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Martha in our midst?

That question will be answered Wednesday night, when St. Petersburg's remarkably deft Dawna Stone learns whether she is the victor on The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.

By CHASE SQUIRES
Published December 20, 2005


[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
St. Petersburg resident Dawna Stone, third from right, is surrounded by friends and family, including her husband, Matthew Dieter, center, as they watch the next-to-last episode of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart. Stone is one of two finalists in the show; the finale is Wednesday.

PREVIEW: The Apprentice: Martha Stewart live finale airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on WFLA-Ch. 8.

Dawna Stone had one mission: Get the job.

Though The Apprentice: Martha Stewart - NBC's festival of product placement - never exploded in the ratings, Stone has been burning up the screen from the start. Others played games, built alliances, schemed, cut up, got into shouting matches, got into unsavory predicaments and got drunk. Stone was a rock.

After treating every day of her two months on the Mark Burnett reality show like the job interview of her life, the St. Petersburg magazine publisher finds out Wednesday if her strategy worked. Stewart has narrowed the field of 16 to two. She makes the final decision in New York City, live, in the show finale. It's down to the savvy Stone against the loopy but creative natural foods chef Bethenny Frankel, 34, of New York City.

At stake is a yearlong job at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and a $250,000 salary.

"I'm not nervous, not really," Stone said last week after watching the last of the taped episodes with about 40 friends and family members at the northeast St. Petersburg waterfront home she shares with husband Matthew Dieter. "There's a clear choice, if Martha wants someone like Bethenny, then she doesn't want me. If she wants someone like me, then she doesn't want Bethenny. We'll see what she wants."

From the first episode, where she led her team to victory as a project manager, to the final taped segments, Stone, 37, who founded Her Sports magazine, has been the serious one. When she was in charge, she focused energies and took big risks. When she was a follower, she kept the peace and put her work ethic to the test.

She has been a top contender from the beginning, when in September the online gambling site Sportsbook.com listed her at 7-1, one of the two favorites.

Each time Stewart issued a challenge, Stone was seen straining to dissect every nuance. She narrowed her eyes in focused attention, and her face reflected determination.

"I was very serious the whole time. I looked at it like a job interview. Unlike some of the others, I was not there for a game," she said. "I was there for a reason. For me, it was all about working with Martha Stewart. In publishing, there isn't another woman I would rather learn from."

And in each competition, she came off as the rational one, surrounded by fellow competitors bickering, sulking, back-stabbing, gossiping and needling. As project manager, she nailed three consecutive victories for her Primarius team of corporate-minded apprentice wanna-bes, each time defeating the free-spirited and mismanaged creative types on the Matchstick team.

Back in St. Petersburg, Stone's broad smile and easy manner belie her intensity.

With a master's degree in business from UCLA and experience as a finance analyst for Morgan Stanley, as a strategist for Deloitte Consulting, and as chief marketing officer for a $700-million publicly traded company, Marinemax, she does not venture into the business world of Martha Stewart unarmed.

Her office is casual (complete with "office dogs" Buffett and Valkyrie) and located in the funky heart of St. Petersburg's Central Avenue. But she is in a brutally tough business, pushing a magazine concept - women's sports and active lifestyle - that publishing giant Sports Illustrated failed at. Her Sports is selling 75,000 copies an issue, and after two years, it's profitable.

Her portrayal on The Apprentice distorts little about her, she said. She really was that intense through the two-month trial.

The cameras were part of daily living, she said. She woke up to find a camera focused on her face and she brushed her teeth with a camera filming her image in the mirror.

"That, for some reason, was the part that really bothered me," she said. "I just wanted to say "Stop! I'm just brushing my teeth.' . . . You eventually forget the camera is there. It's just part of living."

Maybe, she said, she could have laughed more and tried to enjoy herself a little more. But the tests were grueling, and the schedule was draining. What viewers never saw was the pace participants endured. Sleep was rare. Food was an afterthought. Challenges forced competitors to pull all-night duty.

"I used to say, if I'm only going to get 45 minutes of sleep, I'd rather just stay up, push right through," Stone said. "Now, after that, I'll take the 45 minutes."

Normally a toned 112 pounds (and a triathlete), Stone said she dipped below 100, often forgetting to eat in the heat of competition as she and her team were pushed into business arenas where they had little experience: writing a children's book, designing a showroom display for a new car, marketing a new detergent, making a promotional video for a doomed airline.

"What we were doing, literally, was starting a new business every day," she said.

Heading into the finale, the last task was for Stone to organize a fashion show for charity, while Frankel organized a charity circus. Each got to pick three past team members to help. Stone appeared to have a clear advantage. Her team appeared to respect her and got along. Frankel's people showed serious anger issues; one in particular, Carrie Gugger, harbors a secret grudge against Bethenny Frankel. It's not clear that Frankel should even be alone in a room with her if there are sharp objects around, let alone entrust Gugger with the outcome of the final task.

The task has already been completed, with the outcome to be aired Wednesday, leaving only Stewart's final appraisal of the finalists' work - and her choice - for the live segment.

Stewart, a huge success in the publishing field and a moderate success on her syndicated daytime show, never did warm to the Apprentice prime time slot and the show won't see a second season.

Stewart admitted in a brief interview with BusinessWeek editor Stephen Adler that she wasn't terribly keen on the idea from the start, and she may have tipped her hand a bit (in Stone's favor) when she said, "We're getting close to which of those inappropriate contestants we are actually going to have to hire. I can't believe people behave like that. They're exhibitionists and opportunists, those kids."

Though viewers can't know what happened every hour of the day, the segments that have aired have never shown Stone doing anything inappropriate.

Stone will be joined in New York for the finale by her husband and her parents, Bob and Louise Stone, who also live in Pinellas County.

All that's left for Stone to consider is: What if?

Winning would take her away from her magazine. It would take her away from her sunny back yard by the water and her dogs and an office that shares a glorious upstairs porch with an adjacent wine bar. Give all that up?

"Matt and I talked about that, before I even tried out," she said.

Her husband, who runs an advertising company out of an office adjoining Her Sports headquarters, would team with the magazine staff (including Stone's sister, Michele) to keep it growing. Besides, Stone said, there's always the telephone. As for being away from her husband, Stone already spends weeks at a time in New York City on magazine business. She's a frequent flier and doesn't mind the commute.

"Everything is set up. I'm ready to go," Stone said. "When I think about what I could learn about publishing and business from Martha Stewart, you can't get that anywhere else. I want that. That's why I'm doing this."

-- Dawna Stone is online at www.hersports.com and www.dawnastone.com

-- Chase Squires can be reached at 727 893-8739 or squires@sptimes.com His blog is www.sptimes.com/blogs/tv

[Last modified December 19, 2005, 17:09:05]


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