NEW YORK – While Martha Stewart is as popular as a cheese grater at a Brie tasting in many circles these days, the domestic diva's loyalists are standing by their woman.
"I think the whole ImClone thing is the media and Martha-haters trying to bring her down," said 25-year-old Robyn Hiestand. "They don't like her just because it's fashionable and it's something to not like."
Stewart's once-sterling silver image has become tarnished with questions about whether she dabbled in insider trading with ImClone stock, earning herself more than $40,000 in profit. A House committee has since subpoenaed her stockbroker's cell phone records, and the stock in her publicly traded company has plummeted. There's even talk of the clean queen spending time in the Big House.
The whole mess has become a public-relations disaster that even Stewart can't seem to make tidy, highlighted by her unintentionally comical turn on a CBS morning show where she frantically hacked up vegetables while dodging ImClone questions.
Hiestand, a congressional aide who lives in Washington, D.C., is far from alone in her defense of Stewart, though. All across the country, people whom Martha taught to do everything from accessorize the mud room to properly use a lemon zester are defending her.
"I view Martha Stewart as my generation's Betty Crocker," said 33-year-old Tracee Larson, who became a Stewart fan in 1986 with an "edgy but traditional" entertaining guide. "I loved her ideas. Martha Stewart was for me."
Larson brushed off reports of Stewart's off-camera bad manners and the parodies of her as a perfectionist control freak.
"I don't know any career woman who's not anal," she said. "Not everyone can be warm and fuzzy like Oprah. She's more sensible, more matter-of-fact."
Hiestand said people who scoffed at Stewart as too fussy were missing the point.
"I can imagine she's anal-retentive — she has a whole section on her Web site about sweeping and cleaning," Hiestand said. "But that's part of her appeal. She makes cleaning look fun. Almost."
"She is also a babe," Hiestand added. "I hope I look that good when I'm 60."
Kathy Peterson, an author and columnist who hosts a Stewart-like television show in south Florida, blamed the Martha-bashing fad on simple jealousy.
"A lot of people just resent the fact that she's so popular she's stamped her name on just about everything: television, newspapers, products lines, paint, furniture, even the floor you walk on," she said. "I think men are intimidated by that, and I think some women find her offensive in that she can do everything. She's just so darned talented and powerful."
But others who once admired the 61-year-old said they aren't fooled anymore. Rita Baraban, a court reporter in Bellmore, N.Y., used to applaud Stewart for being a smart businesswoman. No longer, Baraban said.
"This woman to me was very stupid," Baraban, who is also 61, said. "I think she's going to go down."