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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 June, 2003, 13:35 GMT 14:35 UK
Martha Stewart: Fashion victim?

By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter

Martha Stewart at Harvard
Good things are in short supply these days
The media have reacted to Martha Stewart's legal travails with their customary sensitivity.

"Your honour," appeals Ms Stewart's lawyer in a typical cartoon in the Augusta Chronicle, "my client contends that being forced to wear horizontal stripes is unfashionable to the point of being cruel and unusual".

This sort of thing, along with tips about removing pesky bloodstains from prison garb, and a dozen winning ways with gruel, sends a stark message.

Ms Stewart - who is fighting charges of securities fraud and conspiracy - may have built a multi-million-dollar business from telling America how to live elegantly, but now she is about as popular there as anthrax.

'Shakespearean overtones'

Much of her unpopularity has to do, of course, with the pent-up fury of Middle America at the past year's wave of corporate scandals.

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia shares

While rogues like Enron's Kenneth Lay or WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers have sheltered in the relative anonymity of the corporate boardroom, Martha Stewart is a full-blown celebrity.

Guilty or not, for many she is already a symbol for the unprincipled excess of the 1990s stock market boom.

"If she is brought down, the story will be one with Shakespearean overtones," runs a stern editorial in the New York Times.

"A woman who was so detail oriented that, even with a net worth of hundreds of millions, she could not resist an illegal stock trade that netted her $45,000."

Terrifying taste

But dislike of Martha Stewart is not just professional - it is personal.

For the benefit of the British audience, she is often described as America's answer to Delia Smith.

Martha Stewart
The penitent look is in this year

But the analogy does not begin to do justice to Ms Stewart's extraordinary and terrifying combination of organisational steel and relentless good taste.

For some, the main irritant is the finicking refinement of her lifestyle creations - everything comes bundled up with raffia, or nestling among hand-gilded pine cones.

"Martha adores her household full of pets," coos her modesty-free website.

"She has four chow chow dogs - Zu-zu, Paw-Paw, Chin Chin, and Empress Wu - and seven Himalayan cats - Teeny, Weeny, Mozart, Vivaldi, Verdi, Berlioz, and Bartok."

For many others, the real horror is the faintly fascistic nature of her pronouncements.

The perfect Martha hostess - a surely mythical creature - has to have the sort of attention to detail that can juggle guest-room lotions, parasol seating cards in little sand trays, and linen bags of miniature Seckel pears as party favours.

Beauty and brains

If the average free-born American is revolted by this sort of thing, he should reflect that Ms Stewart is an embodiment of the American dream.

She was born Martha Kostyra to modest, if not quite poverty-stricken, Polish-American parents in New Jersey, where - again according to her website - she "developed her passion for cooking, gardening and homekeeping".

Martha Stewart fishbowl
A must for every tasteful home

She earned a history degree, paying her way through college by working as a model.

From the catwalk she moved seamlessly onto Wall Street, doing well as a stockbroker - and learning a few tricks that would come in useful later in life.

Downshifting to become a Connecticut housewife, Ms Stewart bubbled up once again, building a spare-time catering business into nationwide recognition.

She published a book, "Entertaining" - "one of the most beautiful and influential books ever published," according to her website - which sold more than 500,000 copies in the US alone, and followed it with 13 more.

Even now, after the collapse of her reputation, her Martha Stewart Living magazine shifts, and her Weddings quarterly sells 650,000.


Time was, America would be willing to forgive such an achiever the odd corner cut.

But these, it seems, are unforgiving times.

One of the most striking features of post-scandal depictions is how Ms Stewart's gutsy battling has been reinterpreted as manipulative pushiness.

A recent unauthorised biography, "Just Desserts", depicted her as a neurotic slave-driver, an unscrupulous self-promoter who sacrificed her family at the altar of her own success.

One TV biopic, based on another unauthorised biography and aired last month on the NBC network, even showed the infant Martha sabotaging a classmate's cake-baking.

Ins and outs

Who knows? Maybe there will be a backlash against the backlash.

It's possible to detect a marginally more forgiving tone among Thursday's coverage: the LA Times, for example, suggests that Ms Stewart may have been a victim of sexism and jealousy.

Tired of writing articles about corporate wrongdoing that no one reads, the theory goes, the press has hyped Martha Stewart because her story has rare celebrity appeal.

Ms Stewart's products, which have somehow carved a niche in the national affections, are still selling well.

And even a spell behind bars may not dim what her website (yes, that again) calls "her remarkable talent and originality".

America may hate greed and deceit, but the never-say-die spirit is something that will always sell.

'Confident' Martha fights back
05 Jun 03  |  Business
Stewart resigns as company head
05 Jun 03  |  Business
Criminal charges for Martha Stewart
04 Jun 03  |  Business
Martha Stewart profits fall sharply
31 Oct 02  |  Business
Can Martha survive without Martha?
31 Oct 02  |  Business
Martha Stewart quits exchange board
04 Oct 02  |  Business

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