Martha looks for an ''Apprentice'' in Fall '05. The do-it-yourself diva begins the prime-time search for a prizewinning protege

By Jessica Shaw
Updated September 02, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

There is no non-awkward way to ogle a felon’s ankle bracelet. Especially when said felon is Martha Stewart, billionaire entrepreneur-turned-jailbird, sitting at the head of a conference table in one of her three offices in New York City, firing back answers about The Apprentice: Martha Stewart and her syndicated crafts ‘n’ cooking talk show, Martha. Then suddenly it appears in all of its federal black plastic glory (the result of being sentenced to five-plus months of home confinement for conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and making false statements), peeking out from the mocha brown leg of a fabulous pantsuit.

If Stewart notices her interviewer’s stare, she doesn’t let on. The homemaking empress is hoping plenty of curious eyes will be on her when The Apprentice lets viewers into the inner workings of her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (chairman Charles Koppelman is her George), and her family (daughter Alexis Stewart plays the Carolyn role). ”America loves a comeback story,” says Mark Burnett, who will produce both The Apprentice and Martha. ”All Martha needed to do was go to jail and be a grown-up, and audiences would follow her.” On this August afternoon, the day before her 64th birthday (”We’re having my favorite paella!”), Stewart talks politely about all things Martha, including where she’ll put that anklet once it finally comes off.

Burnett called you in the middle of your trial to propose doing a reality show with him. Did you want to tell him to buzz off until everything was settled?
No, it was much more interesting than what I was going through…. I’ve never done anything like this, though I felt like my [original] show was a reality show without all the chaos. I liked the opportunity to show the business side of Martha Stewart.

So he didn’t have to persuade you?
He did a hard sell, but his enthusiasm interested me. I took him up to Maine for the weekend to see how we got along. That clinched the deal.

Is it true you went to Alderson Federal Prison Camp early so you would be out in time to tape your shows?
Oh, yeah. I’m on appeal now. I could still be home working, but it wouldn’t have accomplished anything. And now, this way, it’s almost over.

While you were at Alderson, could you plan for either show?
I couldn’t be involved at all. And I wasn’t. Mark came down to visit me a couple of times just to hold my hand and see if I was okay.

Did you think about ideas for the shows while you were incarcerated?
Oh, yeah. They can’t stop you from thinking. I was thinking all the time. I had to go home to act on everything. I also planned my garden that way. I got all these catalogs and ordered all my seeds.

What challenges were there taping The Apprentice while under house arrest?
It was hideously challenging. I had to spend a tremendous amount of time on The Apprentice and I had 48 hours a week to do it, including travel time. I could have all the meetings I wanted at my house. But I couldn’t go to the wrap party.