which taught a generation how to host? Is it Stewart, as seen on Martha Stewart Living, picking flowers, harvesting eggs, and plotting out garden designs at her expansive Connecticut estate? No? Perhaps it’s a more recent Stewart then, pouting glossy lips while posing for a pool selfie or smiling on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition.

The Many Lives of Martha Stewart, a new, four-part CNN series, traces the phases of Stewart’s career to explain how we ended up with the modern Martha Stewart empire. The first two episodes, which premiere on CNN this Sunday, recap Stewart’s unprecedented rise from stockbroker to caterer to cookbook author and TV star, all the way to the United States’ first “self-made female billionaire.” Its second two episodes, which air on February 4, follow Stewart through her prison stint, then her shrewdly planned comeback. The series is also slated to hit Max this spring.

Many Lives tells this story through interviews with people who’ve worked with Stewart, chefs who were inspired by her (including Carla Hall and Claire Saffitz), and cultural figureheads who speak to Stewart’s status and influence. One might hope for interviews with Stewart’s ex-husband and maybe her daughter, but neither are present. Of course, the most glaring omission is the lifestyle mogul herself: Stewart declined to be interviewed for the series. Many Lives fills this absence with clips from Stewart’s decades-long catalog of public appearances. It’s Stewart, in her own words, but only to an extent; the reflections of modern-day Martha are missing.

Despite that, Many Lives is a helpful recap, especially if your impressions of Stewart crystallized more recently. My entry to Martha Stewart was through TV and magazines in the late 1990s, when I was a child. So, my memories of Stewart are not only skewed by the naivete of youth, but they’ve also grown fuzzy with time; I associate Stewart more now with her unbothered Instagram presence than her fussier Entertaining era. (In Teen Vogue, writer Hanna Howard once noted the book’s display of both “passive aggression and precision.”)

To watch old clips of Stewart in Many Lives is to reshape my own imagination. Seeing how Stewart portrayed herself and how she might have been perceived at the time helps clarify her status in the wider cultural memory. I was surprised, for example, by how stern Stewart comes off in some clips, and how prescriptive her home-keeping tips can seem. In one clip in the second episode, an interviewer tells Stewart, “To err is human.” To this, Stewart responds, with a somewhat serious-seeming laugh, “To correct is absolutely imperative.”

Many Lives doesn’t shy away from the fact that Stewart’s persona and sense of perfectionism could be polarizing, and that her emphasis on domesticity could feel at odds with the second wave feminist movement. Seeing these clips, I understand why some considered Stewart to be pretentious or too much, and why the cooking and lifestyle hosts that followed in popular culture might have seemed particularly welcome at the time — Ina Garten with her less buttoned-up approach to a similar lifestyle, for example, or the loud, brashness of Rachael Ray. All of this is useful context in understanding why Stewart’s more casual, less-stuffy public image today — even lending her name and likeness to CBD products and Bic lighters — is so compelling.

As a whole, Many Lives reinforces the typical argument about Stewart: that her success in commodifying cooking and domestic life paved the way for today’s thriving sphere of lifestyle and cooking influencers and creators. The series makes the case that Stewart’s appeal relied on her understanding of the power of aspirations. “I want people to feel that even if they don’t do it, they know how to do it,” Stewart says in an old TV interview. “Even if they think that they can’t do it today, they might do it tomorrow.” That we’re now so used to the concept of aspirational lifestyle content speaks to Stewart’s success.

But perhaps the more interesting commonality between Stewart, as Many Lives portrays her, and today’s content-creator class is in the way both wield their own control. Many Lives shows Stewart as an incredibly brand-minded person, who took the reins on every part of her growing business, whether it be the designs of her Kmart collection or buying the rights to her magazine and TV show to launch her own company.

Of course, there is the misstep later, when Stewart hits legal hot water. It’s not actually for insider trading as many misremember, but for making false statements about the sales of her stock. Again, this can be seen as an attempt by Stewart to control the narrative — just one that backfires on her, leading her public image to briefly spiral. Many Lives emphasizes Stewart’s business savvy even then; in prison, she was already plotting her comeback, it explains.

That modern-day Martha declined to be interviewed for the series only reinforces the sense of Martha’s control. Despite the access CNN has gotten to make Many Lives, it’s still beholden to Stewart, who has withheld the crucial element of her participation.

Meticulously crafting a personal brand is no longer as unique a skill as when Stewart came on the scene: So much of the tension between traditional media and today’s celebrities and influencers is because the latter group no longer relies on the former to tell its story when it can tap into forms of distribution over which it has more control. Once again, Stewart was ahead of the curve. She’s always been in control.

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