Editor’s Note: The new CNN Original Series, “The Many Lives of Martha Stewart,” features never-before-seen images and rich archival footage that reveals the woman behind the legendary lifestyle icon. It premieres Sunday, January 28 at 9PM ET/PT.
(CNN) — As a young person, Andrew Ritchie rarely had opportunities to connect with or even see other gay people. He certainly didn’t get many chances to discuss his interests in gardening and design with likeminded enthusiasts.
“Growing up gay in the ‘80s and ‘90s meant living in a vacuum in a way,” Ritchie said. “You just didn’t see gay people in the media.”
The elegant universe of Martha Stewart, however, rolled out a rare welcome mat.
In the pages of Martha Stewart Living and its accompanying TV series, Ritchie saw LGBTQ people regularly appearing with the iconic hostess to decorate cakes, design flower arrangements, share tips about antiquing and dive into other domestic arts. What’s more, their sexuality never seemed to be the main topic of discussion.
“The fact that they were gay was simply incidental,” he told CNN. “It was so refreshing to see that kind of honest depiction: the owners of a bakery, the owner of a consignment shop, an expert on collecting vintage china. Basically, just people being people.”
Ritchie has followed Stewart’s career since her empire began to form in the early 1990s. Here was someone who could teach you how to properly baste a Thanksgiving turkey, design your own Christmas garland and spruce up your dusty guest room with a sense of style and intent.
Since 2006, he’s maintained the Stewart-centric blog Martha Moments, an archive that celebrates the minutiae of her magazines, highlights products from her various lines and shares Martha-inspired designs from dedicated followers. Many of his readers are gay, Ritchie said, and gravitated toward Martha for the same reasons he did in his youth.
“She’s a role model for us, and we certainly identify her as one of our greatest allies,” he said.
LGBTQ people have long been visible in Stewart’s work
Stewart has made queer people visible, on her TV series and in the pages of Martha Stewart Living, for years. That’s made a difference to people like Ritchie, who before her work had seldom seen gay people portrayed in ways that didn’t focus on their sexuality.
In 2009, Martha Stewart Weddings featured photos of a gay couple exchanging vows, one of the first times a mainstream wedding publication had spotlighted a same-sex ceremony, nearly six years before same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide. The photos appeared alongside those of weddings between heterosexual couples. It was quietly powerful, said Ritchie, who married his husband two years earlier in 2007.
“It wasn’t like that was Martha’s big mission or anything – to elevate gay people,” he said. “She simply sees everyone as equal. What I love is that she simply champions talent.”
Stewart has spoken supportively about LGBTQ people over the years. Members of the community have been involved in her work since the beginning, she said in a 2017 interview with the Georgia Voice: They’ve edited her magazines, baked with her on national TV, designed homes she’s filmed in and helped run her considerable lifestyle empire. (Kevin Sharkey, the Executive Director of Design for Martha Stewart Brand, has been with the company for years and is one of Stewart’s closest friends. “I even introduce him playfully to friends as my gay son,” she told Pride Source in 2017.)
Platforming LGBTQ people in her industry has earned Stewart fans, but there’s also something about her particular persona that draws queer viewers in.
In her 2009 dissertation on Stewart’s impact on fans, Gonzaga University associate professor Melissa Click interviewed a few gay and lesbian Martha fans who said they ritually tuned into “Martha Stewart Living” just to critique over-the-top details or elaborate presentations she’d concoct, such as a Thanksgiving table spread overladen with gourds, cornucopias and other accessories.
“There is almost a campy quality to her, to what she does; so in one respect we love her, but at the same time, a lot of it is tongue and cheek,” one gay fan told Click.
Stewart seems to have leaned into the camp. Her Instagram is full of smooching selfies, candid captions about intolerable plane trips and glamorous photos of Stewart mingling with celebrities like Serena Williams at exclusive galas.
“I think Martha Stewart is doing more of what she’s always done – being herself no matter what anyone thinks – and we now have a front row seat to it,” Click told CNN. “We sometimes see the glamour, sometimes the dry humor, and we see also her connections to queer folks in her inner circle.”
Stewart’s ‘survival instinct’ is relatable
Her facade of strait-laced perfection cracked in 2004, when she was convicted on felony charges related to insider trading and spent five months in a federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia. The prison stint threatened to tank her empire.
However, she launched a successful comeback following her 2005 release, and eventually returned to the helm of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Though she hasn’t been a billionaire since 2002, she’s still thought to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
In the mid-2010s she transformed again, poking fun at her own public persona. She appeared in a 2015 Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber where she kidded about her prison street cred and jokingly propositioned the singer onstage. The following year, she partnered with Snoop Dogg on a VH1 series, kicking off a lucrative and meme-able business relationship for the pair. She has a line of CBD products and, at 81, appeared in a sexy spread for Sports Illustrated’s famed Swimsuit Issue alongside trans pop star Kim Petras.
Ritchie said her moving through various eras and shaking off her failures has only reinforced his respect for her.
“That survivor’s instinct is something I think a lot of LGBTQ people identify with,” Ritchie said.
It’s something she shares with other great divas who’ve become gay icons, RItchie said, including Judy Garland and her daughter Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand and Madonna, to name a few. They had to “overcome the odds to achieve something great,” Ritchie said. (A respondent in Click’s 2009 dissertation agreed, comparing her to a talented theatrical diva like Bette Davis.)
“I love that she can cook with Snoop Dogg or any one of the world’s top chefs and still be herself,” he said.
Stewart’s celebration of domestic work inspires a bearded drag performer
Harper’s Bazaar once said Stewart is a “gay icon for a reason: She. Will. Work.” In that context, Stewart was hopping on a snowplow at 4 a.m. to clear the snowfall from her New York farm. But domestic work — the often tedious, thankless tasks that keep homes and families functioning — has always been at the heart of Stewart’s business.
Stewart’s respect for homemakers is what inspired the Bearded Martha Stewart, a drag performer based in Long Beach, California, to make Stewart their namesake.
“I grew up in the South, where plenty of older women I knew and loved were homemakers,” the Bearded Martha said. “I revered these women. They were the ones who raised me.”
Along with these women, the real Martha Stewart taught the Bearded Martha Stewart how to create a flower arrangement, how to cook dinner for a crowd and how to throw a fabulous party. When they decided to pursue drag full time, naturally, “Martha had to be a part of it.” The Bearded Martha now applies that knowledge to drag – they’ll rhinestone a pair of khakis and add a mermaid skirt, or bake cookies and pass them out with a flourish during performances.
“My head is exploding with ideas for the future for numbers, looks, and possibilities that incorporate Martha,” they said.
Ritchie, meanwhile, has met his hero more than once, even stopping by “The Martha Stewart Show” in 2010 to make yarn cards. Most recently, he appeared on an episode of her eponymous podcast with two other men who love Martha, gushing over wicker plant stands Ritchie picked up at Stewart’s tag sale and hunting for treasure in antique shops. During the episode, Martha said that instead of “fans,” she’d rather call them friends.
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