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- American cook, cooking show host, restaurateur, author, actress, and television personality
This week, we watched Roseanne Barr’s big comeback combust after she posted a racist tweet about Obama aide Valerie Jarrett. ABC pulled the plug on the Roseanne reboot, Hulu and Viacom halted rebroadcasts of old episodes of the show, and several of her TV family members publicly bashed her “abhorrent” remark. While Roseanne looks into her legal options over her firing, we can’t help but remember that five years ago Paula Deen got canceled in a similar fashion. Or did she?
On May 17, 2013, Deen, now 71, was deposed during a $1.2 million lawsuit over racial and sexual discrimination in the workplace that was brought by one of her Savannah restaurant managers, Lisa Jackson. The employee claimed that the Food Network chef and her brother, Bubba Hiers, threw the N-word around, told racist jokes, and made black and white employees use separate bathrooms. During questioning, Deen denied the racial jokes, but she admitted to using the N-word.
The questioning, which was videotaped and transcribed, went like this:
Jackson lawyer: “Miss Deen, have you told racial jokes?”
Deen: “No, not racial.”
Jackson lawyer: “Have you ever used the N-word yourself?”
Deen: “Yes, of course.”
Jackson lawyer: “In what context?”
Deen: “Well, it was probably when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head… I didn’t feel real favorable towards him.” (She was referring to being held at gunpoint in the 1980s when she was a bank teller.)
Jackson lawyer: “Have you used it since then?”
Deen: “Things have changed since the ’60s in the South. And my children and my brother object to that word being used in any cruel or mean behavior. As well as I do.”
Deen also admitted to discussing planning a Southern plantation wedding for her brother using just black people as the wait staff. She later admitted during the deposition that based on her description of the event having a pre-Civil War theme with all black waiters, the servers would be playing the role of slaves. Deen said, “Yes, I would say that they were slaves.”
It took a couple weeks, but the folks at the National Enquirer got their hands on the video deposition and published a story about it on June 19. (See: World exclusive cover story: Paula Deen racist confessions). Pretty swiftly, Deen’s fried empire, which pulled in an estimated $17 million in 2012, quickly unraveled.
Deen’s attorney addressed the press that day, saying, “Contrary to media reports, Ms. Deen does not condone or find the use of racial epithets acceptable.” And a spokesperson for her company tried to play damage control by saying the Southern chef was of a different era. “She was born 60 years ago when America’s South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants and Americans rode in different parts of the bus,” said the rep. “This is not today.”
In this case, though, not all press was good press. While the Food Network initially said it would “monitor the situation” and pointed to their antidiscrimination policy, two days later, on June 21, Deen abruptly backed out of a Today show interview and issued two apologies in one hour. In the first, she said she was sorry for “all the mistakes I’ve made.”
The second apology was directed toward Matt Lauer for backing out of the Today show — as well as anyone else offended by her.
The apologies were widely panned on the internet — and apparently they were not good enough for the Food Network. Hours later, it was announced the network, which aired Paula’s Home Cooking, among other Deen programs, would “not renew Paula Deen’s contract when it expires at the end of this month.”
From there it was a domino effect. Deen — already widely criticized for failing to disclose to her audience that she was suffering from Type 2 diabetes, which doctors say is associated with high-calorie diets like her own recipes (a year earlier, in Jan. 2012, she came clean) — was dropped by many sponsors, including Wal-Mart, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, Novo Nordisk, Smithfield Foods, J.C. Penney, Sears, QVC, and Target. It got to the point where outlets were tracking the few companies that didn’t dump her.
The next week, she followed through with that Today show appearance. It’s even more awkward now watching Lauer grill her.
The scandal played out for much of the summer. In July, Dora Charles, a longtime employee of Deen’s, told the New York Times that Deen wanted her to dress in an Aunt Jemima-style outfit and have her ring a bell when food was ready. “I said, ‘I’m not ringing no bell. That’s a symbol to me of what we used to do back in the day,” Charles said. The lawsuit that sparked Deen’s downfall was settled in August — with the racial prejudice claim tossed.
Deen did get support throughout the scandal, though — even presidential support. While Roseanne’s firing led to President Trump speaking out, former President Jimmy Carter went to bat for his fellow Georgian, saying she should be forgiven. “She was maybe excessively honest in saying that she had in the past, 30 years ago, used this terrible word,” Carter told CNN on June 30. “I think she has been punished, perhaps overly severely, for her honesty in admitting it and for the use of the word in the distant past. She’s apologized profusely.” (Deen and Carter remain friends today.)
Americans weren’t done with Deen completely. The week after the scandal, her latest cookbook, Paula Deen’s New Testament, surged to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. And, just months later, a private equity firm invested somewhere between $75 million to $100 million in her media company to help her make a comeback.
Her redemption tour began the next year with a return to the Today show, where she talked about being “disappointed” in herself. The next year, she told People, “God knows I have had tougher moments in the later years of my life. But it’s what builds character. That’s what makes you into the person that you are.” There was another mini-scandal that year when in a photo of Deen and her son Bobby dressed as Lucy and Ricardo, Bobby appeared to have darkened his skin color, leading to accusations of “brownface.” She removed the photo from social media shortly after. It didn’t keep her from participating on Dancing With the Stars in the fall of 2015 — though America didn’t keep her around (not that she seemed to mind). She’s also appeared on Celebrity Family Feud.
Time has helped in Deen’s case. After the Food Network chose not to come calling again, in 2015 she launched her own Roku channel. A year later, she started to appear in Paula Deen’s Sweet Home Savannah, a part cooking, part shopping show on Evine Live. Earlier this year, another show, Positively Paula, billed as a family-friendly cooking show filmed in Paula’s Savannah home, debuted on RFD-TV and is syndicated.
While Uncle Bubba’s restaurant abruptly shuttered in the wake of the scandal, she currently has six restaurants and a seventh in the works. Earlier this month it was announced that a Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen will open in Foley, Ala. She also has an inn on Tybee Island, Ga., complete with a Paula cardboard cutout.
Deen put out another book in September, At the Southern Table with Paula Deen, for which she did a publicity tour, and she has been signing books like crazy, typically at her restaurants. She’s also been promoting the new Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud Show and Adventure, a stage show that will premiere this summer near her Pigeon Forge, Tenn., restaurant. (Don’t ask.)
In September, Deen talked to Build Series NYC about her ever-growing fanbase:
In 2012, Forbes had Deen on its Highest Paid Celebrity Chefs list, saying she earned $17 million that year. And though she’s no longer on that list, she’s not gone completely. In March, the website Career Addict had her among the Top 10 Richest Chefs in the World despite the scandal.
There are obviously differences between Deen and Barr — beyond that we’ve never seen Deen grab her crotch after botching the national anthem. The biggest is that ABC knew what it was getting — false incest claims, posing as Hitler, crotch-grabbing, and all — when Roseanne signed up for the reboot. Plus, she’s a comedian, not a celebrity chef. She’s known for being outrageous. She’s been doing this all along; that’s why we know who she is in the first place. So if Deen was able to crawl out of the hole she landed in, then for better or worse Roseanne will too. And in Roseanne’s case, there’s a chance that this actually helps her brand, which is a sad reflection of where we are in the world today.
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