Stewart's supporters aren't going anywhere

Scandal hasn't deterred all the fans of queen of everything crafty

July 05, 2002|By Alexa James and Colleen Freyvogel | Alexa James and Colleen Freyvogel,SUN STAFF

"The nice thing about my kind of celebrity is people respond to me as a regular human being. They always come up to me with interesting questions, they call me Martha. People are very nice to me."

- Martha Stewart in 1996, speaking at a Baltimore benefit

That was then. These days, people are calling Martha Stewart many things, many of them not such good things. After news came out that she'd sold nearly 4,000 shares of ImClone Systems Inc. the day before the stock fell like a bad souffle, suspicions of insider trading swirled, and suddenly the major monogram in her life was SEC.

As government investigations continue, critics and comics have been having a field day, whipping up enough Martha fodder to support late shows, editorials and stand-up comedians for months.

But almost unnoticed among the spoofs and speculation, a delegation of Martha Stewart defenders marches on.

On Stewart's official Web site (, Martha's faithful congregation is rallying on discussion boards. In the "comfort foods" section, fans are trying to console Stewart. Along with recipes for gumdrop mountain cake, evaporated milk substitutes and creme fraiche, some panelists are swapping Stewart pep talks.

"You rock, Martha!" said one fan. "Don't let them rent space in your head. Their `jealousy green' shade does not flatter them! You've got so many of us behind you, don't forget that!"

"I support her and will forgive her just like my Maker forgives me," wrote another devotee. "No matter what the outcome."

Others have pledged to continue buying her products, either for the merit of the merchandise itself, or because of the product line's figurehead. "I like her and her stuff!" said an online supporter. "We all have had some questionable things in our lives. Thank God it isn't always spread out in the news! You go Martha!"

Some who know Stewart well are rallying to her side as well. Well-known art dealer Richard Feigen, a friend of Stewart for 15 years, says "she's not going to let this bring her down." Feigen said Stewart has overcome struggles in her life before, and thinks she will get over this bump as well.

In a period where business ethics are headlining stories right and left, Feigen thinks Stewart's problems are making bigger waves because she is a woman.

"If this was a man, I don't think they would be chasing him around the block," he said. "Some men just don't like to see a woman succeed. I feel badly for her having been hammered like this. I will just be there to support her."

Even though his friend's reputation has been unraveling like a snag in a hand-woven cardigan, Feigen says he's confident Stewart's zealous attention to detail will mend her Wall Street woes. "She is a very good administrator," he said.

The Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia empire includes everything from paints that match the pale blue eggs of her chickens to an Emmy Award-winning television show, about four dozen books, a syndicated column and magazine, to a line of home interior products at Kmart.

Stewart also does a regular slot on CBS' Early Show (though Wednesday, after a dust-up with host Jane Clayson while making salad last week, she canceled her appearance.)

For many, Martha Stewart the person and Martha Stewart the lampshade or the bed are one and the same - high-quality merchandise.

Longtime fan Carol Phillips of Kennebunkport, Maine, who started a Stewart fan club called "Beyond Martha" in 1996, says she has "complete trust in Martha Stewart's integrity." Phillips remembers Stewart's husband leaving her while she was on a book tour. Phillips and her husband had split up around the same time, she said, so she felt she could really relate to Stewart's emotions.

In Phillips' club, which lasted four years, 15 to 20 women would gather on the second Saturday each month to watch and discuss Stewart's television show.

"She instills in you to go a little bit beyond. She gave me the ability to expand my ideas more," said Phillips, who likes gardening, cookie decorating and photography.

"She is a great model and teacher," she said, and "fulfills a role" for women of all ages - young women who haven't learned the basics of crafting, and older women who she urges to expand on what they already know.

Not all of Stewart's followers are die-hard fans, but most agree that she has superior taste and excellent ideas.

Susan Elbert, who lives in Edgewater, is a big fan of the Martha Stewart Living show, and thinks her ideas are great. She's tried a few of Stewart's ideas, like covering shoe boxes with fabric and painting her living room with a shade of "Martha Stewart" green. "I'm a very visual person," she says, "and it amazes me that she knows so much."

"Her personal life doesn't alter my opinion one way or another," Elbert said. "I try not to pay any attention to it."

Baltimore businesswoman Monyka Berrocosa-Marbach thinks the hasty denouncement of everything Martha amounts to an unjustified backlash.

"There's this aura of everything she touches turns to gold or perfection," said Berrocosa-Marbach, owner of Grape Ventures LLC, a food- and wine-consulting business. "[That] instantly creates feelings of jealousy or insecurity among people who don't feel like they live up to that image personally.

"People have just been waiting for something to slam her with," she adds. "It's like a witch hunt."

Berrocosa-Marbach does not consider herself a Stewart "groupie." But as the owner of her own business, which she started in 1999, she respects Stewart the businesswoman.

"She has one of the most successful corporations today," she said, citing Stewart the CEO, the columnist, the television and radio personality, and the woman who bought back her magazine from Time Warner.

"It's very easy to point out what she doesn't do," she said. "If wrongdoing has been done, she should be dealt with appropriately, but let's not burn her at the stake."

That, it's certain, would not be a good thing.

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