For years, Southern chef Paula Deen shamelessly built an audience around high-fat, high-calorie recipes. Never mind the burgeoning obesity epidemic responsible for an increase in such killers as heart disease and diabetes. She was encouraging sticks of butter and celebrating all the way to the bank. It was unconscionable.
Fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain was appalled by Deen, sounding this warning in 2011. “The worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen,” he told TV Guide. “She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations, and she’s proud of the fact that her food is ... bad for you.”
But then Deen revealed that she’d been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and she actually did something positive with her celebrity. She started promoting her weight loss and healthier lifestyle. Yeah, she got paid for it -- via a deal with diabetes drug Novo Nordisk, now kaput -- but it was better than the alternative.
Now the chef, who’s been dropped by the Food Network and a number of corporate sponsors, is back to dishing toxic baloney.
Deen, who is a defendant in a $1.2 million discrimination lawsuit, has been working the damage-control circuit since racist details from her videotaped deposition emerged last week.
In her first YouTube video, for example, she asked for forgiveness and offered this PSA: “Inappropriate, hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable.” It was a start, but, as Times editorial board member Karin Klein argued, Deen should have addressed her use of hate speech differently. Klein wanted some “recognition that hateful speech arises from hateful beliefs, or an attempt to apologize for the venom behind the words.”
Deen clearly missed the message.
Her much-anticipated “Today” show interview with Matt Lauer may have may have been good for ratings, but Deen was a flop. Instead of seizing the opportunity to offer a real mea culpa, she came across as defensive. Like this desperate move to shift blame off herself:
“It’s very distressing for me to go into my kitchens and I hear what these young people are calling each other.... For this problem to be worked on, that these young people are gonna have to take control and start showing respect for each other and not throwing that word at each other. It makes my skin crawl.”
Pointing fingers, never a winning strategy.
Maybe Lauer was too hard on the celeb chef. But it’s not like she wasn’t prepared for the interview. Knowing that fans look to celebrities as role models, she could have used the high-profile appearance to launch into a thoughtful conversation about race and racism.
Instead, Deen said: “I is what I is and I’m not changing.”
Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier