Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Stewart should fess up, someday


Image experts: America likes to see a 'Comeback Kid'

By Larry Neumeister
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - It probably won't be as easy as mending a crumbling layer cake with icing, but Martha Stewart can rehabilitate her image if she is willing to own up to her mistakes, experts say.

"She has to show contrition and really apologize to the American public," said public relations man Howard Rubenstein, a spokesman over the years for such scandal-ridden personalities as hotel magnate Leona Helmsley and boxer Mike Tyson.

Those who specialize in shaping the public personalities of their clients say Stewart needs to soften her image, expose her vulnerable side and give the public a reason to cheer the resurgence of a fallen star.

Stewart's immediate options might be limited, given her unyielding insistence that she was innocent.

"Fessing up would be the ideal situation, but she shouldn't do it yet," advises Seth M. Siegel, co-founder of The Beanstalk Group, a brand licensing agency. "If she does it today, it would look fake."

But facing a probable prison term of roughly a year, Stewart has time to ponder how to reshape her future and her image, perhaps with a glance at those who have gone before her.

One of the more successful turnaround stories is that of Michael Milken, the junk bond king who served two years in prison after pleading guilty in 1990 to securities crimes.

Shortly after completing his prison term, Milken learned that he had an advanced form of prostate cancer.

He recovered and turned the full force of his then half-billion-dollar empire toward philanthropic efforts, including education about prostate cancer.

In 2001, the Milken Family Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif., gave $27.3 million to charitable causes, according to the Foundation Center, a New York-based tracker of charitable giving.

It was Stewart herself who helped Milken's resurgence by letting him appear on television with her in the 1990s to tout his book of organic recipes.

"His reputation is stellar," Rubenstein said. "He was jailed and came back and did enormously important work with prostate cancer." He added: "Just like many people like to see the takedown of prominent people, they also like to see the Comeback Kid."

Helmsley, who served more than a year in prison after her 1989 tax evasion conviction, has largely failed to restore herself to the public's good graces.

Just last year, a judge ordered her to pay a half-million dollars to a former hotel manager who said she insulted and fired him because he was gay - a verdict that kept her reputation alive as the "Queen of Mean."

Seth Taube, a former Securities and Exchange Commission prosecutor who is now head of securities litigation for a Newark, N.J., law firm, said some famous felons "disappear into the woodwork and decide celebrity is not worth the cost."

Ivan Boesky, the Wall Street star sentenced in 1987 to three years in prison for insider trading, disappeared from public view after losing his suburban New York mansion and Park Avenue penthouse in a messy divorce.

But for those who thrive more on attention than financial gain, contrition and charity usually buy them forgiveness, Taube said.

"We have a forgiving nation," Taube said. "Like President Clinton, (Stewart) could admit to mistakes in judgment without admitting a crime. But she needs to show some contrition."

He predicted that after she finishes serving time at a minimum-security prison such as the one in Danbury, Conn., she will seek resurrection.

"She loves not just being rich, but being respected and famous," Taube said.




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