Last Sunday Paula Deen was able to carve out a brief moment of joy, celebrating the christening of her stepdaughter’s baby girl near the Savannah home she shares with husband Michael Groover. “The subject of the sermon was stand strong. She felt like it was a message,” says a source close to the family. During the service, “when Paula went to pray with the minister, he said, ‘We’re behind you,’ ” adds a Deen pal. “She got emotional.”
Since the Food Network announced it was severing ties with Deen – after she admitted in a deposition released on June 19 that she had used the N-word (see box on next page)—the shamed TV chef has needed all the support she can get. She has been “beyond devastated,” says a producer friend of Deen’s. “She can hardly put one foot in front of the other.”
The 66-year-old was not prepared for the fallout. In trying to explain herself, she “recounted having used a racial epithet in the past, speaking largely about a time in American history which was quite different than today,” a statement from Paula Deen Enterprises acknowledged. “To be clear, Ms. Deen does not find acceptable the use of this term under any circumstance.” Then Deen posted not one but three awkward apology videos. “I beg for your forgiveness,” she implored in one – but it wasn’t enough. Smithfield Foods became the second company to cut ties, with other retail partners (see box) considering their options as well.
The consequences are personal for Deen. “She isn’t upset about the loss of money because she has all the money that she’ll need. She’s upset about her reputation,” says the producer friend. “She can be a little clumsy or insensitive, but she is not hateful. Her real issue is that she has an inappropriate sense of humor.” “She’s a bawdy broad, and she goes too far sometimes,” adds Deen’s former publicist Nancy Assuncao. “I don’t think she realizes that some things aren’t appropriate to say.”
In a public talk with The New York Times in 2012, Deen defended her attitude toward race, explaining, “We’re all prejudiced against one thing or another. I think black people feel the same prejudice that white people feel.” She called an employee to the stage, and when he stood in front of a black backdrop, she said, “We can’t see you standing in front of that dark board!” She paused. “Welcome to the South!”
It was Deen’s southern sass that transformed her from a local caterer to a multimillion-dollar culinary mogul. Suffering from panic attacks and agoraphobia after the deaths of her parents and a divorce in 1989, Deen took $200 and launched her catering service the Bag Lady, making sandwiches in her kitchen. She quickly outgrew that operation and in 1991 opened the Lady & Sons in Savannah. The Food Network then launched Paula’s Home Cooking in ’02, inspiring fans to try her sinful recipes like the donut burger – a hamburger patty nestled between two donuts.
Last week the same loyal fans descended on Savannah and waited up to three hours for a seat at her restaurant. “She said some things that she shouldn’t have said,” says diner Evelyn Agan, 59. “But it was a long time ago. Everyone has skeletons in the closet.” Online, thousands of the Deen faithful took to the Food Network’s Facebook page to express their ire, with comments like, “I am formally boycotting this network,” and “I am furious with you for what you did to Paula Deen.”
Outside that circle of support, the dismay and disbelief over Deen’s admissions continue to boil. When asked at her deposition about a 2007 conversation in which Deen allegedly referred to a “plantation-style” wedding for her brother Earl “Bubba” Hiers, Deen recalled visiting a southern restaurant where “the whole entire waitstaff was middle-aged black men and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie…. I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid somebody would misinterpret.”
“From her butter to her banter, she’s a Confederate caricature, and a reminder of a past that’s still too present,” Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times. “Slavery was heartbreaking,” cultural critic Michaela Angela Davis told CNN. “So to focus on her feelings is very uncomfortable.”
No stranger to controversy, Deen previously found herself in hot water in 2012 after acknowledging that she had been suffering from type 2 diabetes for three years, despite endorsing decadent dishes. But after her admission, she turned her life around and lost 40 lbs. For now Deen is applying the same strategy she did in that situation and surrounding herself with loved ones. “Her sons have been so good to her,” says the producer friend. Jamie, 46, and Bobby, 43, whose Food Network contracts remain intact, are “telling her that nothing has changed in the way they feel about her.” Bobby took his support public, telling CNN, “Neither one of our parents ever taught us to be bigoted towards any other person. Our mother is one of the most compassionate, good-hearted, empathetic people that you’d ever meet.”
Now Deen can only hope others will come around too. “She’s trying to figure out what’s next for herself,” says a friend. “Paula likes people to like her. She hates it when just one person doesn’t like her, let alone millions.”