Martha Stewart: The culinary queen’s rise to fame, unlikely friendships, and time behind bars
She is America’s first “self-made billionaire”, who brought her culinary genius, lifestyle brand, and DIY skills to the homes of millions.
And just when you thought there was nothing else she could possibly accomplish, Martha Stewart has just become Sports Illustrated’s oldest cover model, posing for the magazine’s annual swimsuit edition at the age of 81.
The television personality, chef, and all-round icon is one of four cover models for this year’s issue, which celebrates powerful women who “live in a world where they feel no limitations, internally or externally”. The other names featured are actor Megan Fox, model Brooks Nader, and musician Kim Petras.
“When I heard that I was going to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, I thought: ‘Oh, well that’s pretty good.’ I’m gonna be the oldest person, I think, ever on the cover of Sports Illustrated,’” said Stewart, who was photographed in the Dominican Republic by Ruven Afanador.
“And I don’t think about age very much, but I thought that this is kind of historic and that I better look really good.”
When asked what Snoop Dogg, a friend and business partner, would think of her cover, she laughed and said: “Snoop is going to just think that it is fantastic.”
Stewart rose to fame in the Nineties, widely credited with popularising aesthetically photographed cookbooks and lifestyle manuals, of which she has written 98. Her magazine on living well (Martha Stewart Living) also went on to become an Emmy-award-winning TV show.
In Snoop’s world, it gave me the street cred I was lacking
Martha Stewart, on how her prison sentence impressed the rapper
In 2004, the empire she had built threatened to come crashing down after she was convicted of felony charges in a widely publicised case of insider trading.
However, after serving five months in federal prison, the culinary legend managed to resurrect her career against all odds, returning her company to profitability and attracting a new audience from the scandal.
So who is the 81-year-old television star, how did she build her empire, and what was the criminal charge that almost brought her down?
Babysitter, model, and teenage hustler
Born Martha Kostyra, on August 3, 1941, in Nutley, New Jersey, outside New York, she was the second of six children.
Credited as America’s first self-made billionaire, it’s difficult to find a time in Stewart’s life in which she hasn’t been working.
As a young teenager in New Jersey, she landed her first job babysitting for 50 cents an hour, before starting a modelling career during her high school years, which saw her appearing in numerous TV ads and flying out to Paris for shoots.
He’s sort of cute
Martha Sewart on her friend, comic Pete Davidson
During her college years, where she studied architectural history, Stewart’s modelling income (including working for Chanel) helped to supplement her scholarship money.
Stewart married young, meeting Yale Law student Andrew Stewart and tying the knot at only aged 19, giving birth to her only child Alexis four years later, in 1965.
Becoming America’s first self-made billionaire
After finishing her degree, Stewart had thought she would become an architect, but her then father-in-law encouraged her to become a stockbroker on Wall Street.
After seven years in the industry (in which she was the only woman at her firm), she quit in 1976 to launch a catering business.
It was when she was catering a lavish 1,200-person party for one of her husband’s book launches (Andrew had become a publisher of art books) that he introduced her to another publisher, and she pitched the idea for her first book, Entertaining, which came out in 1982.
Following the success of the book launch, Stewart went on to publish a slew of further cookery and lifestyle titles. In 1987, as she was preparing for the release of her fifth book, Martha Stewart Weddings, Andrew left her.
The couple divorced, and he later married a woman who had worked with Stewart as a consultant.
However, the divorce was no hindrance to Stewart’s success. Three years later, she signed with Time Publishing Ventures to develop a new magazine, Martha Stewart Living, for which Stewart would be editor-in-chief. The magazine then expanded into a weekly half-hour TV show, also called Martha Stewart Living, which ran until 2004.
In September 1997, Stewart secured funding to purchase the various television, print, and merchandising ventures related to the Martha Stewart brand, and consolidate them into a new company.
When the company went public in 1999, the then 58-year-old became America’s first self-made billionaire.
Insider trading charges and five months in prison
In 2004, it was alleged that Stewart avoided a loss of $45,673 (around £37,000) by selling all shares of her ImClone Systems stock in December 2001, after receiving non-public information from her broker at Merrill Lynch. The day following her sale, the stock value fell 16 per cent.
After a highly publicised six-week jury trial, Stewart was found guilty in March 2004, of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and lying to investigators, and four months later was sentenced to serve a five-month term at FCP Alderson correctional facility in West Virginia.
Known as “Camp Cupcake”, the minimum-security facility is said to be “America's cushiest prison”, employing a “reformatory” model of justice in which no barbed wire is used and the inmates are housed in so-called “cottages” that can house up to 60 other women.
While ‘behind bars’, Stewart took to doing what she does best: working, taking a job as an informal liaison between the prison administration and her fellow inmates.
At the time, there was speculation that the scandal would effectively end Stewart’s media empire. However, following her release from prison in March 2005, she began a comeback campaign and her company returned to profitability in 2006.
The incident also attracted a whole new set of fans, who respected Stewart for serving her time behind bars and coming out on top.
“I knew I was strong going in and I was certainly stronger coming out,” Stewart said of the incident, to Harper’s Bazaar in 2021.
Famous friends — Snoop Dogg and Pete Davidson
Stewart’s prison experience is one of many things that helped her strike up an unlikely and iconic friendship with rapper Snoop Dogg, who had spent time in jail on drug charges in the early Nineties.
“Yes, that [conviction] helped because people knew how crazy and unfair… all of that was,” she said on CBS’s Sunday Morning in a joint interview with the rapper in 2017. “And, in Snoop’s world, it gave me the street cred I was lacking.”
The pair first met in 2008, when Snoop joined Stewart to make mashed potatoes on her cooking show, The Martha Stewart Show. He returned to the show the next year for a special Christmas episode, and the duo have since worked together as roasters on Comedy Central’s 2015 Justin Bieber Roast, co-hosts of the 2021 and 2022 Puppy Bowls, and costars in various adverts.
“When you work with someone like Snoop, it’s like having a sidekick. How great it is,” Stewart told People magazine. “That’s why all the comedians have sidekicks and bands, because it loosens them up and lets them be freer. Snoop is my freedom.”
The 81-year-old is also pals with none other than man-of-the-moment Pete Davidson. After the 29-year-old SNL comedian split with Kim Kardashian last year, rumours even briefly swirled that the two were dating.
“He’s dated so many women,” Stewart said on The Drew Barrymore Show last year. “I’m not saying that’s bad. I think that’s good. And he’s sort of cute.”
“He’s like my lost son,” she added, dismissing the dating rumours.