NEW YORK – "This one," says Martha Stewart (search), "this is the one I want."
Stewart, who makes an art of knowing what she wants, has chosen the best coconut from a platter holding several. A good coconut is "heavy for its size," she explains, and as she hefts this one for a demonstrative shake, it responds with a robust, sloshy sound.
On her show in a few minutes, Stewart and a guest will explore the joys of coconuts, including the knack of cracking them. She has even brought to the studio her own machete, an impressive utensil she got awhile back in a little village in Brazil.
"I love to open coconuts with it," she says.
Here on the set of her syndicated daily hour last week, Stewart is about to tape one of several practice shows.
But soon she will be on the air for real. Monday, "Martha" (search) premieres in just about every market in the nation (check local listings). It's a lifestyles show over which she will preside in front of a studio audience, complete with cooking, entertaining, decorating and home renovation how-tos, along with celebrity guests.
Marcia Cross, who as Bree Van De Kamp on "Desperate Housewives" plays a domestic diva bent on beating Martha Stewart at her own game, will be Stewart's first guest. ("Martha" will re-air daily at 6 p.m. EDT on cable's TLC.)
Then, little more than a week after that, she hits prime time with "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart." (search) Premiering Sept. 21 on NBC, that series will air 8 p.m. Wednesdays.
So she is back with a splash. Having just shed the electronic shackle from her ankle, and with nearly six months of house arrest behind her, Stewart, 64, is eager to move beyond the scandal that began almost three years ago and led to her conviction, and five-month jail term in West Virginia, for lying to authorities about a stock sale.
But this isn't just a comeback. Collectively, her two TV series aim to introduce her as a new Martha, a better-than-ever Martha, a playful Martha in marked contrast to the chilly, uptight perfectionist she was seen as before, even by some of her biggest fans.
"What's Martha really like?" is a question both shows will address, Mark Burnett told scores of reporters at a media event right in this studio a couple of weeks earlier. Hint: "She's funny, warm, engaging, intelligent and very, very witty," he declared.
Burnett is the creator of "Survivor" and the Donald Trump-starring "Apprentice," and serves as an executive producer of both Stewart's series.
"I think the biggest gift that Mark Burnett has given to this company — and to Martha, too — is making her comfortable with showing all sides of her persona," says Susan Lyne, who last November joined Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia as president.
Building her company from scratch, Stewart had long felt a need "to be perfect on some level as a role model for all these hundreds of people she was bringing along," Lyne theorizes. But with hard-won perspective from her months spent away, "she recognized that there was a big team of people here who had learned from her, who were very, very good at their jobs — and would allow her now to be a freer person on television."
Giving a reporter a guided tour through the bustling studio, Stewart, clad smart in jeans and mango-orange sweater, seems downright lighthearted. She proudly points out features of the set: the cappuccino machine, the washer-and-drier tucked under a counter, the drawers with contents arranged in tidy order.
"This is very similar to my kitchen in Westport, Conn.," she says. "We modeled it on that. The greenhouse is built sort of following the design of the greenhouse I have in Bedford (N.Y.)."
In the gardening area, animals brought in by pet expert Marc Morrone are ready for their close-up. Stewart greets each by name. She pats Harvey, a huge bunny. She whistles, then coos baby-talk to Harry, a scarlet macaw: "Helloooo? You gonna talk to me? Gorgeous boy!"
Her schedule calls for spending three days per week on "Martha": three live broadcasts with the other two hours taped.
But "The Apprentice" has mostly wrapped.
On it, Stewart pits 10 women and six men against one another on tasks pegged to her areas of interest — publishing, apparel, entertainment and merchandising. A job at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia awaits the contestant who prevails. Daughter Alexis Stewart and Charles Koppelman, the company's chairman, serve as her lieutenants.
The finale will be aired live. "I have NO idea who the winner is," laughs Stewart.
"The Apprentice" is meant to let viewers see that, "in addition to being a how-to teacher, I am also a good boss-manager," she says. "I want them to see that part of our world — especially now, because it is very important to revitalize this fantastic company, to get people back on track about what we are and what we do here.
"Without that, they watch fake shows, like on CBS coming up with Cybill Shepherd — which isn't me at all, not the real me." (She hasn't seen this TV film, and doesn't plan to, but she could be right. "Martha: Behind Bars," which airs Sept. 25, is a sympathetic telling of Stewart's legal woes, but Shepherd portrays Stewart as humorless and starchy.)
During the seven weeks this summer that Stewart worked on "The Apprentice," she also wrote a book, set for publication in October.
"It's called `The Martha Rules,' and I'm almost finished with it. Oh, my gosh! I was up at 4 this morning, editing Chapter 7!
"I really do have rules for running and managing a business that have never been formalized before," says Stewart. "To put them all down was a very good exercise for me. Thank goodness for home confinement," she quips, then swiftly backs off the joke. Especially with 18 months' probation ahead of her, she has no interest in appearing to make light — too light, anyway — of her past ordeal.
Besides, her focus is on the future. Until her scrape with the law, "we were going a thousand miles a minute with the company. Then for me to come to a kind of a screeching halt and have five months to really think — well, I now know why professors ask for and take sabbaticals. It really does give them the time to think about their subject matter and what they want to do. I didn't think about the past. I really used the time to think about where we wanted to go and how should our energy be directed."
With "The Apprentice" largely wrapped, now her energy is heavily directed toward "Martha," just days away.
It's the sort of high-stakes, high-profile venture that could give a person butterflies. But Stewart chuckles at the very idea.
"I think I'm too busy for butterflies," she says. "I'm not nervous about this show. I'm having such a nice time."