U.S. News

06.21.13

Paula Deen, Teflon Chef

Her restaurants are still packed. The locals are whatever. Paula Deen might be a racist and a bully, but she’s really sorry—and her brand could come out unscathed.

Right about now, Paula Deen may be feeling like she got smacked in the face with a full-size ham.

That actually happened to the celebrity chef once, at a charity event in Atlanta in 2009. She was unloading a truckload of hams, tossing them back and forth, when someone threw one to her (at her?) just as she looked away. The ham clocked her right in the nose.

“I just got hit with a hog, so what can I expect?” she snorted later. “Ran head on into a hog.”

Asked a reporter: “You’re one of those people who can laugh about anything, aren’t you?” A smiling Deen replied, “You have to. You have to be able to laugh.”

As Deen prepared to release a video statement Friday in a highly anticipated response to recent revelations that she used the N word and dreamed of a “plantation style” wedding, she was apparently doing anything but laughing. Southern or not, born before the civil-rights movement or not, the butter-loving diabetic has been hammered this week by criticism of her unapologetic deposition in a harassment lawsuit filed last year by a former manager of one of Deen’s restaurants in Savannah, Georgia.

The thing about Paula Deen, though, is she’s been through worse—worse than getting smacked in the face with a hog.

Almost immediately after Deen tweeted that she’d be releasing a statement, the hashtag “PaulaDeenApologyBingo” was trending on Twitter, with some hilarious predictions about what Deen might say to dig herself out of this hole:

“I don’t see race, only butter,” wrote @lfresh.

“My black friend told me I could say the N-word,” added @hjaybee.

“I’m not racist. Racism is a crime and crime is for blacks,” said @chiaroscuro___.

And, “I made a mistake. I fried some chicken to apologize, take as much as you want,” from @tanyasinwi.

Deen already had apologized—sort of. But the snarky tweets, blog posts, and opinion columns have clogged the Internet’s arteries like too many helpings of Deen’s gooey butter cake.

That might be why the video she released Friday was so not nuanced. “I wanna apologize to everybody, for the wrong that I’ve done,” it begins. “I want to learn and grow from this. Inappropriate hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. But I beg you, my children, my team, my fans, my partners, I beg for your forgiveness. Please forgive me for the mistakes that I’ve made.”

Video screenshot

Boom. Little room for interpretation there (though already the Twittersphere is doing its darndest, like this from @LOLGOP: “PAULA DEEN JUST WANTS TO GET BACK TO HELPING YOU GET AND THEN TREAT YOUR DIABETES.”)

The thing about Deen, though, is she’s been through worse—worse than getting smacked in the face with a hog, even—and she is such a larger-than-life fixture in Savannah and on the national stage that it’s hard to imagine this public-relations nightmare dethroning America’s queen of comfort food. Even if she does have a foul mouth, and even if she does occasionally fellate éclairs.

Born in the small town of Albany, Georgia, Deen married at 18, got pregnant at 19, and lost both of her parents by age 23. Those tragedies and being robbed at gunpoint while working as a bank teller left her agoraphobic—basically afraid to go outside—for much of the next two decades, she has said publicly several times. When she divorced after a 27-year marriage, she had two teenage sons to raise and no job. Nonetheless, she started a tiny catering company at age 42 with $200. It was called the Bag Lady; she made sandwiches in bag lunches and had her sons deliver them, so she could avoid leaving the house.

Deen worked through her fears and landed a job as a cook at a Best Western hotel in Savannah before she opened a smaller version of the now gargantuan the Lady and Sons restaurant. She published a cookbook that became a bestseller, landed a spot on QVC, and did several guest appearances on the Food Network before she got her own pilot in 2002, Paula’s Home Cooking.

She has written written 22 books all told, including an autobiography, It Ain’t All About the Cookin’. Her latest show was awarded a Daytime Emmy Award for outstanding lifestyle host in 2007. She was the grand marshal in the 2010 Tournament of Roses parade.

As an American obesity epidemic worsened, though, Deen found herself the focus of a growing chorus of haters who accused her of recklessly promoting unhealthy food, including to children. The controversy reached a fever pitch last year when Deen revealed her diabetes diagnosis, admitting she had kept it a secret for years. Her critics were enraged at the timing of this announcement, because it was paired with the news that she landed an endorsement deal with diabetes-drug manufacturer Novo Nordisk.

None of it has slowed Deen down, though. Savannah Alderman John Hall, who is African-American, told The Daily Beast that he drove by Deen’s signature downtown restaurant, the Lady and Sons, on Thursday, on his way from City Hall.

“I swear the line still wrapped around the building,” he said. “They’re going to be fine. We are a forgiving people.”

If and when Deen is forgiven, she can thank not just forgiving fans, but the empire she has built in Georgia and the tourism revenue she has undeniably bolstered here. The Lady and Sons is a three-story restaurant in the heart of downtown Savannah that tends to be packed from the moment it opens to the moment it closes, a former waitress there tells The Daily Beast. It can feed 1,800 people in a day.

“They could make the entire block a Paula Deen restaurant,” says the former server, who asked that her name not be used. “There are lines around the building for people trying to get in to eat there.”

Another former Lady and Sons employee says his experience there was nothing but positive, and if Deen and her brother are racists, they sure didn’t let it stop them from promoting a Filipino who started out busing tables in 1995 to managing the restaurant at night.

“They treated me very well over there,” Erick Pineda tells The Daily Beast. “The woman I know, the family I know, she would never speak that way [with racist epithets]. I’m an Asian guy working in a Southern restaurant. Even in a joke it was never brought up. I know what racism feels like. I never experienced that at her restaurant.”

Contrary to the claims made in Jackson’s lawsuit, both former employees we interviewed say they never saw blacks treated differently from whites or forced to use different bathrooms or entrances. “We all used the same door. We all came in the same way. We all used the same bathroom,” Pineda says.

The server said the kitchen staff was exclusively black, but that the “front of house” staff was about half black, half white. Jobs in the kitchen never stayed open for long and never needed to be advertised, she says. People did get fired for “the littlest things,” and Deen’s sons were known to ask some of the female servers on dates back when they were single, but nobody thought much of it, she says. As for racism, she didn’t hear it at the Lady and Sons.

“When you’re in Georgia, there are some things you don’t do and say, and not just for political correctness,” she says. “Say the wrong thing and someone will probably turn around and kick your ass.”

There are certainly some locals who bristle at the mention of Deen’s name, especially in the comments section of the Savannah Morning News. Anonymous trolls have derided her southern accent as “fake,” her food “average” and overpriced, and the tourists she draws “the dumbest variety Savannah has ever seen.” Some even go so far as to suggest Deen is bad for Savannah and the South, because she makes people there seem like fried-food-hungry gluttons.

“Have you ever read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? Lousy movie, but a good book,” Savannah alderman Tom Bordeaux tells The Daily Beast. “That’s more reflective of Savannah than Paula Deen is.”

Not that Bordeaux is one of the chef’s critics, though. He says she’s done nothing short of accomplish “the American Dream” and agrees that her national profile and restaurants boost tourism in town. “It’s kind of kitschy, I guess,” Bordeaux says. “We enjoy entertaining the Yankees.”

As for this latest controversy, though, Bordeaux, who is white, is scratching his head. “I’m sort of puzzled by it,” he says. “I suspect there are lots of folks down here who use foolish language. I don’t think we’re all that shocked that someone might use a racial epithet.”

Nor is Smith, who called Deen “a Goodwill Ambassador for Savannah.” Even before the chef apologized, Smith was ready to forgive her.

“Sometimes people say things in jest. Sometimes people say things in their other lives. Before they changed,” he says. “I’m far more interested in how we act as a people, how we get along, how we strive as American citizens and as African-Americans, than I am concerned about what we are called.”

As far as that word Deen used is concerned, Smith adds, “We get real bent out of shape because of derogatory terms. But if we as African-Americans can stop using the N word, then we would expect other folks to stop. But if we continue our dialogue with each other, and every other word is the N word, what the hell are we doing? We’re being hypocrites. The people who are going to stew over this are the low-hanging fruit.”