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.”