What Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman Can Learn From Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart leaves US Federal Courthouse after being convicted on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators. 5 March, 2004. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Martha Stewart feels bad for Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and all the other rich folks potentially facing prison time for trying to buy their kids into prestigious colleges. "I just feel sorry for them," Stewart told ET. "They might have made a bad mistake." It's the second time Stewart has expressed sympathy for the accused, saying previously: "It's just embarrassing for a family to go through what they're going through and horrifying that it even occurred. It's a sad thing."

Stewart knows all the sadness that comes with mistakes wealthy people sometimes make. Fifteen years ago, after a seven-week trial, she was found guilty of multiple charges related to insider trading. She ultimately served five months in a West Virginia Federal Prison Camp and five months under electronic monitoring. (Is being under house arrest even a punishment if you're Martha Stewart?) She was also fined $30,000 and banned from acting as a director, CEO or CFO for five years.

The Dinner Bell restaurant welcomes Martha Stewart to prison in Alderson, West Virginia, October 2004.
The Dinner Bell restaurant welcomes Martha Stewart to prison in Alderson, West Virginia, October 2004. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Ultimately, her selling all of her ImClone shares, after her broker informed her they were about to drop in value, saved her just under $50,000. It was seen by some as an inconsequential drop in a vast sea of Wall Street immorality. (Enron, after all, had only happened three years prior.) The press, however, was having none of it.

At the time, criminal defense lawyer, Scott Turow wrote in the New York Times: "There was some poor schmo (or schmoes) out there who bought her shares. Those buyers, no matter how diligent... could not have known what Martha Stewart did... Martha Stewart ripped her buyers off as certainly as if she'd sold them silk sheets that she knew were actually synthetic."

While views varied about whether Martha Stewart deserved what was coming to her (Rosie O'Donnell referred to the melee as a "bitch hunt," saying: "they are trying to rip down this woman"), opinion was certainly unified when it came to predicting the end of Martha Stewart's once-pristine empire. Everyone agreed that there was no way the career of the most famous homemaker in America could recover from the stain of prison time.

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After Martha's conviction, Keith Naughton wrote in Newsweek: "The question now is, will anyone ever want to talk to, or buy anything from, Martha Stewart again? Her once solid-gold name is now a lead weight, business experts say." The same article quoted Jeff Swystun, a brand consultant saying, "The parent company has got to distance itself from Martha Stewart the person pretty quickly. They've got to drop her name from everything that hits the customer."

Celebrity crisis manager Howard Bragman recently made a similar prediction about Lori Loughlin, whose reputation before her arrest was also rooted in the same squeaky-clean values that had been Martha Stewart's bread and butter. While talking to Inside Edition, Bragman said: "I do think Lori actually has a harder time to recover—she is Aunt Becky, she is all-American, very mainstream."

So was Martha Stewart. But the most remarkable thing she did after serving her time was to flip the narrative—and she did it fast. In the eyes of the public, Martha Stewart went to prison an uptight, prissy, rich, white lady who took advantage of her privilege. But she came out talking openly about her prison nickname ("M. Diddy"), with a newfound sense of humor (which we hadn't much seen from her before) and an ironic sort of street cred that enabled her to join forces with Snoop Dogg and form the world's most unlikely cooking duo.

The flip was so effective—and she has been so good at sticking to the new narrative ("Of course I know how to roll a joint," she told Andy Cohen in 2013)—that everyone has long since forgotten about all that ugly privilege stuff, which is something both Huffman and Loughlin are going to have a tough time shaking off if they can't figure out similar strategies. After all, the shame pile being heaped on them is now so huge, even Kim Kardashian has seized the opportunity to look humble by comparison. "If they couldn’t get into a school," she told Van Jones, about her own children, "I would never want to use privilege to try to force them into a situation that they wouldn’t thrive… I just want my kids to be as grounded as possible."

Felicity Huffman has pleaded guilty, thereby avoiding money laundering charges, but is now facing a four-month prison sentence and a $20,000 fine. Lori Loughlin has opted to decline a plea deal and fight to prove her innocence. Since posting bail, Huffman has taken down her parenting blog, Loughlin has been dropped from her Hallmark and Netflix projects, and both women have scrubbed their social media accounts as they wait for the wave of public derision to pass. They are smart to keep low profiles until their court cases are over, but, if their careers are ever to bounce back, both women must prepare to run towards the controversy, rhetorical guns blazing, the second they are able to. If Martha Stewart can recover by using that exact same strategy, frankly, anybody can.

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