Jewish World Review March 11, 2005 / 30 Adar I 5765
The comeback trail
Who says there are "no second acts in American lives"? Well OK, F. Scott Fitzgerald did. But he didn't know about so-called reality television shows.
In recent months we have seen has-been pop stars as diverse as Erik Estrada, Flava Flav, Tammy Faye Bakker Messner and Vanilla Ice re-emerge in the unblinking eye of roving mini-cams.
Now watch for Martha Stewart, fresh from her prison release that received more coverage than any since South Africa's Nelson Mandela ended 27 years of political imprisonment in 1989. She's set to star in not one but two television shows.
One is to be a spruced-up revival with studio guests of the daily homemaking show she had before she turned herself in to serve five months behind bars for lying about a stock sale. The other show is a customized version of NBC's "The Apprentice," hosted by Donald Trump, the billionaire developer who has made as lucrative a career out of being "The Donald" as Stewart has made out of being "Martha."
All of which, in the wake of other recent celebrity comebacks-by-media, raises intriguing questions about how smoothly today's spin industry can put a positive twist on criminal convictions and other setbacks that we used to call public disgrace .
For example, Stewart looks as saintly as Joan of Arc in the wake of her fellow blonde ex-jailbird Lizzie Grubman, the New York City public relations world's answer to Paris Hilton.
Dubbed a "Power Girl" on the cover of New York magazine, Grubman is best known for throwing what the entertainment press calls "fabulous parties" for celebrity clients such as Britney Spears, Gloria Estefan, Quincy Jones and new-school rappers with such colorful names as Jay-Z, Ja Rule and Wu-Tang Clan.
Grubman seemed to have thrown it all away in the summer of 2001 when she backed her Mercedes sport-utility vehicle into a crowd outside a Southampton nightclub during an ugly hissy fit that injured 16 bystanders. She eventually served slightly more than half of a 60-day jail sentence before returning to freedom, beaming with contrition.
Now her reality show, "PoweR Girls," debuts Thursday on MTV. It follows Grubman and four female protégés through the day-to-day chores of making famous people more famous. Hey, if anyone is a walking billboard for such skills, it is Grubman.
In a world that seems to turn fame into its own reward, regardless of how one became famous, no bad deed, once punished, need go unrewarded.
In fact, one wonders, should Michael Jackson stop defending himself and look to a future of, say, playing himself on a cable TV network? Could an O.J. Simpson Show have potential?
OK, maybe that's too far over the top. Maybe I've been living too long in Washington, a place where felony convictions linked to political scandals only enhanced the abilities of Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy (later released from prison by a merciful President Jimmy Carter) and Iran-Contra conspirator Ollie North (his conviction was later overturned on a technicality) to become national stars of conservative talk-radio shows.
So I was not surprised with Armstrong Williams' new gig. Remember how the well-connected public relations entrepreneur and conservative commentator lost his syndicated newspaper column (through Tribune Media Services) and national talk-show outlets after USA Today revealed his $240,000 contract with the Department of Education to help promote the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind school-reform program? Well, don't cry for my old friend and colleague, America. He has landed a contract to co-host a daily talk show beginning this month on WWRL-AM in New York.
WWRL spokesmen told reporters that Williams was hired to help increase ratings. Of course he was. In the business of marketing chatter, famous names are what counts. It matters much less how the names became famous.
No wonder Martha Stewart decided to serve her prison sentence even while continuing her appeal of her conviction. In this case, her humility was more than a legal or moral choice. It was a smart business decision.
After overdosing on exotic excuses by celebrity wrongdoers, it was downright refreshing for many of us to see Stewart check into the slammer despite having enough wealth to keep up a big fight. Wall Street rewarded her decision by pushing her company's stock price to three times the level it was when she was convicted last March, even though experts say its fiscal outlook remains uncertain.
Americans believe in second chances for those who deserve to have one. Now Martha Stewart has hers. In Martha's trademark phrase, that's a good thing.
As for her how good her new TV shows will be, the jury is still out.
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