Can Martha Cook Up a Zinger?

For her version of The Apprentice, the domestic diva has to have a line that's snappy but won't hurt her already tarnished image

By Stacy Perman

If you're Martha Stewart, paragon of domestic perfection and convicted felon, nothing says post-prison rehabilitation like your own reality series. Since being released in March from Alderson Federal Prison Camp (aka Camp Cupcake) in Alderson, W. Va., Stewart has been working on raising her profile as high as a perfectly baked soufflé.

Central to reclaiming her pre-prison prominence in the celebrity-mogul stratosphere is her reemergence on TV. After all, Martha's former show was canceled during the height of her legal troubles. Little surprise that the overachieving domestic diva is preparing not one but two new programs: A daily talk show as well as The Apprentice: Martha Stewart, which will premiere in September on NBC.


  Stewart's reality show is being produced by Mark Burnett, the creative force behind The Apprentice, which catapulted Donald Trump into a new level of celebrity and helped launch such famous-for-15-minutes folks as the villainous Omarosa and the tough-talking Heidi. Following much the same model as Trump's star vehicle, each week contestants on Stewart's show will perform such Martha-esque tasks as home renovation, baking, organizing, and entertaining, in the hopes of snagging a job with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO ) -- and a cash prize of $250,000.

While Stewart has proven adept at everything from glue-gunning to coordinating her security anklet with her wardrobe, coming up with a catchphrase, à la the The Donald's "you're fired" (now tired), appears to have stumped the goddess of gracious living. Yes, it appears that the woman who embodied confidence and competence -- whether cooking up gourmet meals or lucrative business deals -- has found something that challenges her.

Stewart told TV execs last week that in her quest for a catchphrase, she solicited suggestions from her employees. Not surprisingly, "you're not a good thing," and "you're a bad thing," came across the company intranet. Stewart also said the signature line will remain a mystery until the show debuts this fall. Burnett could not be reached for comment, and a spokesperson for him declined to comment.


  The search for the right words is about more than providing a good sound bite. It will go a long way to redefining Stewart in the public's eye. Trump became so closely identified with "you're fired" that he even sought to prevent others from using it. If Stewart uses a phrase that makes her seem harsh or unsympathetic, it will hurt her image. And indeed, much is at stake for the tarnished icon, who ruled over a billion-dollar empire before resigning as CEO of her namesake company. Little wonder that she's spending a good deal of her court-approved, 48 weekly work hours allotted during house arrest to work on the show.

True, things are going well for her on many fronts. MSLO's stock has rebounded in the last year -- it closed at $29.46 on June 24, after being as low as $8.01 just about a year ago. In May, her now-defunct eponymous TV show picked up a Daytime Emmy Award, and in April, Martha Stewart Weddings won a National Magazine Award for general excellence.

But Stewart herself still has some PR problems. Instead of staying discreet while serving the remainder of her sentence at her Bedford (N.Y.) farmhouse, Stewart has been seen all over Manhattan at a number of glittering high-profile affairs and events, raising eyebrows. Federal probation officials confirmed that Stewart was under investigation for possible violations of her house arrest when she attended a Time magazine gala for its "100 Most Influential People" issue in May.

So, what's going to be a good thing in Stewart's gambit for even more fame and glory? Martha may have settled on a line, but BusinessWeek Online has a few suggestions:

• "I'm Martha Stewart, and you're not."

• "Because I decide."

• "You're under house arrest."

• "Get out."

• "I said so."

• "Your goose is cooked."

• "You're fried."

Maybe Stewart will just point a finger at the unlucky loser each week. But whatever she says -- or doesn't say -- will end up saying volumes about her.

Perman is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.