NEW YORK – At the height of the Dynasty and Dallas era, she rose to become the J.R. Ewing of homemaking. Ruthless, mesmerizing and staggeringly successful, Martha Stewart is still the lifestyle mogul the public either loves, or loves to hate.
Last month's release of the unauthorized biography Martha Inc. revived talk of her waning popularity and tumbling stock. Amid buzz about her fate, would-be successors are lining up to become the next Martha Stewart, Home Decorator and Party Planner Extraordinaire.
"I would like to say I'm the next heir apparent in the how-to marketing genre," proclaimed Christopher Lowell, the zany host of The Christopher Lowell Show on the Discovery Channel.
In addition to his show, Lowell has published books and developed a furniture and paint line. He has a humorous, touchy-feely, empowering philosophy that encourages people to use his decorating guidelines in their own way.
"Martha garnered the respect of the viewing audience. We have garnered the affection of the viewing audience," he said.
Others are vying for the house-and-garden crown. The peppy Katie Brown — cookbook author and host of the now-canceled Next Door with Katie Brown on Lifetime — was dubbed the Gen-X Martha Stewart in the late '90s. Like Lowell, she tried the friendly approach.
Decorator Chris Madden — author of 13 books, creator of a product line, editor-at-large of Homestyle Magazine and host of Interiors by Design on HGTV — is also capturing attention, billing herself as a successful mother who understands the pressures on women.
The glamorous B. Smith has been called the black Martha Stewart, with a design and entertainment show called B. Smith with Style. She also has several books, home bedding products and B. Smith restaurants under her belt.
Then there's the gay-female Martha, Michelle Darne — founder of AndBaby magazine, with her own radio show and a TV deal in the works — and the gay-male Martha, Colin Cowie — the wedding and party planner who hosts Everyday Elegance on the Women's Entertainment Network.
Even Debbi Fields, of Mrs. Fields Cookies, has gone multimedia — hosting Food Network programs like The Dessert Show and publishing cookbooks like I Love Chocolate.
So what's the deal with all the Martha wanna-bes?
"Design has become more democratic," said Wid Chapman, chairman of the interior design department at the Parsons School in New York. "Now, the consumer has direct access to much of this material for the home. Whether they know how to put it together is something else — that's where TV is helping."
There's also a renewed emphasis on home and style that crosses socio-economic, gender and racial lines.
"There's an understanding today of how important your home is," Chapman said. "It is yours. It's a place of refuge."
There's no lack of anti-Martha sentiment in some circles. Critics have wearied of her "do it like I do it" way, and the growth of cable has spawned more outlets for other how-to homemaking niches.
"Martha Stewart is a window onto a world that isn't necessarily the world of the viewer but is an intriguing one," Chapman said. "She might represent an older generation and approach."
Lowell — who aims to take the stress out of decorating by entertaining viewers and boosting their confidence — says he and his team scrutinized Stewart's strategy when they began a decade ago. They decided to build an empire in the reverse, starting with TV and then expanding to retail and publishing.
Lowell believes Stewart fascinated the public, but kept them at a distance.
"Martha tries to show them how she lives. She didn’t really show how-to, she showed how she lived in the Hamptons," said Lowell. "People are disconnected from that."
He said his team's marketing research revealed Stewart drew viewers, but didn't inspire many to actually try what she suggested.
"Women's self-esteem was actually plummeting because they never thought they could do that," Lowell argued. "We give them the tools to do what they love so many voices can talk. We never dictate taste."
So while Stewart remains the reigning queen of the industry, the array of would-be successors suggest the future of celebrity homemaking seems to hold many Marthas at once, all doing it their own way.
As Stewart herself might say, "It's a good thing."