OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Ho hum. New charges there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Bor-ing. SARS and mad-cow disease still threatening Canada? Big yawn.

So what can't America stop obsessing about? Yes, to paraphrase the chant from the sitcom The Brady Bunch, it's Martha, Martha, Martha.

Months of speculation over the fate of Martha Stewart, who parlayed her talents as a diva of domesticity into stewardship of a merchandising and media empire, ended last week when she was indicted in a stock-trading scandal and relinquished her posts as chairman and CEO of her eponymous company.

The millions who love to hate Stewart for the prim and perky way she guides the anxious middle class toward gracious living are delighted. To save herself from losing $45,000, the nine-count indictment charged, Stewart traded shares on privileged information and then about it, jeopardising her multimillion-dollar realm of home and household products, apparel, magazines, television series, books and myriad bric-a-brac peddled through stores, catalogues and the internet.

This 21st-century version of The Perils of Pauline has fascinated Madison Avenue because Stewart epitomised the increasingly popular trend of person as personal brand. From the talkshow host Oprah Winfrey to the rap artist Sean Combs to the chef Emeril Lagasse, the walking, talking, living brand - Stewart even called her company Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia - has been perceived as a sure-fire strategy to cut through the clutter in competitive categories, especially when consumers consider the offerings to be parity products.

But is the human brand now so 20th century? Consider the difficulties now confronting Omnimedia (not to be confused with Omnicom, though Lord knows they've both been through plenty in the past year). Ad pages in the magazines, which held up most of last year, have begun to crumble.

Ad revenues from TV programming are down, too, primarily because Stewart cancelled some shows at the height of the headline frenzy last fall.

And all that was before her name was in the papers and on TV in the same sentences as words such as "securities fraud", "conspiracy" and "obstruction of justice". "Up until now, it has been a financial page story," Seth Siegel, the co-founder of the Beanstalk Group in New York, a company specialising in licensing names for commercial purposes, said. "An indictment is something that everybody can understand."

So too are the penalties if Stewart is found guilty: up to 30 years in prison and fines of $2 million.

Still, there may be a lining in the clouds for Stewart as silvery as the table settings at one of her staged Thanksgiving dinners. If there ever was a time that notoriety and scandal didn't automatically bring downfall and ruin, she's living through it.

Perhaps Stewart can take heart from sharing the front pages with another polarising woman, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also likes "Living" as a title. In her new book, Living History, she recounts what many thought she'd never discuss, her husband's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The result? The book, with an extraordinary first printing of one million copies, was before publication last week number two on the Amazon.com best-seller list, behind only Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Isn't a phoenix a bird that rises from the ashes? As Stewart would say, symbolism, it's a good thing.