Martha’s Makeover

She’s fantastic on TV. Too bad her apprentices are so loathsome.

Her new show's not a good thing
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Her new show’s not a good thing

Well, it was almost everything Martha Stewart could have hoped for. Last night’s premiere of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart not only promoted the hell out of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, it relaunched—in a new, and much improved, formula, that company’s greatest product: Martha Stewart herself.

Martha Stewart got in trouble with America not because she was convicted of lying to investigators or went to jail. She got in trouble because her reputation as a vicious, humorless ice-queen overshadowed her talents. Going to prison was perhaps the best way to shake that reputation, and now she is using The Apprentice to present a new, humbler self.

The appealing Martha Stewart on display last night was not unfamiliar to me. If I hadn’t heard about Stewart’s monstrous behavior directly from people who used to work for her—including her former stockbroker’s assistant, Douglas Faneuil, at the trial—I never would have believed it. As I wrote when I covered Stewart’s trial, I had several encounters with Stewart over the years, and she was always charming.

Once, for example, while we both happened to be standing in the entryway of a Manhattan restaurant, my three-month old daughter barfed on Stewart’s shoes. She wasn’t overjoyed—the Dalai Lama wouldn’t have been—but she was amused and understanding, and she even helped clean up the mess.

Another encounter came in a locale that figures prominently in the show: a conference room at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. This was back in 1999, before the company went public. MSLO had yet to occupy the brushed-steel-and-glass headquarters that serves as The Apprentice’sset, and the conference room was a cramped, low-ceilinged box with fold-up chairs and a copy machine in the corner. That day, it was stuffed with bankers in suits, sucking up to Stewart and her senior executives. As I recall, she was wearing sweat pants. As the bankers droned on, Stewart’s hyperactive mind darted from one topic to another, from IPOs to clothes to food to EBITDA, and in one interlude, she leaned over, searched my hand for a wedding ring, and, seeing none, kindly offered to “marry me off.”

My encounters aside, the stories of Stewart as venomous virago dominated her image. She terrorized employees, the stories went, treated “the help” like dirt, and forever took all the credit and none of the blame. What prevented Stewart the amazing mogul from becoming Stewart the admirable person was a healthy dose of humor and humility. And now—on camera, at least—she’s got it.

Flanked by her daughter Alexis and MSLO’s cigar-fondling chairman Charles Koppelman, Stewart transitioned smoothly from sorority sister (“Hi,” she chirped, flirtatiously, on greeting the star-struck candidates) to detail-oriented-but-respectful-boss (“Nice, except Martha Stewart Everyday should be bigger”), to appropriately authoritative CEO ("You didn’t hear me when I said the main business task was to connect,” she informed the soon-to-be-dispatched contestant Jeff). In short, she projected the image her critics have always said lacked: that she’s a talented, fair executive capable of leading and inspiring others. (One hopes that the changes are real and not just the magic of Mark Burnett.)

As a former Stewart trial groupie and evidence-analyst, I noticed one bizarre slip-up last night. At the beginning of the show, Stewart led us through a history of her company. She described the launch of the magazine and buy-back from Time Warner. “Then,” she said, “in 1997, we took the company public on the New York Stock Exchange, and overnight I became America’s first female self-made billionaire. It felt really good.” What caught my ear was the date she gave for the IPO: 1997. Stewart, you may remember, was jailed for making incorrect statements and omissions. And here, just after serving her sentence, in a taped broadcast that could easily have been fixed, she got the date of her company’s IPO wrong by two years.

Stewart is a master storyteller: Intentionally or not, she edits out disturbing facts—her apparently abusive father, for example, is always absent from her stories—and invokes only the details necessary to instill desired emotions (heartwarming tales of a wonderful childhood).  This skill has helped Stewart inspire millions by creating images of a world too perfect to be real but close enough to be worth striving for and helped her overcome odds that would have waylaid those more obsessed with facts. When Stewart said the IPO was in 1997, therefore, I wondered idly again—as I had during the trial—whether she had intended to deceive her interrogators or had just simply failed to exit her storytelling mode. Either way, in the years since, her own story has become richer and more compelling, and she seems the better for it.

The bad news is that, after three seasons of Donald Trump, The Apprentice has become a yawn. At the end, when Martha was deciding whether to fire the incompetent-but-decisive Jeff, the grating-and-conceited Jim, or the mousy scapegoat Dawn, it was easy to hope she just booted all three, if only to shorten the show by two weeks. Watching Martha Stewart is gripping. Watching preening wannabes isn’t.