The Christopher Lowell Show gives even Martha a run for her money

by Kathy M. Newman & & stuff & & & &

Are women becoming obsolete? I wonder this as I ponder the latest home-guru phenom, Christopher Lowell. Lowell mixes costume, cornball-humor, low-budget decorating solutions and a motivational "You Can Do It" mantra to great effect, not to mention great profit.

The Christopher Lowell Show (formerly Interior Motives) is the highest rated program on the Discovery Channel, airing twice daily. Lowell is famous for his over-the-top camp: He appears dressed as a "fashion doctor" on the doorsteps of viewers who have written him for interior first-aid; he dresses up as the godfather rasping, "So you have finally come to me for help"; and in the early years, he even donned a blond wig to mock his arch-rival, Martha Stewart.

I watch him nearly every day. And I'm not sure why. I don't like his taste -- it's entirely too flouncy (he recently painted a mirrored headboard with green ivy!). His camp-style is cloying, and his ideas seem cheap and tawdry. And yet I am transfixed.

I do like a homeshow in the morning. I used to watch Katie Brown, but Lifetime has banished her to an earlier timeslot. Martha comes on too late for breakfast -- 10 am -- and I don't learn much that I can use from her china-collecting experts, her pet vet and her visits to beekeeping farms. And thus Christopher Lowell, who is on where I live at 9 am, wins partly by default.

But I am also attracted to Lowell's blatant downscale appeal: his insistence that anyone can decorate like a professional on a small budget. He calls Martha Stewart "Toney-Baloney," and his projects are within financial reach of the average do-it-yourselfer.

And if Martha Stewart is an unconscious parody of herself, then Lowell is a self-conscious parody of himself. If Stewart is a "style dictator," Lowell turns decorating into an outlet for self-esteem. His mantra, "You Can Do It" -- though it's corny as hell -- might have been a good one for me to chant while I was in Home Depot last week buying paint for the molding in my kitchen (at the last minute I chickened out on the Flaming Sword Red and went for the Bone White). As Christopher Lowell says, "Where there is fear, there is no creativity."

Fortunately for me, I do not have the bulk of my self-esteem stored in my kitchen cupboards. The fact that many of Lowell's viewers do, or are encouraged to do so, makes me wonder how many women are still stuck at home. While Christopher Lowell may be an attitudinal improvement over Martha Stewart, his message is as old as the 19th century: Women -- Your Home is Your Castle.

The fact that this message comes from a man who appears to be (though no one will say it out loud) the gayest man on television, is perhaps a form of progress. His camp humor is embraced my millions of women who do not seem at all concerned with his sexuality. Lowell is mum on the subject, claiming that his personal life is "so boring."

But meanwhile, as I click around the daytime dial, I notice an interesting trend. More and more men are dropping the drill and donning the apron to become the new doyens of daytime. The black and British Ainsley Harriott (whose cooking show was just canceled) has been a staple feature on NBC; the Iron Chefs -- men who perform in a kind of WWF style cook-off on the Food Channel -- have become cult heroes; and even Susan Powers (the hostess of Home Matters) now has an African-American male sidekick -- the winning Chris McWatt.

While it's nice to see a little diversity on daytime TV, what happens when women are no longer needed to model the skills of domestic achievement? What happens when we have ceded the domestic sphere, wholly, to the male entrepreneur? Lowell, who preaches that anyone can decorate, is now promoting his own line of matching paints and linens to take the "guesswork" out of interior design. But won't that also remove some of the creativity?

The death of domesticity for women may be a "good thing," but I would feel a lot better if women were as dominant in the public sphere as we used to be on daytime homeshows. Why not have a daytime program that shows women how to buy stocks, run for political office and start a business? Then the slogan "You Can Do It" might have a lot more meaning.

The Christopher Lowell Show is on at

noon and 3 pm daily on the Discovery Channel.

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