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Celebrities starstruck by Net opportunities

Business-savvy celebrities--including Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, and Cindy Crawford--are staking cash and their precious public images on the Net.

What do home and garden guru Martha Stewart, talk show giant Oprah Winfrey, and supermodel Cindy Crawford have in common?

All three are selling the cache of their precious public images on the Internet.

A famous face can attract people to a site, the thinking goes, and at a time when seizing market share is vital, Internet executives are willing to dangle lucrative stock packages or an influential seat on their board of directors to sign them.

For the first time, the celebrities are saying yes. On Monday, eStyle.com trumpeted news that Crawford had joined the company as spokeswoman and strategic adviser for its baby e-commerce and content site, Babystyle. In return, eStyle made the supermodel a board member and equity partner, and will compensate her in stock, according to eStyle representatives.

A bevy of ads for Internet start-ups also have cropped up recently, featuring the likes of actresses Geena Davis and Anna Nicole Smith and tennis star Anna Kournikova.

"Celebrities are like anyone else--they like making a buck," said Lisa Allen, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "It's not surprising they're migrating to the Internet."

E Online columnist Ted Casablanca said owning a Web company could become fashionable and turn into a Hollywood status symbol like an Armani suit or a Rolls Royce.

"The rush to the Internet could happen fast in Hollywood depending on how successful the first group of trailblazers is," Casablanca said. "I could easily see a lot of them playing follow-the-leader."

But Crawford, who recently gave birth to her first child, plans to make a commitment to the Internet.

"I'm going to be investing a great deal of my time and energy developing eStyle with [founder] Laurie [McCartney] over the next few years," Crawford said in a statement. "I believed in what Babystyle.com was trying to accomplish and thought that I could make a positive contribution to the team."

Asked if she would expand her presence online, Crawford said: "One step at a time."

Celebrity start-ups
While some celebrities are simply representing online firms, Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey are crossing over to the Web as Internet entrepreneurs. Both run burgeoning media companies that include sizable online retail sites.

Stewart, who redefined the term "housekeeping," runs Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which she is currently steering through a public offering. Her Web site, MarthaStewart.com, has not fared well compared with her Martha Stewart Living newspaper, magazine, and television offerings. The site, which sells home furnishings, brought in $14.7 million in revenues last year, only 8.1 percent of the company's $180 million total revenues.

To help boost interest, Stewart has partnered with Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, a venture capital company with a track record for backing Internet winners. Citing federal securities laws, Stewart declined to be interviewed.

Winfrey, the reigning queen of talk shows, is a partner in Oxygen Media, a cable television station and network of Web sites targeting female viewers.

Amazon.com chief Jeff Bezos and Yahoo's Jerry Yang tutored Winfrey on the inner workings of the Web at Herb Allen's annual gathering of media magnets. There is speculation that Winfrey, who Forbes magazine estimates is worth $725 million, will venture further onto the Net to duplicate the success of her book clubs.

In February, Winfrey will appear on a TV show broadcast on Oxygen called "Oprah Online."

Standing out in the crowd
Web executives are welcoming the celebrities--as long as they bring their fans.

"The dot coms are all trying to shout above each other," Forrester analyst Allen said. "Anything that helps them cut through the clutter. A snazzy ad campaign or sidling up to a super-popular celebrity is very attractive to them."

To a start-up company, it's almost irresistible. McCartney, the 32-year-old founder of eStyle, said Crawford's reputation as a fashion diva made the company's investment in her worthwhile.

"We were looking for someone who would resonate with customers," McCartney said. "Cindy's popular, attractive, very articulate, and at the time we approached her, pregnant. It was a perfect fit."

Still, stars face risk just like anybody else speculating on the Web. And in some instances, the famous are more vulnerable. When an average investor and entrepreneur fails, it generally doesn't make headlines.

"The celebrity is putting his or her reputation on the line," Allen said. "The stars have to figure out first whether to cozy up to a dot com and then to which level of involvement."

But a pioneer spirit can produce wildly successful results, Allen said. Comedian Bob Hope and singer Gene Autry invested in television almost from its conception. Besides using television to showcase their talents, the medium helped them amass huge fortunes.

"Imagine the stars who refused to get involved with television in the 1950s because they didn't think it would lead to anything. Well, you can't imagine because we don't remember them. They missed out," Allen said.