"More than just crafts, cooking and cocktails": Martha Stewart's brand has always been subversive

From her new "Sports Illustrated" cover to her friendship with Snoop, the lifestyle mogul continues to surprise

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published May 16, 2023 5:30PM (EDT)

Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

At the age of 81, Martha Stewart has become the oldest Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition cover model in history. To those who know Stewart only through the lens of mile-high apple pies and Shaker baskets, the decision might have come as a surprise. But to those of us who have been following the lifestyle queen's seemingly seasonless "Hot Girl Summer," the turn likely felt inevitable.

To be clear, I fall into the latter category.

I vividly remember early in the pandemic when tabloids ran headlines that were equal parts "you go girl" and pearl-clutchy after, as People magazine put it, Stewart shared a "sultry pool selfie on Instagram." You've probably already seen the widely-shared image of Stewart propped on the edge of her East Hampton pool, wearing a sleek black one-piece and pursing her frosted pink lips at the camera.

"Wait, is this a thirst trap?" one commenter wrote, while another added: "Okkk, Martha, servin' up more than just crafts, cooking and cocktails today!"

This wasn't the last "thirst trap" — social media parlance for a spicy photo — that Stewart would post. There were those mirror selfies, as well as that topless Green Mountain Coffee Roasters campaign. (She enjoys her coffee with the flavor of pumpkin spice and "nothing else.") But being a SI Swimsuit model is perhaps one of the greatest thirst traps of all.

Through it all, detractors of Stewart have dismissed these playfully sexual images as incongruous with the wholesome lifestyle brand she has built for nearly four decades. It's an argument that smacks a bit of sexism and ageism, but as someone who has spent a lot of time poring over Stewart's life and career, I would say it's an argument that is also wholly inaccurate.

Since the beginning of her career, the ethos of Stewart's work has been about elevating everyday experiences to live life more fully. Increasingly, we're seeing her take that philosophy outside of the home.


There's a recurring bit from the "Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show" in which the titular comedian plays a lifestyle show hostess, a la "Martha Stewart Living." At one point, she daintily wraps a piece of tulle ribbon around a raw fish carcass. "Now, doesn't that look normal?" she mews to the studio audience as the camera zooms in on her creation.

I love this sketch for a variety of reasons, but mostly because when the series initially aired on Netflix in 2020, it quickly became a meme in a group chat filled with friends who had picked up what can best be described as "urban homesteading" activities, such as baking sourdough and quilting, amid the pandemic. In that context, the meme took on a darker humor. Like, "Hey, I know the world is burning around us, but I decorated this inane object in my house that serves no real purpose. Observe my handiwork."

Since the beginning of her career, the ethos of Stewart's work has been about elevating everyday experiences to live life more fully. Increasingly, we're seeing her take on that philosophy outside of the home.

As someone who works in food (and has heard pretty much all the bad-faith arguments about why food, or lifestyle topics in general, shouldn't be considered as deeply as "harder news" topics like politics and technology), I think a similar sentiment underlies much of the criticism of Stewart's work throughout her career.

That was certainly the case in author Jerry Oppenheimer's "Just Desserts: The Unauthorized Biography of Martha Stewart," which promised to shatter Stewart's perfect image.

"Stewart's personal life is a far cry from the cheery portrait of the epitome of household perfection she paints for her fans in her writings and public appearances," Oppenheimer wrote in the book's description. "Now for the first time, 'Just Desserts' reveals how her driving ambition shattered her marriage, strained her relationships with her daughter and family and destroyed friendships."

The book hasn't aged particularly well. As one Amazon reviewer astutely pointed out, it's essentially a blend of National Enquirer-esque blind items and condescending gossip from unnamed "chums."

"He set out with a premise that Martha is a cross [between] Maria from 'Sound of Music' and Mother Theresa and then victoriously shows us that this isn't the case," they write. "For example, did you know that she lied about catering her first party when she was seven? Furious research by [Oppenheimer[ has proved that her mother helped her!"

Because so much of Stewart's work is perceived as über-aspirational, there's an intense societal desire among some — such as Oppenheimer — to kick her legs out from under her or reveal that it's somehow all a sham. These are the same people who reacted in delight when Stewart checked into prison for a five-month stint in 2004 after lying about her sale of ImClone stock, an event that especially shattered the illusion that she was superhuman.

But — as author Joan Didion pointed out in her New Yorker profile of the lifestyle mogul four years earlier — "by branding herself not as Superwoman, but as Everywoman, Stewart has made even her troubles an integral part of her success."

"She presents herself not as an authority but as the friend who has 'figured it out,'" Didion wrote. "The enterprising if occasionally manic neighbor who will waste no opportunity to share an educational footnote."

It's a subversive way to approach our cultural attitudes toward domestic labor. Stewart herself described her inspiration for her work on "The Charlie Rose Show" as such:

I was serving a desire — not only mine, but every homemaker's desire, to elevate that job of homemaker. I was floundering, I think. And we all wanted to escape it, to get out of the house, get that high-paying job and pay somebody else to do everything that we didn't think was really worthy of our attention. And all of the sudden, I realized: It was terribly worthy of our attention.

In her assessment of Stewart's detractors, Didion echoes this sentiment, referring to many of them as "misogynistic in a cartoon way."

"Oddly uncomfortable, a little too intent on marginalizing a rather considerable number of women by making light of their situations and their aspirations," Didion wrote, which is an applicable description of many of those in the comments section under Sports Illustrated's cover model announcement.


In its recounting of Stewart's "thirst trap era," Spy posited that she had actually entered her "bad girl era" (both phrases are used seemingly interchangeably in the story) following her release from prison. It was during this time that Stewart began more seamlessly blending her lifestyle brand with her actual life, which also saw her exploring more celebrity friendships, including those with Kris Jenner and Snoop Dogg.

Both relationships, but especially Stewart's friendship with Snoop, have garnered a significant amount of media attention because — much like her decision to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in a swimsuit — they're considered somehow antithetical to a particular brand of wholesome, wicker-encased Americana.

I'm thankful to Stewart for providing a template for continuing to live life fully, even if there are those who would prefer that we stay in the kitchen.

But as Stewart wrote on Instagram regarding the cover, her motto has always been "when you're through changing, you're through."

"So I thought, why not be up for this opportunity of a lifetime?" she said. "I hope this cover inspires you to challenge yourself to try new things, no matter what stage of life you are in."

Granted, Stewart has certain privileges and resources that make her version of living one's best life look radically different than most. She is white, thin and wealthy, to name a few. But endeavoring to do so, and being stylish along the way, remains at the core of her brand.

In the end, one thing remains true: Martha Stewart, the woman, and Martha Stewart, the brand, are inseparable. I'm thankful to her for providing a template for continuing to live life my fully, even if there are those who would prefer that we stay in the kitchen.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Cocktails Commentary Cooking Crafts Food Martha Stewart Sports Illustrated