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Gary Younge
Urbane, not urban: how wealthy whites do ghetto-fabulous too

Take Martha Stewart and Lil' Kim. Stewart is the domestic diva whose name is her brand and whose brand means all that is blissful, serene and homely - fabulous. Lil' Kim is the hip-hop diva whose outfits left little to the imagination and whose lyrics filled whatever gaps were left - ghetto-fabulous. Stewart will tell you all you want to know about how to use flowers to decorate your table; Kim will show you everything you want to see about how flowers can adorn a naked breast.

But increasingly, while the faces, fashions and forms of the fabulous and the ghetto-fabulous may differ, their functions resemble each other like never before. Rarely has a business culture, which purports to be led by the most upright people with the most proper values, been so full of gangstas and players. Meanwhile, never has a street culture, which stakes its claim on reflecting the aspirations of the poorest, produced so many dandys. Ghetto-fabulous set out to be a parody of the fabulous, but in the end it seems to have just reproduced it: a pale imitation with darker skins.

In the words of Diddy (the artist formerly known as P Diddy before he decided the "P was getting between me and my fans"): "It's all about the Benjamins." Benjamin Franklin's face is on $100 bills; Diddy - who counts Martha Stewart among his role models - means business.

Which brings us back to Stewart and Kim. Their names were never destined to share a sentence. But prison does strange things to people. In March, Stewart was released after spending five months inside for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and lying about a stock sale. Three weeks ago Kim went in for perjury, after a CCTV camera showed her witnessing a shooting she said she knew nothing about.

But even before either one went in, they were well on the way to morphing. Kim, like Martha, went to court carrying a $6,000 Hermes Birkins leather handbag from Paris. Both asked if they could serve time in a far less harsh facility in Danbury, Connecticut, so that they could be close to their ailing mothers. Both were denied.

Indeed, at times they seemed to have undergone a complete role reversal. Stewart (who was known as M Diddy on the inside) was recently seen rapping with the actual Diddy on her show, referring to herself as "Miss Martha". Kim (whose real name is Kimberly Jones) spent her last night of freedom driving around Manhattan in a Bentley coupe, quaffing Cristal from a flute.

These parallels are not just understood. In a world where celebrities are their own brands, they are actively promoted. Three days before Kim went to prison, a young man handing out flyers at Utica station in Brooklyn offered me a "last chance to see Kim before she becomes Martha Stewart".

The crossover seemed complete when Kim told the New York Daily News that she considered Stewart a role model. "Her courage and strength is definitely encouraging," said Kim, adding that Stewart "came out [of jail] looking better than when she went in."

The contradictions look stark, but the sense of kinship is nothing if not consistent. Despite all the profanity and claims to rebelliousness, the bling of gangsta rap is really little more than rapacious free-market capitalism set to beats and rhymes. With huge record companies selling millions of units that promote the acquisition of high-priced material goods as a core human value, its culture is as corporate as an office Christmas party organised by David Brent.

"First the culture came to influence the boardroom and now the boardroom's influencing the culture," says Greg Tate, author and cultural critic of the Village Voice. "There's probably more money at stake in hip-hop now than when the battles were for turf between the different drug gangs. 50 Cent is probably making more money than the whole crack industry on the eastern seaboard."

50 cent, one of the hottest names on the rap scene, sings about shootouts in the Bronx, where he grew up, but now lives in a custom-built mansion in Connecticut. Likewise, despite the facades of both decorum and civility, the white-collar world, which has seen such a huge rise in high-profile crimes in recent years, looks like a bunch of gangstas in suits. Enron and Worldcom are just the two best known examples of the kind of brazen, lawless behaviour that makes Eminem look like a choirboy.

Recently, Dennis Kozlowski, the former chief executive officer of Tyco, was sentenced to up to 25 years in prison for looting the company of $150m. The jury saw a video of a lavish $2m Roman-themed birthday party thrown for his wife, partly charged to the company, complete with scantily clad models and ice statues dispensing drinks that would not have been out of place on MTV. Kozlowski also charged to the company a $6,000 gold-threaded shower curtain and a $2,900 set of coat hangers for his apartment. That is serious bling.

But while the worlds of the fabulous and the ghetto-fabulous are analogous, they are neither identical nor equal. The world of the fabulous, while much respected, is the one that deprives people of their pensions and livelihoods while buying huge political favours and protection through lobbyists. The world of the ghetto-fabulous, while much reviled, makes money for the fabulous by exploiting the culture of deprived people who are marginalised from the political system. The fabulous donate huge sums to political campaigns; the ghetto-fabulous are usually the subject of those campaigns.

For all their similarities, Kim and Stewart remain worlds apart. Kim is a young, black, working-class woman - the kind for whom America's prison-industrial complex was built. Stewart is a white, upper-class woman for whom prison came as a shock. Black women are almost five times as likely as white women to end up in prison. While sentencing Kim, District Judge Gerard Lynch said he had considered the public perception of sending a young black entertainer to prison for a far longer term than Stewart. Stewart was sent to Alderson - nicknamed Camp Cupcake - which has dormitories and scenic grounds. She came out with two new shows and a lot of public sympathy. Kim was sent to a far more miserable facility in inner-city Philadelphia for a year and a day.

"Why are we going to an inner-city federal prison when others like Martha Stewart simply go to camps?" asked Kim's lawyer, Londell McMillan. "Not fair. Not fair." Not fabulous. Just ghetto.

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