Martha Stewart walked so a generation of lifestyle influencers could run

Martha Stewart at the Sports Illustrated Swim Issue Launch Party held at the Hard Rock Hotel on May 18, 2023 in New York, New York.

Martha Stewart at the Sports Illustrated Swim Issue Launch Party held at the Hard Rock Hotel on May 18, 2023 in New York, New York. 

In the spring of 2015, homemaking expert Martha Stewart was giving Justin Bieber some dating advice.

While participating in a “roast” of the millennial popstar for a Comedy Central special, Stewart recommended that he find a partner who is “a player in the boardroom and a freak in the bedroom.”

She continued: “So, Justin, my final piece of advice is — call me!”

The moment was another turning point in Stewart’s decades-long career as she reintroduced herself to a new audience, a generation who may not remember her daytime TV show or her brief stint as West Virginia prison inmate.

Long before Kylie Jenner may or may not have become a self-made billionaire, Stewart became the first woman to actually achieve that status when the company she founded, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, went public in 1999. MSLO has since been sold, twice, and Stewart has lost her billionaire status. But the “Martha Stewart” brand lives on across thousands of products that reach approximately 100 million consumers each month, according to a tally from the current owner, Marquee Brands.

There is almost no facet of consumer culture that Stewart, 82, has not infiltrated over the years. Her name can currently be seen plastered beside everything from cat litter to CBD-infused gummies.

But perhaps Stewart’s biggest legacy in the business world is that she heralded the era of the lifestyle influencer. There is no modern lifestyle brand without Stewart, who taught a generation of women how to turn themselves into a brand and grow a business.

“When I look at Martha Stewart and her brand, I think that she transcends just the kind of crafting and cooking that she’s been known for in the past,” said Michael Kupinski, the director of research at Noble Financial Capital Markets, who has followed Stewart’s businesses as an analyst for some forty years.

“She’s an icon,” Kupinski said. “She was the first, she was the pioneer.”

It’s become a crowded field, with celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Alba entering the arena, as well as hundreds – if not thousands – of people across Instagram and TikTok who are following in Stewart’s footsteps and cashing in on domestic tips and tricks. “She was the whole reason why they’re able to do what they’re doing,” Kupinski said.

And in a 2013 interview with Bloomberg TV, Stewart confidently asserted this herself, saying she welcomes Paltrow’s foray into the lifestyle business but adding: “I started this whole category of lifestyle.”

Martha Stewart, pictured here circa the 1990s, helped pioneer the lifestyle brand for a generation of influencers.

Martha Stewart, pictured here circa the 1990s, helped pioneer the lifestyle brand for a generation of influencers. 

The ‘original influencer’

Stewart’s sweeping career and many reinventions are now being chronicled in a CNN Studios documentary series, “The Many Lives of Martha Stewart,” which features exclusive interviews with her former employees, colleagues, fellow inmates and others.

“She was sort of like an original influencer, doing it as a business,” Claire Saffitz, a chef and cookbook author, told CNN in the documentary. “So for my generation, for millennials, that felt really normal.”

As Stewart’s longtime colleague Gary Nardilla put it, “Once Martha paved the road, everybody else pretty much copied her.”

Nardilla also recalled how many people thought that her career was over when she went to prison in 2004 after being convicted for making false statements and obstructing justice related to a 2001 stock sale. But he says that those who knew her also knew that her career would bounce back.

One of the factors that analysts like Kupinksi credit for Stewart’s continued success in the decades after her brush with the criminal justice system was her embrace of technology. After she sold her namesake brand, Stewart has turned to social media to unlock new streams of revenue while still forging what feels like authentic connections with her millions of followers.

On Instagram, Stewart currently runs a more personal so-called “finsta,” or unfiltered, account under the username “marthastewart48,” which has amassed 2 million followers. On this account, she often posts more intimate glances at her life, including many photos of “Empress Tang” (her cat), as well as the occasional “thirst trap.” On TikTok, meanwhile, Stewart has garnered some 1.7 million followers and upwards of ten million likes. Most of her TikTok videos feature her sharing the homemaking tips and recipes that launched her career some four decades ago, only to an entirely new audience.

But never one to shy away from capitalizing on domestic life, she can also be found on Instagram and TikTok peddling Pure Leaf iced tea, her “Martha’s Chard” line of white wines, and many other sponsored posts.

Saffitz, the chef and cookbook author who grew her own career to new heights in part via social media, said she imagines generations of women before her “looked at being in the kitchen as counter to their aspirations.”

When it comes to Stewart, however, Saffitz added, “There is something very feminist about turning that into this kind of empire that she did.”

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