Martha Stewart

"I do what I please, and I do it with ease," was Martha Stewart's declaration in her high school yearbook. And she's still living out that maxim, having come a long way since those days. The sexagenarian lifestyle empress could be considered the American Dream personified, journeying from modest beginnings in New Jersey to her current fortune of $650 million, and position of 381 on the US rich list according to business publication Forbes.

Born on August 3, 1941, in the working-class neighbourhood of Nutley, New Jersey, Martha Kostyra was the second of six children born to Polish-Catholic immigrants. Her parents instilled a strong sense of discipline in her from an early age and taught her the skills of gardening, sewing, decorating and cooking something she still refers to these days. "Parents are cheating their kids by not teaching them this stuff," she said in a 1991 interview. "It's so important."

Her superhuman work ethic was evident from an early age. At ten she was organising children's parties among her friends, and three years later she started to model which continued well into her early twenties and through her years at Barnard College in NYC. It was there that she bagged her husband, Yale law student Andy Stewart.

The two married in 1961 and had a daughter, Alexis, or Lexi, a few years later. Once Lexi started school, Martha embarked on yet another career, in stockbroking. She worked for a Wall Street firm until 1973, before changing direction once more and branching out into catering. She was to find that her eight years in the financial sector had given her the serious business savvy which would help her when it came to building her empire, Martha Stewart Omnimedia.

While she was cooking up a storm for other people, Martha began to diversify yet again. She became an occasional contributor to the New York Times, a columnist for a lifestyle magazine while also styling food features and of course, embarking on her prolific career as an author. It was small wonder, then, that the K-Mart chain snapped her up as their TV spokeswoman. With her easy demeanour and glowing all-American looks, the TV camera took to her immediately.

Understandably, Martha started to want her own slice of the pie, and in 1990, she launched the first of what would become a whole set of lifestyle products bearing her name. Her magazine Martha Stewart Living has now achieved a circulation of 1.3 million and it's syndicated TV spin-off attracts five million viewers every week. She still has a newspaper column and manages projects ranging from lifestyle videos to a range of paint colours and houseware, all of which are sold through her catalogue, Martha By Mail.

But while her brand was becoming a fast mover, its success was telling on Martha's private life. In 1987, husband Andy moved out of the house they shared in Westport, Connecticut. They divorced three years later, and he no longer has contact with Lexi. "The life that I had is over. And what has taken its place is better," was all she would say on the matter.

In 1999, Martha Stewart Omnimedia was floated on the stock exchange, making her wealth, on paper, estimated at a billion dollars. However, four years later, a federal investigation into Martha's alleged use of an illegal stock tip for personal gain was launched, and her legal problems took their toll on her company, with the firm posting their first-ever annual loss.

The accusations led to a high-profile court trial, and, though the most serious charge of securities fraud was dropped, Martha was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements to federal investigators.

"I will appeal the verdict and continue to fight to clear my name," said Martha when the conviction was announced. "I believe in the fairness of the judicial system and remain confident that I will ultimately prevail." In July 2004 she was sentenced to five months in jail over charges of conspiracy and fined $30,000.
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