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Jail time -- a bad rep's best friend

June 08, 2007|Charlotte Allen | CHARLOTTE ALLEN is an editor at Beliefnet and the author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus."

PARIS HILTON may end up at home for the next 40 days wearing an electronic ankle bracelet instead of behind bars. Too bad. Jail would have been good for her.

Not the way you think; I'm not vindictive or wishing more ill on a young woman who was reportedly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It's just that in opting for reassignment, Hilton passed up an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of another blond celebrity prisoner with serious reputation issues before she went in: Martha Stewart.

Stewart, 65, and Hilton, 26, would seem to have little in common. Stewart was born to a middle-class family in New Jersey and graduated from Barnard College on a scholarship. Hilton reportedly inherited $50 million from Conrad Hilton's hotel fortune and dropped out of high school.

Still, both women are known for their shrewd business acumen and flair for self-promotion.

Stewart parlayed her natural talent for cooking, decorating and the domestic arts into a publishing, television and licensing empire with $288 million in sales last year.

Hilton's natural talents are striking lascivious poses and clubbing. She has turned both into gold mines. She is said to charge up to $100,000 just to show up for an hour at a nightclub or restaurant. Then there are licensing deals for perfume and handbags, a bestselling book, "Confessions of an Heiress," and her recording career (well, the last was a dud, but who strikes oil on every drill?). Hilton's reality TV show, "The Simple Life," is in its fifth season.

Stewart was found guilty in 2004 of obstructing a federal investigation into insider stock trading. She appealed, but unlike most white-collar offenders, she chose to serve her five-month prison sentence right away rather than wait for the outcome of her appeal. It was a tactically brilliant move: If she won her appeal, she would look like a martyr; if she lost (which she did), she could put her prison time behind her and devote her energy to rehabilitating her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which had been badly wounded by the scandal.

Besides, Stewart seemed to have intuitively figured out something important: If you take your punishment with fortitude and grace, you may not only emerge a better person but be seen as a better person.

At the federal women's prison camp where she was confined, Stewart threw herself into becoming a model prisoner, humbly performing required yard work, giving cooking lessons to other inmates and working hard to shed the unpleasant persona she had acquired as a corporate chief executive: mean Martha, the impossible-to-please boss with a frightening temper.

On her release in March 2005, Stewart performed the ultimate penance. She donned an oversized, gray-and-white poncho knitted for her by a fellow prisoner, a garment so hideous that the faux-broken-English fashion blogger Manolo described it as looking as though "she made this herself out of thread she collected from the prison-issue blankets and the mop heads, using the toothbrush handle that had been laboriously fashioned into the dual-purpose crochet-hook/shiv."

Stewart wore the poncho to her first post-prison corporate meeting, and a roomful of employees broke into applause. Her company's stock shot back up, and Stewart is now something of a folk heroine.

Amazingly, Hilton actually did start down Stewart's path. Just before she checked herself into the women's facility in Lynwood for violating her probation by driving with a revoked license, Hilton told reporters that she had agreed not to do her time in an upscale, "pay-to-stay" jail: "I wanted to go to county, to show that I can do it, and I'm going to be treated like everyone else."

That was the spirit. Too bad psychological problems reportedly interfered, or after only a couple of weeks in the slammer, there might have emerged a new Paris Hilton with a capacity for maturity and self-reflection that would earn our respect.

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