The Paula Deen saga is just beginning, with sponsors and fans choosing sides in the debate surrounding the embattled former Food Network star.
To recap: The Food Network canceled Ms. Deen’s shows and said it wouldn’t be renewing her contract with the channel after she admitted to using the “N-word” during a sworn court deposition. The firing was the culmination of a flurry of damaging revelations about the chef, restauranteur, and wildly popular TV personality . The “N-word” fiasco was a small part of a civil lawsuit alleging a wide array of racist behavior and speech by Deen and her brother, Bubba Piers, by a former employee at the family’s restaurants.
The Food Network firing, announced Friday afternoon just hours after Deen released two brief, videotaped apologies, was just the beginning. In its wake, several questions about Deen, her fans, and her business interests remain.
Deen’s camp is still in damage control mode, in all likelihood trying to salvage what’s left of her once formidable brand. She’s issued three separate apologies at last count, and she’s scheduled to appear on the “Today" show Wednesday after cancelling on the broadcast last week.
Leading up to that appearance, Deen’s remaining sponsors and business partners are weighing what to do with her. One sponsor, Smithfield Foods, announced Monday that it was cutting ties. Shopping network QVC, which sells a line of Paula Deen cookware, issued a statement saying it “shares the concerns being raised around the unfortunate Paula Deen situation," and added, "QVC does not tolerate discriminatory behavior. We are closely monitoring these events and the ongoing litigation. We are reviewing our business relationship with Ms. Deen, and in the meantime, we have no immediate plans to have her appear on QVC.”
Deen’s cookware may also be in danger from being pulled from several retailers’ shelves, including Target, Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, Kmart, and Sears. Sears issued a statement to People magazine Sunday, saying that the retailer was “currently exploring the next steps as they pertain to Ms. Deen’s products.”
Random House, set to publish a new cookbook of Deen’s recipes in October, hasn’t canceled the release, but a spokesman told People the publishing house was “monitoring the situation closely.“
Only Novo Nordisk, the insulin maker Deen began endorsing in 2012 amid revelations that she was living with Type 2 diabetes, is standing by her. "Paula Deen's still a product spokesperson for the Victoza brand. We recognize the seriousness of these allegations and will follow the legal proceedings closely, staying in contact with her," a company statement read.
“By Friday several more sponsors will have dropped her,” predicts Mike Paul, a New York-based public relations consultant specializing in crisis management. He doesn’t foresee the “Today" show appearance helping matters, because viewers won’t buy the fact that she underwent a genuine change of heart from what’s alleged in the lawsuit in a mere matter of days.
“I don’t see authenticity in it,” he says. “It looks like she wants it to go away because she got caught. If she goes on the 'Today' show and it seems insincere, she’s throwing gasoline on the fire.”
Meanwhile, Deen’s fans have rallied around her in support, lining up to dine at her restaurant in Savannah, Ga., threatening to boycott the Food Network and posting messages of solidarity on Twitter using the hashtag “#teampaula.”
“I get it, believe me,” Nicole Green, an African-American customer at Deen’s “The Lady and Sons” restaurant, told The New York Times. “But what’s hard for people to understand is that she didn’t mean it as racist. It sounds bad, but that’s not what’s in her heart. She’s just from another time.”
Deen’s background and upbringing have been the flash point issue in the scandal – her detractors see it as a flimsy excuse, and further evidence that she deserves the backlash she’s getting. But her supporters argue that such language was – and is – common among Southern people of a certain age, and that outright dismissal of that reality (by outsiders) belies a lack of understanding of the racial tensions and dynamics that are a fact of Southern life.
"People of Deen's generation can neither change the past nor completely escape their roots in it, anymore than the rest of us,” John McWhorter wrote in a Time editorial. They can apologize and mean it, as Deen seems to…. She should get her job back.”
“What I was most dismayed about this week were the provocations by a number of outspoken people who over-simplified this vast swath of symbolic land called 'The South,” Edward Lee, a chef and former contestant on the reality show “Top Chef,” wrote on his Facebook page.
The groundswell is growing; the “We Support Paula Deen” Facebook page had over 300,000 “likes” by Monday afternoon. But Mr. Paul argues that Deen and company should be wary of endorsing her chorus of defenders, because while most of the support comes from a genuine place, not all of them may be there for purely “Paula” reasons: “There were many ‘fans’ not following Paula until this came up, he says. “They are racists, and you have to be very careful by aligning yourself with them. We still have racism in this country, unfortunately.”