LOS ANGELES — Martha Stewart can't reveal her future business plans until after she leaves prison Sunday, but that hasn't stopped pundits from suggesting recipes for the difficult dish known as "Martha Stewart, felon."
Some observers suggest that the domestic diva has done her time and that all she need do is whip up a bit of humble pie and the public will welcome her - and her business - back to the table. But others say that an American public, still reeling from a string of corporate scandals and CEO malfeasance, deserves better role models than convicted felons - no matter how good a cherry pie they can bake.
The issue takes on a particular pop-culture piquancy as the latest news on Ms. Stewart's post-prison plans emerged this past week. Not only will she return to a home-and-style TV show similar to her earlier ventures, but she will headline the first spinoff of the popular "Apprentice" franchise, a show that purports to reveal what it really takes to succeed in business. Her new exploits will provide a prime case study of the ingredients that go into remaking a tarnished image.
"We Americans are a very forgiving people," says sociologist BJ Gallagher, coauthor of the business manual "Who are THEY, Anyway?" "We admire people who pick themselves up after failure or disgrace and begin to take steps on the comeback trail."
Wall Street and Hollywood are eager to see Martha Stewart successfully resurrected. NBC is hoping that the über-homemaker will rejuvenate "The Apprentice," a series that has slipped in the ratings in its third season. The show has already done wonders for Donald Trump's image and has the potential to do the same for Stewart when she takes her spot in the boardroom (or will it be the kitchen?) on the weekly series.
"When you have a problem, whether it's a bankruptcy or a criminal or a civil problem, you pay your price and Americans allow you to move on," says Mark Burnett, producer of "The Apprentice." "You're going to see the real Martha," adds Mr. Burnett, who claims that the public likes her and that her brand name has not been diminished by her stint behind bars.
The "real Martha" may need some work, suggests Ms. Gallagher. Long before Stewart's legal troubles, the self-made billionaire was resented and disliked by nearly as many as those who admired her and bought her products, she says. "Her attitude made many women feel inadequate, never good enough, and we don't like people who make us feel badly about ourselves."
Stewart's decision to lead "The Apprentice" has also rankled a few critics.
"Why are we giving this person a shot at prime-time TV where she ostensibly teaches about business ethics and values?" asks Jim Lichtman, ethics specialist and author of "What Do You Stand For?"
While Mr. Lichtman acknowledges that Stewart has served her time after being convicted of obstructing justice and lying to prosecutors in an investigation of a suspiciously timed sale of ImClone stock, he points out that she hasn't admitted any wrongdoing.
Without a mea culpa, Stewart's post-prison demeanor will be the crucial factor determining whether she is embraced or shunned. Most observers suggest that, given the ambiguity many people feel about whether Stewart actually did commit a crime, she should not revive the debate over her innocence or guilt.
"The only thing that could really hurt her now is if she comes out of prison complaining about the process that put her there in the first place," says Peter Shankman, CEO of The Geek Factory, a PR firm based in New York. "Even if she believes - as many of her supporters have suggested - that she was unfairly targeted because she was a successful woman, she needs to move on - and let the public do the same."
Agreement is widespread that Stewart must proceed with increased self-awareness.
"She needs as a person to come back as the kinder, gentler Martha," says Hayes Roth, vice president of marketing at Landor, an international branding firm that has developed such major names as FedEx and Delta. "This ordeal has humanized her and made everyone see that she's not the perfect icon she once was."
Mr. Roth hopes she has learned a thing or two from living five months with folks who don't have the luxury of worrying about the perfect dust ruffle. The billionairess can make lemonade out of a lemon by displaying a common touch borne out of her prison experience.
"She could even champion prison reform, but whatever it is, she needs to do something beyond her business that signals she's had a cathartic experience and is using it to make positive changes," says Roth.