Being Conventionally Cute Is Not Enough For The Food Network. What Is?S

Frank Bruni's profile in the new NY Times Magazine uses Katie Lee to chart the Hollywood-ization of food. It also suggests that, as in any show business endeavor, being very pretty isn't necessarily enough to make you a real star.

It might be enough to catch the eye of Billy Joel, of course. Marrying him at 23 unquestionably helped catapult Lee from being a small-town culinary aspirant to mingling with the right people in the Hamptons. (They divorced last year after almost five years). But the profile portrays a successful woman who is trying to power through the wall between her and mega-stardom.

It reminded me of the 2003 New Yorker profile of actress Jaime Pressly, "The Almost It-Girl," about toiling on the margins of being the next big thing. (From the abstract: "She is typically cast on the strength of her looks and her Southern sassiness, and she has had girlfriend roles in several forgettable teensploitation flicks.")

After one season on Top Chef — she was replaced by Padma Lakshmi, another famous man's gorgeous ex-wife, with more personal staying power — Lee can't seem to get on the Food Network, whose executives don't find her "catchy" enough. Absent the down-home appeal of Paula Deen (whom Bruni calls "Dolly Parton with a deep fryer") or the down-to-earth accessibility of Rachael Ray (seen mobbed here), Lee's next packaging move appears to be in the direction of a chick-lit sensibility, incongruously overseen by Brett Ratner. Bruni recounts a production meeting:

They envisioned her inviting a small group of girlfriends over to her town house for a "spa night" of healthful eating and facials. They pictured Lee bolting to the home of an acquaintance who is less skillful in the kitchen than she, surreptitiously helping her cook, then dashing away before the acquaintance's date arrives to a sumptuous meal.

One producer: "The ideas are endless."

The other producer: "You're like the girl next door, everybody's friend. People relate to you."

Do they? These days, Katie Lee's the girl next door — if you live in the West Village. She still lives in the exquisite Nate Berkus-decorated townhouse seen in Domino and Town & Country, with the enormous kitchen and the $25,000 gold-leaf closet. And "healthful eating" seems less than apropos for a woman whose signature recipe is a thin burger patty with cheese on buttered white bread.

She's also writing a novel, which shows the fault-line between what Lee wants to known for and what people want to know about her:

[The editor] described Lee's book to me at one point as a roman à clef "loosely based on her and Bill" - meaning Joel - that will have just enough "that piques people's curiosity to wonder how much of this is fictional and how much of this is real." Lee said that it would have nothing to do with her marriage, that it is still evolving and that its female protagonist surfs. (Lee picked up surfing in the Hamptons.)

As in Hollywood, looks and connections can get you in the door, but aren't enough to make people wildly embrace you. In the end, what Lee brings to the table, literally, doesn't seem to be enough — because it's not defined or distinct enough, or because she's lacking some indefinable spark that has catapulted even the relatively untalented. It's hard to pity her; she's doing fine, and it's not as if she's a serious cook denied her chance by external factors. As sincere as she seems, her sincerest wish seems to be for fame.

In an accompanying video, Lee says she calls meatloaf "manloaf," because if you make it for a man, he'll fall in love with you, coquettishly suggesting to Bruni that she make it for him to the same effect.

"That's a tall hill to scale," Bruni says dryly. He's gay, a fact he's written about more than once. Judging from the story, it's just one of the reasons he's another person not wholly won over by Lee's charms.

How To Cook Up A Food Celebrity [NYT]

Related: The Almost It Girl [The New Yorker]