Now, the Search for the Next Diva of Domesticity

By William L. Hamilton
from the New York Times — March 10th, 2004

New York Times - Search for the Next Diva of Domesticity

The race is on to be the next nearly Martha.

Chris Casson Madden, the author of 16 books on the home, is trying to do for J. C. Penney what Martha Stewart did for Kmart. In May, Penney will introduce over 1,700 products — everything from bath towels to furniture — that Ms. Madden and her staff designed and that will be called the Chris Madden With J. C. Penney Home Collection.

Barbara Smith, the restaurateur, and Katie Brown, an author of decorating books, who have both put in their time on cable television, say they have been barraged by calls from networks, venture capitalists, furniture companies and people from Hollywood scouting the contenders to Ms. Stewart’s throne.

Now that Ms. Stewart has been convicted on criminal charges, the would-be heirs have begun measuring that throne very carefully.

Few can hope to completely fill the void. After all, Ms. Stewart spent two decades building her empire, and for many of those years she had the field largely to herself. And yet, with television producers, magazine publishers, book editors and product developers calling by the hour, others in the lifestyle business are looking for opportunities to grab a slice of her business.

For now, each wants to promote himself or herself as the best positioned.

"This was like a tectonic plate shifting," Dan Gasby, Ms. Smith’s business partner and husband, said yesterday. "We have a network television meeting this afternoon, and a major brand meeting tomorrow, for products for every room in the home."

Ms. Brown, a host of an A&E television decorating show, was walking out the door of her apartment last Friday afternoon when the television began blaring the news about Ms. Stewart.

"My phone’s been ringing off the hook," she said. "Branding, branching out — how can we bank on my name. Everyone’s trying to second-guess what will happen next, and how to capitalize on it."

Ms. Brown added that she thought the situation was a double-edged sword.

"Martha’s bad news is good and bad news to me," she explained. "There’s more trepidation about giving shelf space to products with personalities attached. People don’t know whether to push forward or pull back with a name."

The generals of the lifestyle field, from television producers to product manufacturers, agree that there is no one clear and complete successor to Ms. Stewart, with her expertise in decorating, food and homemaking and her experience in empire making. But few deny the new opportunities for others, even as the commercial liabilities of being tightly tied to a high-profile personality are debated.

"The theory is that there are many opportunities that we can’t take advantage of without someone leading the collection," said Charles Chinni, the executive vice president for merchandising at J.C. Penney who worked with Ms. Madden. The company, which reached its agreement with her two years ago, reviewed 20 candidates. Mr. Chinni said that even after the conviction of Ms. Stewart on federal charges last week, he had no reservations about the strategy.

And yet, unlike Kmart’s deal to have Ms. Stewart design linens, kitchenware and other goods, Penney is not giving Ms. Madden exclusive domain. The company has also hired Colin Cowie, a television lifestyle personality, as its spokesman for bridal products.

Mr. Cowie is not seeing that commitment as a limitation. Beyond his Penney arrangement, he says he is now in negotiations to develop two new television shows and a magazine.

"A brand without a name without a face is never as effective," he said. "A brand cannot go on a segment of ‘Oprah,’ but Colin Cowie can."

But then, Oprah Winfrey, a media franchise in her own right, could conceivably enter the competition, with home design magazines or television programs — although a spokeswoman for Harpo Inc., Ms. Winfrey’s television production company in Chicago, denied an Associated Press report that a decorating make-over show was being developed. But Ms. Winfrey evidently sees possibilities in the house-and-home niche: her publisher, Hearst Magazines, is about to test a new magazine, O at Home, with a first issue to appear in May. Ms. Stewart built her success on the synergies of magazine publishing and television programming, to which she added product development.

Others trodding the Stewart path include Scripps Networks, which operates five networks: HGTV’ Food Network’ Fine Living’ DIY: The Do It Yourself Network’ and Shop at Home, a shopping network the company purchased last year.

"If you look at Martha’s enterprise, from ‘on air’ to product, we’re able to do that now," said Cindy McConqey, a Scripps spokeswoman.

Scripps, working with the Meredith Corporation, publisher of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, is also producing books.

"It’s unlikely any single person could replace Martha," Ms. McConqey said, "but we have the television personalities, we have the print, we have the syndicated columns, we have the product."

For its part, Better Homes and Gardens has a number of product lines already in stores, including garden accessories at Wal-Mart. Last year the magazine entered a partnership with Home Interiors and Gifts, a company with 80,000 direct-sale representatives who visit homes nationally with a collection of home décor accessories.

"It’s the institutions that will always be with us," said Samir A. Husni, a magazine industry analyst. "Everyone knew that Martha Stewart Living would never celebrate a 100th anniversary, like Better Homes and Gardens. It’s hard ultimately to brand a magazine after a person — look at Lears or Rosie. If Oprah vanished, how successful do you think O would be?"

Such thinking may explain why other magazines have been based on building strong newsstand identities, not in-house personalities — like Real Simple, a Time Warner publication that was developed in 2000 by Susan Wyland, a former editor of Ms. Stewart’s magazine. The magazine is in the process of creating books for the fall as well as television programming, which the magazine’s executives declined to discuss.

But many other media and product properties continue to be based on the premise of people as brands. Certainly, the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" style-advice television series, books and CD’s depend on the appeal of Carson Kressley and the other members of the Fab Five.

"Anything personality-based will rise and fall on whether the talent is trendy or not," said Ava Seave, a media consultant and adjunct professor at the Columbia Business School.

Another living brand name is Kathy Ireland, the former model who now has an array of licensing deals for apparel, jewelry and home and garden accessories, in addition to books and television specials. Ms. Ireland said, though, that she was not interested in such Stewartesque brand extensions as weekly television programming, because it would take too much time away from her three young children.

Besides, she is not yet willing to declare the reign of Queen Martha over. "I really believe Martha’s brand will endure," Ms. Ireland said. The criminal conviction, she said, is "one chapter in her life."

But Ms. Madden, the home design auteur, is intent on pursuing a strategy much closer to Ms. Stewart’s. An author and television host who had several licensing arrangements and product lines before signing with J.C. Penney, Ms. Madden now has a proposal for a magazine, Chris Madden Haven. Mr. Chinni, at Penney, said the company would help her start it if her collections did well.

Ms. Madden, who said she was in negotiations with a network she would not identify for a television series, addressed the impact of Ms. Stewart’s conviction on her own lifestyles business.

"I’m already set up, and Martha’s demise wouldn’t be that much to me," she said. "My moment is now. If we get new shoppers because they can’t go to Kmart, so be it."

Ms. Madden plans to move her operations in two weeks from Rye, N.Y., to a new, larger 5,000-square-foot office loft in an old Fruit of the Loom factory in nearby Port Chester. And she is considering expanding her 10-employee staff.

A veteran of the lifestyle wars who is in perhaps the best position to assess the Stewart uproar is Mary Emmerling, the creative director of Meredith’s Country Home magazine, who has been there, done that, seen it all come and go, and come again.

The author of 20 books, Ms. Emmerling hired Martha Stewart at both House Beautiful and Mademoiselle in the 1970’s, when she was decorating editor. Ms. Emmerling seemed ready for her own rustic throne in 1992, with the debut of Mary Emmerling’s Country. Its publisher, Gruner & Jahr, closed it three years later. She developed a line of licensed products for the home with J.C. Penney in the 1990’s, but they were discontinued after five years.

She joined Country Home seven years ago.

"I peaked early, before everyone was doing branding or licensing," Ms. Emmerling said. "I’m curious what’s going to happen to Martha. I think all licensing peters out at some point. You get in there — you do well, you don’t do well. The stores go on to the next one."

Ms. Emmerling said she was happy to be just a person and not a product now.

"When Martha signed her Kmart deal, it gave her a huge push, jumped her ahead about 20 spots," Ms. Emmerling recalled. "People always asked if I was jealous."

"No one’s asked me that in the last two years."