Crime doesn't pay, it is often said. But a short spell in jail certainly does not appear to have done Martha Stewart much harm. Indeed, it might just have saved her career. The 'domestic diva', who built a huge business empire on the back of her trend-setting lifestyle tips, has just been released from a five-month prison term in the United States. Jailed for lying to investigators about a suspicious stock- market deal, she was one of the most prominent figures arrested during a crackdown on corporate crime. But Stewart, who had seen her popularity plunge, appears to have triumphed over adversity. She has turned the criminal conviction to her advantage - and used it as a basis for transforming her battered image. The homemaker queen chose to go to prison. She could have remained free until her appeal was heard - a hearing is due later this month. Instead, she opted to swap her luxury lifestyle, complete with a collection of horse-drawn carriages, for the rather less comfortable accommodation on offer at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp. She said she wanted to get the ordeal over and done with quickly so she could get back to work. But the decision to go straight to jail is now being seen as a public relations coup. It has enabled Stewart, whose perfectionism had become irritating - even annoying - to present a softer, more human, side of her character that had not previously been apparent. During her time behind bars, she scavenged for dandelions with which to liven up prison food, acted as an agony aunt for fellow inmates, and even ran a yoga class. This down-to-earth, sympathetic image appears to have proved popular with the public. Stewart is, it seems, prepared not to take herself so seriously. Now, as she adjusts to relative freedom - she will be under house arrest for another five months - Stewart faces the challenge of building on that success. Shares in her business empire have quadrupled during the time she spent in prison. Ironically, they fell by more than 9 per cent on the day she was released. Her biggest concern, though, will be the losses her company made during her absence. She will pick up a US$900,000-a-year salary - plus bonuses - and has lined up two high-profile television shows. The big question is whether Stewart can maintain her popularity now she is no longer suffering the hardship of life behind bars. Stewart has paid her debt to society and, like any other released prisoner, deserves a chance to rebuild her life. But success may well depend on whether, as she claims, prison is a life-altering experience. If the change it has brought about in her extends beyond a carefully crafted public image, her iconic status could be strengthened. The crime didn't pay - but the prison sentence might.