If she can hold on to her fan base, Rachael Ray will be famous for the next 80 years. That's because a good portion of it is under 7 years old. If you look below Ray's waistline anytime she's in public, there's likely to be a child holding out a piece of paper for her to sign. "It's because I'm a bobble head, dude," she explains after giving a boy an autograph. "I have a cartoon-character voice, I've got a lot of energy, and they know I'm not going to punish them." Rachael Ray is our nation's kindergarten teacher.
In fact, it was a kid who got the cooking-show host her new daily daytime talk show (debuting Sept. 18), the only program besides Dr. Phil that Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions has launched. Terry Wood, president of creative affairs for syndication giant King World (which is co-producing the show), arrived home from work a few years ago to find her daughter staring at one of Ray's Food Network shows, all of which, Wood was surprised to learn, the 6-year-old was deeply familiar with. "I said, 'What do you like about her?' And she pointed to her face, right around her eyes and her smile, and she said, 'She's always happy.'"
And it's not a mellow happy. Ray is a rabid cheerleader whose shtick is that moxie and a good attitude will get you as far as you want. Before she comes out from the gated elevator door of her talk-show set, the audience has been pumped up by clips of her set to the insanely upbeat song Life Is a Highway, the same tune Arnold Schwarzenegger has played before speeches. Ray--who often smiles so wide, you see not only her gums but also that weird part above the gums--says that when she's feeling stressed or sorry for herself, she just remembers the 10-fingers, 10-toes rule her uncle taught her: If you've got those, you have nothing to complain about. She makes Annie look like a pessimist.
As with Barney, the Wiggles and Elmo, all that cheerfulness attracts major loathing from some adults. Anti-Ray blogs are shockingly virulent, harping on her cutesy catchphrases, her self-congratulatory comments on her food and the fact that her recipes often involve little more than removing things from their plastic wrappers and putting them on plates. On the new show, she makes a lasagna out of ravioli because that way you don't have to bother with pasta and cheese separately.
But it's her cheerfulness--plus the 30-minute meals she created back when her job was doing demos for a supermarket--that she has based an empire on. So far, it includes more than half a dozen best-selling books, the Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine, four Food Network shows, a line of cookware and an olive oil. "She reminds me of Julia Child," says Wolfgang Puck, the celebrated Los Angeles chef whose back Ray is rubbing even though they just met an hour ago. "She has a completely different personality, but the message is the same. The message is, she's not élitist. She gives confidence to people to go into their own kitchens." Ray is antisnob and utterly nonaspirational. In a time of war and a struggling economy, this domestic goddess is a down-home Martha Stewart--REAL SIMPLE without the complexity.