By Erik Meers
November 23, 1998 12:00 PM

Decorating a three-layered cake with fresh-cut flowers under the hot glare of TV lights, homemaking guru Katie Brown appears, for a moment, to be just another soldier in the growing army of Martha Stewart wannabes. Then she dispenses the kind of down-home advice that might cause Martha to gag on one of her crab canapés. “Go ahead and use a box cake mix. And when you’re frosting the cake, you might have the urge to take a bite out of it. Go ahead!” she jokes. “Whose birthday is it anyway?”

Brown, 34, has been serving up dime-store domesticity on her Lifetime show Next Door with Katie Brown since the cable network selected her after a national search for homemaking experts in 1997. She has earned a loyal following with her quirky tips about everything from creating an indoor picnic by covering your dining room table with sod to making lamp shades out of cheesecloth and leaves. It is now Lifetime’s most popular daytime program, and the network has decided to air it each weekday (9 a.m. ET) starting in January instead of just its regular weekend spot (Saturdays, 1 p.m. ET). “Everything [I do] is quick and inexpensive,” says Brown. “If someone on staff has an idea to make lobster, I’m like, ‘No. I can’t afford lobster.’ We don’t pretend to be perfect.”

Brown’s own life has been far from ideal. In May 1991, while she was taking acting classes in L.A., she was hit by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting. The slug remained lodged in the back of her knee, and doctors—fearing that removing it would rupture an artery—left it in. “For the next two years I was in and out of hospitals,” says Brown. “The bullet just stayed there. I had, like, seven surgeries.” When doctors finally removed the bullet in 1993, she resolved to accomplish something with her life. “I didn’t want that person to take my life away,” she says of the gunman, who was never caught. “In a lot of ways [being shot] focused me.”

Once she began interviewing for the Lifetime job, Brown knew she had found her calling. “We wanted someone with a passion for this and a different kind of energy,” says Beth Sosin, a Lifetime exec who helped select Brown. “Katie really came through in every area.”

Brown’s home-ec education began early as the second of four kids of Meg, 52, and Paul Brown, 63, who together operate a ferry service on Michigan’s Mackinac Island. At holiday dinners her extended family feasted on enormous platters of food. “Our family culture is based on competence in the kitchen,” says Brown, who—along with siblings Lynn, now 36, a teacher; Marlee, 30, a painter; and Bing, 25, a law student—often helped her parents prepare big meals. Brown attended Cornell University and in 1985 graduated with a degree in art history.

Later that year, she moved to New York City and traded art history for acting, enrolling in drama classes that led to small parts in Off-Broadway theater productions and commercials. In 1990 she moved to L.A. to pursue film roles, but the shooting and extensive rehab slowed her acting plans. After the bullet was removed, Brown opened a cafe and store called Goat that allowed her to showcase her cooking and design talents. It was an instant hit. Three years later she shuttered Goat after a family friend’s tip led her to Lifetime’s search for the next Martha Stewart.

As her friend Bobby Flay, chef at Manhattan’s chic Mesa Grill, puts it, “I told Katie, ‘Martha is the queen, you are the princess.’ But that is an okay place to be.” With an economy of words that befits her style, Brown sums it up another way: “Martha’s awesome,” she says. “Without her, there would be no me.”

Erik Meers

Danelle Morton in Los Angeles