Rachael Ray is crawling into a morgue drawer and chanting giddily, “I’m gonna be a dead body! I’m gonna be a dead body!” She’s filming a segment for her new show on the CSI: NY set, in which she pretends to be a corpse. Turns out the perky chef-next-door has long dreamed of playing dead. “It’s been on my life list, and it’s gonna be another thing off the list after today.”
These days Ray, 38, is tearing through that list. In the past eight years she has produced 12 bestselling cookbooks, four top-rated Food Network shows, a monthly magazine and a line of kitchenware. And on Sept. 18 she will debut her syndicated talk show Rachael Ray.
Though she’s building an impressive empire, Ray still hasn’t gotten the hang of the diva thing. Her first order of business when she first saw her new Manhattan office decked out with photos of its star? “I defaced my picture,” she says. “I have a fat head—I get freaked-out looking at pictures of me. So I got a Sharpie and drew horns and a goatee.”
Ray hopes to use her devilish sense of humor on air. “We’re about having a good laugh,” says Ray, the daughter of a restaurateur mom. The set features a basketball hoop and a foosball table, and she has a rule: “No crying. I’m not that person.” The hour won’t be “celebrity-driven,” she says, though Oprah Winfrey—who decided to spearhead the project after Ray guest-starred on Oprah last year—will be appearing on the second episode. “We want guests to sit at the kitchen table, shoot some hoops and hang out. You’re not going to find any hard-hitting, who-are-you-sleeping-with questions.”
Turn that question on her, though, and Ray’s happy to spill. She met husband John Cusimano, 39, an entertainment lawyer and fledgling rock singer, four years ago at a party. “I saw John from across the room immediately—because we’re both short—and couldn’t take my eyes off him,” she recalls. “I was speechless, and I’m never speechless.” The two wed last September in Tuscany, and Cusimano soon discovered another secret about the quick-and-simple cook: “She makes terrible coffee,” he says. “It’s the whole measuring thing. She can’t do that.” As for making a family? “I’m almost 40; chances are I won’t have a child,” says Ray. “I don’t have time to do that properly. That doesn’t mean one day I wouldn’t adopt.” And it doesn’t mean that she won’t have any downtime. On a recent evening Ray could be found not behind the stove but at a graffiti-covered basement bar in Manhattan. With her husband jamming on stage, she mouthed along to every word and air-drummed over her head. “I get to go home every night to my husband,” she says. “How lucky am I?”