Rachael Ray, Food Network

It’s 7 a.m. in a Manhattan triplex and Rachael Ray has just popped out of bed. The high-octane diva, well-known for her antics on the Food Network, might have made a specialty of quick gourmet meals, but on this morning, as on so many others, the truth is that Ray doesn’t have time for breakfast.

At 38, Ray is atop a media empire built in just seven short years. Bearing her name are 12 bestselling cookbooks (another due next month), two Food Network shows, a monthly lifestyle magazine launched last October, a syndicated daytime talk show that debuted last month and assorted licensing deals that have stamped the Rachael Ray name on everything from knives to pots to food.

Darting around the apartment she shares with husband John Cusimano (a lawyer who’s also a guitarist for the band The Cringe), Ray makes her only concession to breakfast: a cup of joe (the term she prefers), no cream and no sugar. Soon she’s got her assistant, Michelle Boxer, on the cell to go over the day’s schedule.

As she speaks, she dons her trademark professional garb: T-shirt, jeans, sensible shoes. In a few moments, Ray is downstairs stepping into a car-service sedan for the drive up to the midtown studio where she’s taping her new syndicated talk show, Rachael Ray, produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, King World Productions and the E.W. Scripps Company (the Food Network’s parent).

If, so far, the day hasn’t delivered much of the glamour an observer might expect, Ray simply shrugs: “I get up, I do an honest day’s work, then I go to sleep,” she says. “But I’m having fun all the way.”

All the way to the bank, a cynic might say—but surely, all the way into the minds and hearts of millions of fans all over the country. Not unlike Oprah, Rachael Ray has become a one-woman marketing phenomenon: In less than a decade, she’s zipped from nobody to pop-culture icon. The question is, how? A canvass of other TV celebs at Ray’s level at least reveals some obvious credentials: Dr. Phil really is a doctor; most Food Network stars were already acclaimed chefs, many with multimillion-dollar restaurants behind them. But Rachael Ray is . . . just Rachael Ray. Yet that might just be the whole point. Ray has deftly traded on her cheerleader-like charm and used it to appeal to millions of Americans either intimidated or turned off by the pretensions common to other celebs. Whether it’s making gnocchi or dispensing advice, Ray keeps it simple and accessible. Relentlessly self-effacing and incessantly smiling, she’s the girl next door, the one everybody wants to be friends with. And it’s all struck a powerful chord with America.

Ray’s parents had run restaurants in Massachusetts and New York, which suffused her childhood with food (though that would prove the limit of her training; she never went to cooking school). Ray bounced around jobs, working the candy counter and then Macy’s Fresh Foods department before heading up to Albany to manage Cowan & Lobel, a large gourmet market. To push sales during the holidays, she held cooking classes and bundled various food items to make a meal in half an hour. Local radio and TV stations began to feature her, netting a regular weekly segment that won two regional Emmy’s its first year. Then the Food Network noticed. Before long, Ray was hosting 30-Minute Meals.

Food Network execs were drawn to Ray’s energy, enthusiasm and ability to forge a visceral, family-like connection with her listeners and viewers. Ray leveraged the lack of formal training to craft her own unique message: That cooking doesn’t have to be complicated or taken too seriously. She’s unapologetic, saying that she’s no Julia Child, not to mention Martha Stewart, to whom she’s often compared. “Comparing me to Martha Stewart or Oprah or Julia is like comparing apples to pomegranates,” says Ray. “I don’t do arts and crafts. I don’t own the businesses I’m involved in, and I cook my own way.”

For viewers beginning to suffer from fancy-food fatigue and the byzantine preparations of celebrity chefs, Ray represented deliverance. She demystified cooking, using widely available ingredients that were also economical. For an audience of increasingly time-starved Americans, Ray doled out shortcuts and forgave what some chefs would call sins. Use prewashed bagged salads, Ray counseled (“Take the help when you can get it!”) and use canned beans, they save on soaking time. Other Food Network hosts had energy, but Ray was alive with her own quirky lingo. All the while, she kept it real for viewers: “You don’t need an expensive panini maker,” she’d say. “Just use a brick wrapped in aluminum foil and press it down.”

According to Food Network president Brooke Johnson, Ray’s method and message couldn’t have been better timed. “We were moving away from a haute cuisine approach to a more accessible style of cooking that would appeal to a broader range of folks,” she said. “Rachael was that in spades. A great cook, great recipe inventor and great TV communicator.”

30-Minute Meals is Ray’s tribute to the common cook. “It’s only cooking,” she’s been known to say, “not open-heart surgery.” She burns her hands, like real cooks do. Then there are her catchy phrases that fans consider adorable. She exclaims “Yum-o!” at the anticipation of the finished meal, refers to extra virgin olive oil as “EVOO” and tosses salt over her left shoulder for good luck. When she makes a dish that is part-soup, part-stew, she refers to the concoction as a “stoup.”

No doubt, some observers find this sort of thing annoying and sophomoric. But according to Laura Ries, president of Atlanta marketing firm Ries & Ries, Ray’s personality and approach are connecting. “She’s hot now,” Ries said. “She has built her brand on a simple concept—that cooking good food is accessible to everyone.”

Ray’s appeal has, perhaps not surprisingly, begun to lead her beyond the set of her cooking show. “The first day we met for coffee, I knew she was destined for more than just a cooking show,” said Jon Rosen, her agent at William Morris. “She was full of life, charisma and energy unlike anyone I’d ever met. Her smile lit up the room. She has a way of connecting to people with passion.”

Rosen renegotiated Ray’s contract to go beyond 30-Minute Meals to a travel show called $40 a Day, which took Ray to cities across the country with a challenge of feeding herself three meals for under $40.

Ray’s talk show will bring to life some of the content in another of her new ventures, Everyday with Rachael Ray, a glossy magazine whose circ jumped from 450,000 to 750,000 this month alone. “All of the metrics are exceeding our expectations,” said Christine Guilfoyle, publisher of the New York City-based title. “Having Rachael Ray [whose likeness graces the cover] as the central brand lends uniformity and conformity throughout the businesses.”

Everyday, and her show Rachael Ray, will both build on the self-styled brand that Ray has carefully nurtured on the Food Network.

“It’s accessible,” Rosen said. “It’s about not having to be wealthy to live a rich life, live life to the fullest, have fun and not taking yourself too seriously.”

By 8 a.m., the car service has deposited Ray at the TV studio at 222 E. 44th St. Here, she tapes two Rachael Ray shows daily at roughly 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. “This is her new baby and requires a huge commitment of time and energy,” said Janet Annino, Ray’s executive producer, who relocated to New York from Los Angeles to work on the series.

“It was an epic feat of scheduling that Rachael did, to be able to make the show her main focus now.”

In May, an integrated campaign was kicked off to promote Ray, which has been sold to 180 stations nationwide (or 97.5% TV market penetration). Its main themes, “Take a bite out of life” and “Everyone needs a little R&R,” appear in TV ads, via Planet 3 Entertainment, Santa Monica, Calif. Print ads, from Paul Gross Associates, Malibu, Calif., show Ray inviting folks to “Discover something new, learn something fun, and realize that life doesn’t have to be that hard!”

Ray’s handlers describe her as the ultimate work machine who takes multitasking to the extreme. “This is a woman for whom a day off or sick day is not an option. She’s not interested in doing nothing.

In fact, a day off gives her hives,” Annino said. One cannot be sure if she’s kidding. Ray rejiggered her responsibilities at the Food Network to free up time for Rachael Ray by compressing four shows into two: 30-Minute Meals and Tasty Travels, a combined 100 episodes which Ray pretaped in the last several months.

At 9:30 a.m., a line forms of eager audience members ranging in age from their 20s to 80s. From single moms to lawyers to Times Square tourists, the queue is proof of Ray’s ability to appeal to a broad range of people. Just ask them.

“She gives us noncooks confidence to try and to have fun with cooking like she has fun,” said Larry Miloscia, 45, a pharmacist from Long Island, N.Y. Edie Isaacs, 39, of Woodmere, N.Y., has been buying Ray’s cookbooks and watching her on the Food Network since 2001.

“I feel like I could be her sister or friend,” said the stay-at-home mom. “I just want to know everything about her, what she wears, where she goes for fun, all that.”

Ray thrives on being the center of a frenetic production team that starts to hover around her the minute she sets foot in the TV studio. She shrugs off the need for down time in her schedule: “I don’t do well with quiet. Besides, whatever breaks I have in between tapings,

I answer e-mails, do interviews, call my editor at the magazine. I’m constantly moving forward. By the time I finish one thing, I’m mentally moving to the next five things I have to do.”

Entering the studio, Ray is whisked into the hair and make-up rooms from which, by 11, she emerges coiffed, made-up and clad in designer duds. (Today, she’s donned a Diane Von Furstenberg suede vest and uncharacteristically high Prada heels. But she’s still in blue jeans, of course.) When Ray exits from an elevator onto the stage, the 110-member audience breaks into roiling applause. Ray co-designed the set herself to resemble a huge New York loft apartment complete with a terrace, a bar, a living room, a garage and, of course, a kitchen. Different topics dictate where a take will be shot. The audience sits atop a mammoth disk in the center that actually spins to face the apartment’s various zones.

Next a video showing Oprah begins to roll. “Rachael Ray has a connection with her audience that most people only achieve one-on-one,” Winfrey says on the tape. Given the enthusiasm of the audience, it hardly needs saying. For the next two hours the show will skate across a wide array of topics that Ray has chosen: tips on how to travel with kids, how to deal with “life’s little accidents,” stupid gifts, kitchen wisdom. The finale will be a cooking demo featuring hamburgers that both humans and pets can enjoy (on cue, Ray’s pit bull Isaboo trots in to sample his repast).

In keeping with her freewheeling style, Ray writes her own opening monologue, memorizes it and does not use cue cards or prompters. “I’m not talking about anything so serious on my show that I need a prompter. It’s my food, my place,” said Ray. Indeed. During the six camera breaks (when staffers descend on the star to fix her hair and adjust her outfit), Ray sips water and instructs her team on counter arrangements for the next shoot.

With the first taping over at 1:30, Ray rushes to a back kitchen to squeeze in an interview with Lara Spencer, host of a newsmagazine, The Insider. That over, Ray readies for the second taping, after which she does more interviews, then calls her mother.

By 8 p.m. most normal people would be ready for a foot massage and bed. Ray, however, has dashed back to her apartment to change clothes so she can catch The Cringe, her husband’s band, which tonight is playing at the R&R in Manhattan’s trendy meatpacking district. Somehow, brushing past the club’s doorman at 9:30, Ray is bouncier than ever. She orders a Grey Goose vodka straight up and starts to work the bar. Cringe’s amplifiers split the air and Ray has found a seat right up front. It’s probably no surprise that she knows all the lyrics to the band’s songs. At one point, she jumps up on stage and dances a bit. But even Ray knows the spotlight doesn’t always belong to her, so she retreats back to her seat.

Ray is back home by midnight, but her energy still hasn’t quit. While Cusimano heads to the Noho Star for some chicken lettuce wraps, Ray heads out into the downtown night to walk her dog.

Then, it’ll be onto more e-mails, voice mails—even some recipe writing—before bed. In a way, Ray’s packed, frenetic day is a metaphor for her career. “The sky’s the limit to what she can do,” Rosen said. After a little while, Ray will go to bed. But the lady runs on only five hours of sleep a night, and she’s no doubt thinking the same thought as countless fans: Another show tomorrow.