"Reserved people might have a problem with loud, goofy Rachael Ray," says Ray (at home in New York City). "Well, I've got a problem with people who are too quiet."
For a woman who earns about $10 million a year whipping up everything from chicken and honey-buttered waffles to sea-bass puttanesca, Rachael Ray is the first to admit that her skills in the kitchen are handily outmatched in her own house. "My husband cooks fancier food for himself than I've ever cooked on-air," she says, seated at her dining room table – and wearing blue cotton pajamas, her preferred at-home attire – while her husband, entertainment lawyer John Cusimano, sits nearby in their modest Manhattan apartment. "I call him from the road, and he's making champagne-vanilla salmon or black-cherry pork chop. Half of me is feeling unworthy. Not only am I not a chef, I'm not a better cook than my own husband!"
Of course, it's exactly that kind of self-deprecating wit and earthy charm – let Martha Stewart bake her pie crusts from scratch; Ray prefers to buy hers and use the extra time to mix her signature beer margaritas – that have helped the 5'4" hypercaffeinated dynamo (she admits to a 10-cup-a-day coffee habit) single-handedly transform herself into a one-woman phenomenon. Among the fruits of her round-the-clock labor: four hit Food Network shows, 12 million copies of her 13 bestselling cookbooks in print (she writes all the recipes herself), a self-titled monthly magazine and even her own brand of olive oil. Her fans turn out in force for her signings and appearances (she does about 150 a year), obsess over her every move on dozens of Web sites, chop with her signature knives and even adopt her Rachaelisms (EVOO = extra virgin olive oil; sammie = sandwich).
This year she proved she can hold her own as a talk show host, with the first season of the Rachael Ray Show
– coproduced by her friend and mentor Oprah Winfrey – up for seven awards at the Daytime Emmys in June. And just last month she launched her new nonprofit healthy-eating and cooking initiative for kids, Yum-o!, in partnership with the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association. Along the way she has made "30-minute meals" words to live by for millions of busy moms and become a doggedly determined fixture of domestic American life. Says professor of pop culture and television at Syracuse University Robert Thompson: "You can't go through a grocery store without her visage staring out at you."