Picture a dark-haired Martha Stewart with a string of pearls and a set of wings. Now give her a Southern accent and a touch of Muhammad Ali's famed attitude. Sound like a strange domestic diva?
No, she's Marla Cilley, an online "queen of clean" who will bark like a butterfly until you tidy your house like a busy little bee.
Ms. Cilley known as "FlyLady" because of her love for fly-fishing really means business. Fans know that if they sign up for her free e-mail service (www.flylady.net), they can expect as many as 20 messages a day reminding them to banish their dust bunnies and polish up their housekeeping habits.
And "habits" is the operative word here. Unlike other organizers, FlyLady focuses on helping people build and maintain new routines. "You can do crisis cleaning," she says, "but unless you change your behavior, your house won't stay clean."
"Flying" as the program is called includes a fast-paced morning and evening routine, each of which takes just 15 minutes. Also part of the flight plan are frequent decluttering sessions, a twice-daily "hot-spot rescue," a weekly one-hour clean-up, targeted cleaning sessions, and weekly planning sessions.
But the first step for any new "flybaby" most of whom are women is to get fully dressed, fix hair and makeup, and put on lace-up shoes (if you own some). This, says FlyLady, is crucial; otherwise, you won't be ready for action.
Step 2 is to clean and polish the kitchen sink until you can see your reflection.
Excuse me? Clean the sink when the whole house looks as if it's been hit by Hurricane Hugo?
Oh yes, she insists. Put the dirty dishes in a dishpan and hide them in a cabinet until later, if necessary. That sink must stay shiny because (a) it provides a sense of accomplishment and (b) "as the kitchen goes, so does the rest of the house."
Once basic routines are in place, says FlyLady, both the house and the housekeeper will begin to sparkle. Maintaining the home will be easy, too, she adds, and requires less than 45 minutes a day.
But reaching such lofty heights is a challenge for many of her followers, nearly half of whom work outside the home.
"They don't know where to start," says FlyLady, who describes herself as part fairy godmother and part drill sergeant. So she tells people exactly what to do and she tells them to quit whining.
Busy schedules are no excuse for a messy house, in her opinion. But they are the source of many messes. Flybaby testimonials, which are regularly sent to the 128,000-member e-mail list, often mention that overloaded schedules lead to CHAOS (Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome).
So, for many people, decluttering is a top priority.
FlyLady recommends doing what she calls a 27 Fling Boogie. In layman's terms, that means buzzing through the house with a garbage bag and filling it with 27 unneeded items.
The key is not to look inside the bag, so you won't be tempted to reclaim the clutter. Actually, she recommends that flybabies do two quick boogies: one that is destined for the trash can, and another that swoops up usable items for Goodwill.
Dealing with "hot spots" is another FlyLady favorite. These are a house's perpetual dumping grounds an entryway or a coffee table, perhaps that tend to get out of control. For these, FlyLady advises five-minute extinguishing sessions twice daily.
But can minutes a day really keep the messes at bay?
Yes, she says, especially when paired with a weekly one-hour "blessing." This takes the place of a marathon Saturday-morning cleaning. It breaks down to seven tasks including tossing old magazines, mopping floors, and vacuuming each of which, she says, can be buzzed through in less than 10 minutes.
Flybabies set a timer for most chores, and once it goes off, the cleaning stops. This rule prevents both sloth and burnout.
Still, she admits that even with her routines, some people will need to spend weeks, if not months, to get their homes and their ways in order.
The year was 1999, and Cilley, newly remarried, had two households worth of clutter in one house. It took her five months to get the place in order, with the help of a book called "Sidetracked Home Executives," by Pam Young and Peggy Jones.
That book finally got her flying, but her takeoff had been long overdue.
Four years earlier, recalls the North Carolina resident, she had been a divorcée living in a secluded area. Her emotions, like her house, were in turmoil.
One day a neighbor had a head-on car crash nearher house, and she ran out to help. After the scene had cleared, a police officer escorted her home. One look inside and "He thought the place had been ransacked," she says.
FlyLady has since made it her mission to help others avoid that kind of humiliation. She began by sharing the routines she'd developed with visitors to the Sidetracked Home Executives website (www.shesintouch.com).
Then someone asked her to start an e-mail group. In a year the group went from eight to 10,000 people, and today, 2-1/2 years later, there are 128,000. The list grows by about 25,000 a month.
FlyLady launched her own website in February 2001. There is no charge for the advice, and no request for donations. She sees her work as a spiritual mission.
Her motivation is simple: "I want to help others find the peace that I have. Once you clean up the outside, you feel better on the inside."
And cleaning up the inside is FlyLady's real work. Women, she says, set standards that are too high, and they let perfectionism get in the way. "For years we have been taught that if we can't do it right, then we shouldn't do it at all, and this is what gets everybody in a tizzy."
Women also allow guilt to sidetrack them, she says. Those who work outside the home feel guilty for not being home, and stay-at-home moms particularly those who home-school feel guilty "because they are home all day and they still can't keep a clean house."
FlyLady believes that both attitudes can lead to what she calls "martyr syndrome," but she has no patience with housekeepers who grumble about their lazy children or how much they have to do. "Cleaning doesn't happen by osmosis. Somebody has to get up and move."
That's the drill sergeant talking. But then the fairy godmother swoops in to soothe frayed flybaby nerves.
FlyLady understands, she says, that in order to take care of their homes and families, women must first take care of themselves. So FlyLady e-mails stress the importance of getting enough rest and exercise. And, once the chores are done, she recommends a nightly bubble bath, or some other pampering.
Remember, says FlyLady, it's all about baby steps: "Your house didn't become a wreck overnight. You can't expect it to turn around overnight, either. You cannot run before you walk."
That may be true, but the FlyLady phenomenon certainly seems to be running all over the globe. Followers hail from 40 countries, and both Time magazine and the [London] Guardian have recently run stories about her system. A top US publisher has made tentative plans to reprint "Sink Reflections," FlyLady's self-published book.
Cilley could never have imagined such successes five years ago, when her house was still a mess. "Once you get the clutter out of the way," she says, "you can be the person that you've always wanted to be."
Maybe so. But what about those 20 daily e-mails that members receive? Does anyone ever want the FlyLady to shoo?
"People don't have to read the entire e-mail," she says with a laugh "They can just look at the subject line and be reminded that I'm sitting on their shoulder."
Occasionally, she admits, someone does ask to be removed from the e-mail list. But according to hundreds of testimonials, most flybabies wouldn't want to take to the skies or the laundry piles without her.