A domestic diva in a big blond wig

Special to The Times

Brini Maxwell, the self-professed lifestyle guru and hostess of her own retro homemaker program on the Style Network, is a self-made woman.

"You don't have to spend a lot to have a gracious existence," declares the soignee stay-at-home seamstress, who in one episode fashioned a collapsible cabana out of a bedsheet and two hula hoops.

"Don't let people tell you that there's a right way or wrong way to express yourself. You have to find your own way," she says.

Maxwell certainly has. Dispensing useful household hints with a mellifluous deadpan that suggests she knows her way around a cocktail cart, the latter-day Doris Day has grown from a Manhattan public-access personality into a national cable-cult fixation.

"Sex and the City" star Kim Cattrall and fashion designer Cynthia Rowley have tuned in to the first 13 episodes of "The Brini Maxwell Show," and the next season is in pre-production. Maxwell also has taught Conan O'Brien the fine art of fondue on his NBC late-night show. With her plans to write books and create household products, the 34-year-old domestic diva is shaping up to be the next queen of decor TV.

Literally. The 5-foot-10 blond bombshell is the creation of Ben Sander, a fashion designer and flea market addict who dons a wig and a flurry of vintage couture each show.

"I know that it's a man playing a woman, but I believe in the character, and she is somehow strangely comforting," says Leslie Van Buskirk, deputy editor of TV Guide. "I would like her to be my neighbor, so I could knock on her door and ask to borrow a bundt pan."

Ten years ago, "The Brini Maxwell Show" character might have appealed to a niche audience of gay people, observes Randy Barbato, co-president of World of Wonder, the Hollywood company that produced the film "Party Monster" and documentaries on camp icons such as Tammy Faye Baker and Anna Nicole Smith. "Now," he says, "drag equals ratings, and someone as sophisticated as Brini can practically be considered mainstream."

Maxwell isn't the first cross-dressing cable crossover. From 1996 to 1998, World of Wonder produced singer-actor RuPaul's talk show on VH1. The recent success of Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" has also flung open the closet door for Maxwell, who may be taking metrosexuality to its logical conclusion: If straight men are willing to take style cues from their gay counterparts, why not take cleaning and sewing lessons from a drag queen? An articulate one at that. One who speaks of "sequestered hideaways" and confesses that "there's something so soothing about plotting out your world on a manageable scale."

"When I first saw the show, I thought it might be all kitsch," admits Heather Moran, the programming vice president who brought the show to Style. "But it's chock full of useful tips and information for any budget."

Now that the Style Network also plans to broadcast old episodes of "Martha Stewart Living," the contrast between the original queen of style and a pretender to the throne says a lot about the role of femininity in the commercial arena of home decor.

Both present an idealized alpha female: Stewart is so capable it's intimidating, the wonder woman with all the time in the world (and an unseen army of assistants) who some say has been demonized for doing business like a member of the old boy's network. Maxwell, who cites "The Mary Tyler Moore Show's" happy homemaker Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White) as an influence, resurfaces the playing field as a man personifying a career girl who still has time to run up new curtains -- in a flower-power print.

Although Maxwell is certain she commands a younger, more urban audience, this queen believes her time-capsule TV show presses an emotional button in us all. "There is a yearning to return to a time when we felt safe," she says. "People are looking inward. They want to cocoon and create a nice space for themselves. I think that has to do with the current world situation. People are taking more of an interest in hearth and home and hoping for better times ahead."

Maxwell knows that she brings kitsch to the kitchen, but along with serving up a diverting palliative for the stressed-out viewer, she provides cultural stimulation for the cognoscenti -- all with a knowing wink. Few home improvement hosts would use British artist Damien Hirst as the inspiration for a crafts project. Maxwell does, making a wall hanging out of mirrored plexiglass and "ordinary household pills" such as Ex-Lax, then reminding her viewers to glue the medications right side up so guests can read the writing.

Maxwell got an early start as a homemaker. While living in a 128-year-old farmhouse near Boston that her actress mother had decorated in Federal style, Maxwell built a dollhouse "out of a cardboard box with a green velvet lawn and furniture made from old jewelry."

"There are a few skills I don't have," she says. "I'm not terribly good at welding, unless you count a hot-glue gun."

In high school, Maxwell worked in a thrift shop. "I came away with nothing to show for it except a large collection of clothing and furniture," she says. And a keen eye for midcentury styles, when "even everyday mundane household items were really beautifully designed."

A ceaseless EBay bidder, she extols the virtues of a recent find, the Kabob-It. "It's a 1970s product that cooks kebabs. You put your skewers into vertical Pyrex tubes that turn on a carousel around a central heating unit," Maxwell marvels. "And of course it's in a lovely shade of yellow-orange." She also favors Dansk teak ice buckets and enamel casseroles, and the colorful geometric fabrics created by Verner Panton and Marimekko. She even petitioned the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in Manhattan to do a retrospective on the work of Vera, whose floral scarf prints and linens made her a household name in the 1960s. "They were a little underwhelmed by the idea," Maxwell says with a sigh.

Five years ago, "The Brini Maxwell Show" was shot in her 12-by-24-foot studio apartment in New York City. "We made it work," she says, "but just outside of the camera frame it was usually chaos."

Now, Maxwell has her own candy-colored studio set and travels the country filming segments for the show. This week, she is visiting Hollywood, hoping to persuade "a certain '60s sitcom star" to make a guest appearance on a future episode.

She is partial to L.A. -- "I love the big hair and the low-slung houses" -- and has many suggestions for its residents. Among them: "I think the look of Tuscany is perfect for Los Angeles, because the cracks that you get in your walls from earthquakes can be easily disguised by an Old World plaster effect," she chirps. "There's a great website, www.fauxlikeapro.com, that can give you tips."

Maxwell maintains that it's never been simpler to furnish a home inexpensively, but "don't make the mistake of having only things that everyone else can have. Go to IKEA, Crate & Barrel, but pepper that with things bought at flea markets and antique stores, family heirlooms and things you make yourself. That is what gives a room personality and soul."

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Make it easy, and make it memorable

Six entertaining tips from a TV hostess:

1 Make what Brini Maxwell calls a "daisy tuffet" by creating a grid of Scotch tape across the top of a bowl, leaving small spaces to hold individual stems. Nestle flowers along the rim and work toward the center, cutting the stems longer on each circle of flowers so that the center rises like a dome.

2 Another centerpiece idea: Create a decorative fruit bowl out of styrofoam forms wrapped with sewing trim and fastened with straight pins with colored heads.

3 Design a "really marvelous" chandelier, with Y-sockets from a hardware store. Screw them into one another to create fixtures that look like branches or coral. (Make sure you don't overload the circuit.)

4 Fit together pre-threaded brass plumbing pipes and elbows to make candlesticks, fountains and tabletop sculpture.

5 Guests who puff? Put out a snifter of white wine vinegar to absorb smoke. So it won't be mistaken for a drink, float an artificial bloom in it.

6 Don't do unnecessary chores. Why peel shrimp when the store can do it?

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