By Michelle Tauber
March 10, 2014 12:00 PM

Paula Deen is the star attraction at a Feb. 22 barbecue event hosted by her son Bobby at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach, but she’s not here to cook. Instead the 67-year-old southern chef slowly winds her way through hundreds of eager fans, stopping to take pictures, give hugs and chat between bites of short ribs. Natacha Belizaire, 28, breaks down in tears upon meeting her idol, gushing, “Even through her whole ordeal, I still loved her.” Later Deen singles out the encounter with Belizaire, who is African American, as her favorite of the evening, recounting, “She gave me a big hug and said, ‘I don’t care what you said years ago. You are my white grandma!'” The outpouring of affection at the festival – her most high-profile public appearance since the 2013 scandal that shattered her food empire, which raked in $18 million in 2012 – “feels good,” says Deen. “If it wasn’t for my fans’ love, I’d be home breathing into a paper bag.”

Just nine months ago, simply getting out of bed seemed like an impossible challenge. “When I woke up each morning, it was like my world was crashing down again,” she reveals to PEOPLE, relaxing in a Miami suite wearing a casual top and capri pants and sipping on a diet soda. The colossal crash came last June when reports surfaced that Deen admitted in a deposition to using the N-word a “very long time” ago. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, but the damage was done: Within days of a series of awkward, tearful apologies, Deen had lost her Food Network contract along with most of her major endorsement deals, and she retreated to her Savannah home, away from the spotlight. “The first thing out of her mouth was, ‘I hope what I’ve done hasn’t hurt the boys,'” Deen’s longtime producer Gordon Elliott says. Her sons Bobby, 43, and Jamie, 46, have both built careers around their mother’s brand. Looking back on that period, Deen says, “It was like a death.”

Now the onetime “Queen of Butter” is hoping for a rebirth with a new company funded by a $75 million deal with private investment firm Najafi Companies (see box). “I’m fighting to get my name back,” says Deen, who famously leveraged her folksy appeal, sinful recipes and business savvy to grow her Savannah sandwich service (the Bag Lady) into a global corporation with the launch of her Food Network show in 2002. Some feel Deen will never restore her reputation to its original glory. “Her brand identity as the sweet grandmother was destroyed permanently with all but her loyal fan base,” says brand manager David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision. “She continues to play the victim and send a signal to sponsors that she doesn’t understand the gravity of her words or race issues.”

Those on Team Deen disagree. “Some people said I never apologized. If anyone did not hear me, I want to apologize,” Deen says. “I would never ever hurt anyone intentionally. Never!” Her new management team and members of her inner circle also chafe at the notion that Deen needs a comeback. “I struggle when I hear that, because she never really went anywhere,” says Bobby. “She was wronged.”

For her part, says Deen, “I was obsessed with the person America had confused me with – after I had lived my life so clean and open.” Since her ordeal, other public figures, such as Duck Dynasty‘s Uncle Phil or The Taste‘s Nigella Lawson, have endured controversies and come out seemingly unscathed. “It’s amazing that some people are given passes and some are crucified,” Deen says. “I have a new empathy for these situations, though. My dad always told me, believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” In the end she would like to see less finger-pointing. “I feel like ’embattled’ or ‘disgraced’ will always follow my name. It’s like that black football player who recently came out,” says Deen, referring to NFL prospect Michael Sam. “He said, ‘I just want to be known as a football player. I don’t want to be known as a gay football player.’ I know exactly what he’s saying.”

Not if Deen’s legion of supporters have anything to say about it. At her lowest, Deen says, she took comfort in reading positive comments posted about her online. “I could not get off the computer except to go to the bathroom and eat,” she says. “It was so reassuring.” She also looked to a familiar refuge: her kitchen. After the controversy made headlines, “I made eight cakes in six days,” leading her husband of nearly 10 years, Michael Groover, 58, to tell her, “‘Honey, I don’t know if I’m going to survive this,'” she recalls. (As for her 40-lb. weight loss following her type 2 diabetes diagnosis, “I didn’t eat all those cakes,” she says, but added she’s indulging “way too much lately.”)

Gradually, she says, she began to feel like herself again, buoyed by visits from friends. “One Sunday I opened up the gate to my house, and it was Kathy Griffin and her boyfriend,” says Deen. “She said, ‘I don’t care what you say. I have a right to be your friend.'”

Having previously struggled with agoraphobia without getting professional help after her parents’ deaths and her 1989 divorce, this time Deen turned to therapy to cope. “I have been on a very erratic little journey with a psychologist I respect so much,” she says. “I hang on to every word he says. I talk to him over the phone, which is very unsatisfying.” She also has been reconnecting with her fans, setting sail in January on a “Paula Deen” trip aboard Celebrity Cruise line’s Reflection with 123 admirers. “It’s you who know who I am and what I am,” she said at one gathering. “I love y’all. It’s good to be back.”

For a woman who has repeatedly reinvented herself – and who didn’t find vast wealth until her 50s – this latest chapter has involved facing her “greatest fear,” as she puts it. “I used to have dreams that I lost everything,” she says. “And when it finally happens, you think, ‘I’m still alive.'” As for what she’s learned, she says, “Michael told me, ‘You’ve learned how badly words can hurt and how powerful they are.’ I have been hurt by them, and I unintentionally hurt others. But I don’t want that to define who I am.”

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