Paula Deen has built an empire on being unapologetic. The world’s most famous Southern chef has spent the last decade or so cooking, eating, and saying what she wants, with little regard for social niceties or waistlines, and being proud of it. If Paula Deen wants a deep-fried cheesecake, or hamburger made of doughnuts for buns, she makes one, and her fans love her for it.
And it’s made her a culinary superstar, one who’s leveraged her celebrity into a lifestyle brand worth millions – complete with three Food Network TV series, restaurants, cookbooks, kitchenware, a successful cooking magazine, and even a new line of flavored butters.
The sense that Ms. Deen is completely genuine, and answers to no one but herself, has been key to her success. But now, it’s threatening to kill her career.
Deen faces a PR nightmare because of a taped court deposition she gave as part of a civil lawsuit filed against her and her brother, Bubba Hiers, by a former manager at their restaurant in Savannah, Ga. In it, when asked whether or not she’s ever used the “N-word," she replies, “Yes, of course,” but adds “It’s been a long time.”
When asked if she viewed jokes that used the “N-word” as “mean,” she replied: "That’s hard. Most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. ... They usually target, though, a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don't know – I can't, myself, determine what offends another person."
The plaintiff, Lisa Jackson, alleged that Deen appointed her to coordinate catering for Mr. Hiers’s wedding in 2007, and told Jackson that she really wanted the wait staff to consist of black men wearing “long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around. Now, that would be a true Southern wedding, wouldn’t it?” Deen allegedly said. “But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.”
The message, to many, was clear: Deen thought racial epithets were fine, and she wanted a cast of black waiters to play slaves at her plantation-style wedding.
The initial public reaction was decidedly jokey: Twitter users commandeered the “#paulasbestdishes” hashtag, tweeting entries like “Klu Klux Klandike Bars” and “Dred Scott Potato Pie."
But the fallout from “being labeled a racist, fairly or unfairly, is serious,” argues Mike Paul, a public relations manager specializing in crisis management based in New York . His past clients include the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, which was dealing with the fallout from a racist tirade delivered by “Seinfeld” actor Michael Richards on its stage in 2006.
He says that public relations flubs involving race are among the most difficult he has to work with, because “that story doesn’t go away overnight. It resonates with people on both sides, wins ratings for the news, and scares the heck out of businesses, business partners, and sponsors. This should be the top issue Paula Deen has in her life right now.”
This isn’t Paula Deen’s first rodeo. Early last year, she announced that she had Type 2 diabetes and had been living with it for three years, while continuing to peddle dishes loaded with sugar and fat (precisely the sort of diet medical experts regard as a chief contributing factor to the disease). News also broke that she was working as a paid spokeswoman for an overseas insulin company, a damaging revelation for a woman whose entire career was indulgent food.
An important figure in helping her weather that media storm (and sidestep an apology) was her son, Bobby Deen. He hosts a show on the Cooking Channel devoted to creating healthier versions of his mother’s dishes, with Paula herself making frequent cameos. This, Mr. Paul points out, allowed her to stick to her butter-laden guns while still appearing to take the health concerns raised by her methods into consideration.
But Paul, the crisis manager, notes that there’s a “huge difference between cooking fatty food with a lot of butter and saying ‘that s who I am’ and the allegations of being a racist. They’re apples and oranges from a crisis perspective.”
He argues that if Deen doesn’t make a visible, concerted effort to change her perceived attitude toward racial issue, the damage could be irreversible. If the story lingers in the news, figures like “Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, or the NAACP could decide they want to get involved.” From there, protesters could decide to boycott the Food Network, and its top brass could decide Deen isn’t worth the trouble of being labeled a racist channel.
In addition to alienating any African American fan base, “the South has a stake in this,” Paul says. With Deen as one of the most famed Southerners in the country, “If you’re from the South you’re thinking, 'Great, Paula Deen just put us back in the racist camp.' ”
The Food Network has already taken steps to distance itself from Deen, issuing this public statement: "Food Network does not tolerate any form of discrimination and is a strong proponent of diversity and inclusion. We will continue to monitor the situation."
Paul recommends a sincere apology, not of the “sorry if I offended anyone” variety, and not through attorneys, as Deen’s best possible move. But Paula Deen doesn’t apologize, and her fame is entirely built on the foundation of “Paula being Paula.”
But if the public decides that “Paula being Paula” is an unrepentant bigot, that foundation could crumble, quickly.
Editor's note: an earlier version of this article misspelled Deen's brother's last name. It is Hiers, not Piers.