Saving the Many Faces of Paula Deen

As David Letterman might be inclined to remark, pun perhaps intended, “Boy, are Paula Deen’s fans steamed.”

Judging by the early reaction of Deen aficionados — many of whom have expressed outrage that the Food Network and QVC channels gave their cooking-show star das boot, due to racist remarks the Southern-bred Deen admitted to making long ago, though she swears not recently — Letterman wouldn’t just be whistling Dixie.

Having already made a few flailing attempts at damage control, Deen faces a difficult road back to public respectability — if, indeed, that ever comes. Public broadcastability is likely her only real goal, other than financial viability. Both hinge on how the American public ends up judging her character. A process that, in turn, depends on how much Deen has actually revealed thus far and whether any unsavory surprises remain.

Take foot, insert in mouth, season to taste, repeat

For anyone who might have missed it, or needs a refresher, here’s how Paula’s tumble from grace turned her into Humpty Dumpty soufflé:

  • While giving a deposition in May 2013 as part of a suit filed against her and her empire, Deen, 66, admitted in response to a question that she had used the N-word in the past, as well as other racial slurs.
  • Once that news hit the fan a month or so later, Deen scheduled an appearance on the ‘Today’ show to talk over the matter with host Matt Lauer. On the day of the interview, she cancelled the spot, claiming to be exhausted.
  • That same day, Deen posted three short homemade videos on YouTube, apologizing for her remarks as well as for stiffing Lauer.
  • After the videos hit the Web, the Food Network announced that it was ending its 11-year relationship with Deen.
  • Fans subsequently protested, some claiming that Deen had essentially been railroaded for saying what any other American has at one time or another uttered. Some also suggested she should get a pass on her remarks because she was reared in the South at a time when thangs wuz diffrunt.
  • A couple days later, Deen lost her endorsement arrangement with Smithfield Foods, just around the time that QVC, in a statement, said it was monitoring the situation: “We are reviewing our business relationship with Ms. Deen, and in the meantime, we have no immediate plans to have her appear on QVC.”

Paula’s particular plight

With so many public figures saying and doing things that wind up costing them their celebrity status, what makes the Paula Deen mess any different?

Some observations:

  1. Prior to the controversy, Deen was apparently viewed as a harmless TV personality whose only offenses were cheesy food recipes and even cheesier makeup and hair choices. She might have come off as an upper-white-trash snob to some, but she was evidently considered to be fairly harmless. Stars who seem harmless gain disproportionately more attention for their antics than those who exude troublesome streaks. People expect a Leona Helmsley to come out with a scandalous comment, and often roll their eyes and move on from it. Not so with the Paula Deens of the world.
  2. That said, Deen comes off in the YouTube apologies as a caricature of herself, at best. People who weren’t paying her much mind might understandably wonder just what this cartoon of a woman was doing on television in the first place. Which might account for why some people are pretty quick to hang her for her admission of guilt. It’s almost like discovering that the frumpy barmaid at the exclusive private party is actually an invited guest…causing the other guests to wonder why they agreed to be seen in such a crowd. “She’s just a barmaid, of course she has a filthy mouth” quickly turns into “She’s a star? She can’t say that!”
  3. Like that old card, John Adams, said about defending the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre, “Facts are stubborn things.” And the reported fact remains that Deen admitted, under oath, to using racial slurs, including the N-word. An argument can be made that she got in trouble simply for telling the truth in a private forum, the results of which leaked. Another argument says that she could have used an “I don’t recall” response as a way to hedge, or just denied ever having used the N-word. Unless she knew that others could have outed her — possibly in numbers credible enough (like, Tiger Woods numbers) to further call her integrity into question. Which means she didn’t just utter a racial slur in a vacuum (or while vacuuming, perish the thought). Others were present. Probably including a frenemy or two. And they’ll talk. Especially when there’s celebrity blood in the water.

From toast of the South to just toast?

So, what’s a Southern belle worth a reported $16 to $17 million to do now? Well, for one thing, lower her profile. And not just in the stay-out-of-camera-range way. Back off the makeup. Get a decent hairdo. Eat salads for a while, without the dressing. Meet with an expert several times and learn how to sound confident and smart. Not nouveau riche and faux helpless. And then get very choosey about staging her public confessional.

An Oprah culpa? Just one food-loving girl to another, so it might work. Tea with Martha? Not unless Paula wants to be turned into a human topiary, right before everyone’s eyes, complete with lemon-scented ribbons in her hair. A rain-check chat with Matt? Last we heard, that’s exactly what Paula had lined up, though she wasn’t letting much time elapse between cancellation and re-engagement.

That looks to be best, all things considered. The only shot Paula has is going straight into the mouth of the cat, and telling it like it is. That’s what got her into this mess in the first place.

It’s called telling what radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story”. And then letting the chips fall where they may. And nary a joke about what flavor of dip.

Image via Susie Cagle / CC BY 2.0

Pierce Mattie

Pierce Mattie is a full-service marketing agency that interacts with consumers and key stakeholders at every stage of the journey. With a focus in beauty, health and wellness, we are immersed in the marketing landscape, able to powerfully communicate a brand’s point of difference to acquire and maintaining customers. The content team is obsessed with what's trending in the digital world, and how it intersects with consumer behavior. We are passionate about the changing landscape of the world, including how emergent technologies affect brand attachment, how diversity and inclusivity are critical to success, and where humans fit into the equation.

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