Over*Flow: Martha Stewart’s Star Persona and the 21st-Century Influencer
Emma Ginsberg / Georgetown University
In 1994, Martha Stewart tiled the bottom of a swimming pool with cut-up credit cards in a mosaic of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” Not her most practical nor accessible home improvement project, Stewart did so for an advertisement for the American Express Optima True Grace credit card. Bizarre, comical, and self-deprecating, the advertisement evokes an upper-class sensibility through the backyard swimming pool and the classic art imagery. According to one article in the Orlando Sentinel from January of 1995, this advertisement was wildly successful for American Express. Apparently, displays of Stewart’s wealth not only were effective on Martha Stewart Living, where she regularly promoted costly products to her audiences and showed herself cooking among dozens of copper pots in a gigantic kitchen, but they also worked in brand partnerships. Indeed, by the mid-1990s, Stewart’s star persona was so heavily associated with affluence that it could be ironically poked fun at by advertisers, who capitalized on her wealthy image.
This year, culture has swarmed around the past, present, and future of Martha Stewart’s star persona. On February 4, CNN aired the final two episodes of its four-part docuseries The Many Lives of Martha Stewart, which chronicles Stewart’s career from caterer to cookbook author to multimedia personality; the series generated multiple articles on Stewart’s time in federal prison for insider trading, when she baked desserts for her fellow inmates. December of 2023 saw Stewart spearheading a MasterClass course on entrepreneurship and business. In October and November, respectively, Apple TV+ aired Lessons in Chemistry, a dramatic miniseries that follows a chemist-turned-cooking show host, and Max released the second season of Julia, a series based on the life of Stewart’s domestic advice predecessor. Last May, Stewart graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, spurning headlines everywhere from The New York Times to Page Six.
At the same time, America’s influencer marketplace faced more criticism, analysis, and financial investment than ever before. On May 9, mommy blogger Heather Armstrong died by suicide, over two decades after creating her blog, Dooce. In August, influencer and host of “Call Her Daddy” Alexandra Cooper announced the launch of her own Gen-Z-oriented lifestyle media company, The Unwell Network. The New York Times and The Atlantic asked what happens to the children of mommy vloggers and what the influencer economy is doing to the American dream; popular podcasts like You’re Wrong About dove into misconceptions about influencers. While the media industry remains bewildered as to how we arrived at an oversaturated influencer marketplace with life-and-death consequences and a pay gap, one of America’s original influencers—a woman who got her start in print media and daytime television—continues to shape the marketing of domestic labor, white womanhood, and wealth through her star image.
Richard Dyer argued that a star’s public persona is assembled from “media texts that can be grouped together as promotion, publicity, films [or television] and commentary/criticism.” For Stewart, constructing a star persona in the late 1980s and early 1990s meant using her television show, media appearances, and advertisements to market herself as a professional domestic advice expert. Unlike American domestic advice experts before her, Stewart eliminated the presence of a husband and family from her work. When this removal of domestic advice from the family unit was paired with her self-proclaimed status as a businessperson and her uniform of a colored button-down shirt, Martha Stewart became the foundation of America’s influencer marketplace. She integrated her affluence and whiteness into her star image to command professional authority over the domestic advice and persona she was selling. In doing so, Stewart normalized the mobilization of racial and economic conventions among women in the media industry in order to receive compensation for their domestic labor.
Stewart’s wealthy, white star persona has weathered decades of change in the media industry; now, she uses brand partnerships on social media to be paid for her own expertise. Stewart went viral in 2022 for a multi-video TikTok advertisement partnership with Japanese skincare and beauty brand Clé de Peau. She had recently turned 80 when the ad campaign launched, and she became the face of the brand’s anti-aging products. In one particularly cheeky TikTok from the campaign, Stewart lets her fans and followers in on the secret to her perfect “thirst trap” selfies. She mimics putting on certain Clé de Peau products in front of a green screen that shows a selfie of her pouting by what appears to be her own pool. Much like in her 1995 American Express Optima True Grace credit card commercial, the presence of a backyard pool in Stewart’s promotional material communicates her wealth. Even as she has approached her star image in recent months with more humor and gregariousness than she once did as the host of Martha Stewart Living, Stewart’s decision to promote a brand like Clé de Peau demonstrates that she is still recommending costly products to her fans.
@marthastewart #ad Gorgeous, gorgeous people love @cledepeaubeauteUS concealer! #ad #cledepeaubeaute ♬ Blue Blood – Heinz Kiessling
Advertisements and brand partnerships are only one element of Dyer’s definition of the star persona, and Stewart’s has always been emphasized by media coverage of her content. The Clé de Peau campaign was so successful that it inspired a New York Times article, titled “Martha Stewart Welcomes You to Generation Ageless.” The Times notes the high cost of Clé de Peau products, asking, “what is Martha Stewart doing promoting a prestige beauty line to Gen Zers, one that sells a $550 La Créme moisturizer, Enhancing Eye Contour Cream Supreme for $280 and $75 concealer?” Given Stewart’s history of promoting her own affluence, this question is rhetorical at best.
Martha Stewart has been joined by generations of domestic advice experts in leveraging whiteness and affluence as elements of their star personas in order to be paid for their domestic work under capitalism. In August, Meredith Hayden, the private chef behind the viral TikTok account @wishbonekitchen, posted an advertisement for Scandinavian skincare brand Ole Henriksen to her 2 million followers. The paid partnership shows Hayden dressed in a matching lavender sweatsuit as she makes a sashimi bowl for lunch while simultaneously doing a facial from the LVMH skincare brand. In the second shot of the advertisement, Hayden is seated behind her kitchen counter eating her lunch, with the face mask she is promoting situated directly next to the bowl of food. In the background is Hayden’s all-white, modern home kitchen, featuring a Smeg coffee pot and a vase of white hydrangeas.
@wishbonekitchen 5 minute sashimi bowls 🤝 5 minute @Olehenriksen Dewtopia Flash Facial. Skincare (not sashimi) available @sephora #olepartner #oleglow ♬ original sound – wishbonekitchen
Such advertisements subtextually echo the affluent star persona that Stewart used to market her domestic advice decades ago, continually solidifying both the consumer and creator of American domestic advice as the affluent white woman—in the case of the Clé de Peau and Ole Henriksen advertisements, the affluent white woman who actively pursues agelessness in the form of beauty products. In her ad partnership, Hayden mimics Stewart’s professionalized domesticity of the early 1990s by donning a uniform (a matching sweat set over a collared button-down in the age of work-from-home), making a beautiful lunch for herself (not a husband, child, or employer) out of expensive ingredients, and framing the purpose of her advertisement around multitasking and productivity. However, domestic advice influencers’ use of Stewart’s star persona and business model is not always subtextual: Romilly Newman has proudly dubbed herself the Gen Z Martha Stewart, and Kit Keenan calls herself a “Young Martha Stewart stuck in Blair Waldorf’s plotline” in her Instagram bio. Hayden herself interprets her career through Stewart’s in an interview with People, and former Bon Appétit editor and cookbook author Claire Saffitz credits Stewart as career inspiration in The Many Lives of Martha Stewart.
Stewart’s star image is ubiquitous in the 21st century influencing space. Her name is specifically invoked by these content creators; her marketing tactics are replicated in the advertisements and videos they produce; her whiteness and affluence have been inherited by the women who have the privilege of monetizing their domestic work in the name of content. It is Stewart’s command of the star image itself, though, that has created the business model by which women of her demographic leverage their life experiences and domestic knowledge in order to earn the title “influencer.” Internet stars like Meredith Hayden can edit their own content, brand partnerships, and media appearances to perpetually re-construct the star image of the quintessential American professional domestic advice expert: the affluent and ageless white woman who creates the gorgeous tablescape for herself, her friends, and her fans.
- Martha Stewart in a January 2024 Instagram post on her second account, @marthastewart48
- Stewart’s 1995 Commercial for the Optima True Grace Credit Card, via YouTube
- Stewart’s advertisement for Clé de Peau, via TikTok
- Hayden’s advertisement for Ole Henriksen, via TikTok
- See Sarah Abigail Leavitt, From Catherine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice (Greensboro, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 193. [↩]
- Richard Dyer, Stars (British Film Institute, 1979), 121. [↩]
- Margaret Talbot, “Les Trés Riches Heures de Martha Stewart,” New Republic 214 issue 20, (May 13, 1996): 33. [↩]