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Creating a good thing

From choosing coconuts to writing rules for managers, Martha Stewart is back in control and back on the air.

Associated Press
Published September 11, 2005

NEW YORK - "This one," says Martha Stewart, "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 a while 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 premieres in just about every market in the nation. In the Tampa Bay area, it will debut on WFTS-Ch. 28 at 10 a.m. 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 Stewart at her own game, will be her first guest. (Martha will also be broadcast daily at 6 p.m. on cable's TLC.)

Then, little more than a week after that, she hits prime time with The Apprentice: Martha Stewart. Premiering Sept. 21 on NBC, that series will air at 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 playful Martha in marked contrast to the chilly, uptight perfectionist she was seen as before.

"What's Martha really like?" is a question both shows will address, Mark Burnett told scores of reporters at a media event 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 Donald Trump's Apprentice, and he serves as an executive producer of both of Stewart's series.

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-dryer 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 closeup. Stewart greets each by name.

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.

The finale will be aired live. "I have NO idea who the winner is," Stewart says, laughing.

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."

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.

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."

Martha debuts at 10 a.m. Monday on WFTS-Ch. 28; The Apprentice: Martha Stewart premieres at 8 p.m. Sept. 21 on WFLA-Ch. 8.

[Last modified September 11, 2005, 01:10:06]

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