Just a couple of weeks ago, Paula Deen was one of the Food Network’s biggest stars. Since 2002, her Emmy Award-winning show has extolled the heart attack-inducing joys of deep-fried, butter-soaked Southern comfort food.
Today, however, she is persona non grata, except among her die-hard devotees. The Food Network has canceled her show and Smithfield Foods, which used her as a spokesperson and carries a line of Paula Deen hams, has dropped her like a slippery hot potato.
Such is the power of the ultra-offensive “n-word” to tell the world that, no matter how polished and innocuous the image you project to the public and the media is, deep down you are a racist. CBS reported Monday that both QVC and Kmart, which sell Deen-branded housewares, are reconsidering their partnerships with the celebrity chef.
Now, Caesar’s Entertainment, which runs four Deen-themed restaurants, has announced it, too, is severing ties with her.
And who could blame them? The past couple of weeks have been a media nightmare for the Georgia native, whose PR team have apparently been MIA, because the Deen camp’s response has been slow and inadequate.
The whole brouhaha began after Lisa Jackson, an employee at Deen’s brother’s restaurant, Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, filed suit alleging racial discrimination, sexual harrassment and a hostile environment in Deen’s company. She accused Deen of allowing her brother to repeatedly address a black cook as “my little monkey.”
During a deposition, Deen was asked if she ever used the n-word. “Of course,” she replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. She also admits to making racist and anti-Semitic jokes. She did say she also makes redneck jokes, so I guess she’s an equal-opportunity offender.
In the lawsuit, Jackson also alleges that, while planning her brother Earl’s 2007 wedding, Deen said her dream would be a “true southern plantation-style wedding” with black waiters playing the roles of slaves.
Uproar followed the National Enquirer’s original publication of Deen’s statements. And for a short time all we got from her camp were crickets. A Today Show appearance was derailed when Deen failed to appear for an interview with Matt Lauer. She finally appeared on the show today to discuss the issue – she appeared to be crying, but you’ll notice her eyes and face remained dry.
Do the Deens even have a PR team? Because this was the moment to start addressing the public and apologizing like crazy. By waiting to address the issue, they allowed the controversy to flare out of control – perhaps pushing the Food Network to decide it couldn’t take the heat.
Deen has apologized profusely – if insincerely – in a series of videos, the first of which was widely panned as a non-apology, reminiscent of Lance Armstrong’s non-apology not so long ago.
Beyond the Deens’ PR foul-up, here’s the problem as I see it. Deen is apologizing for using the n-word, then un-apologizing by saying that, because she is old and from the South, it’s OK.
Well, it isn’t. It never was and it never will be.
But this is about much more than just a word. The real issue is the fact that racism and sexism seem to be institutional features of Deen’s food empire. If the allegations in Jackson’s lawsuit are true, Deen’s racism isn’t confined to her own opinion. It influences employment decisions at her companies and affects employees’ lives by creating an environment of racial hostility.
And, unless there’s real change at her companies, no amount of apologizing can fix that. Ever.