Paula Deen defended her reputation on the Today show Wednesday, telling Matt Lauer that she is not a racist. "I believe every creature on this earth, every one of God's creatures, was created equal," Deen said, tearing up. "That's the way I was raised, that's the way I live my life."
The celebrity chef, famous for her high-calorie Southern cuisine, has lost her show on the Food Network — after 11 years — as well as a partnership with pork producer Smithfield Foods in a devastating avalanche of reactions to revelations coming out of a discrimination lawsuit filed by a former employee at one of Deen's restaurants. In a deposition, Deen confessed to using the N-word, but said she hadn't used the racial epithet in decades. "Would I have fired me? Knowing me? No," said Deen, who has publicly apologized for offending people and begged for forgiveness.
Deen chalked up the fallout to "very, very hurtful lies" being spread by people who don't know her. At one point she looked directly into the camera, and said, choking up: "If there's anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back, please pick up that stone and throw it at my head so hard it kills me."
Will Deen's detractors buy it? One thing crisis managers say Deen needed to do to restore her image was to convince people that she truly gets how hurtful the language and jokes that have been attributed to her are so hurtful. The interview, which Jack Mirkinson at The Huffington Post described as "raw and riveting," certainly revealed her human side — as opposed to the packaged celebrity personality people know from TV.
That might reinforce the feeling among Deen's fans that she is being unfairly scorned. Deen needed to come across as authentic, and she at least accomplished that. Her decision to wrap up her teary interview by saying, "I is what I is, and I'm not changing," might have left some of her detractors clucking in disapproval, though.
One reason the appearance won't immediately turn around Deen's fortunes, points out Keach Hagey at The Wall Street Journal, is that the Food Network has little incentive to take her back, because her contract, which was already set to expire June 30, was in trouble due to declining ratings, anyway.
Another reason, Dan Hill of Ervin/Hill Strategy tells The Washington Post, is that it is simply too early for her to start asking people to forgive and forget. "No one is going to buy what she says now," Hill says, "even if it's a perfectly crafted message. Everyone thinks you should respond immediately, but with something like this, usually time serves them well."
Still, Deen's moment on the Today show couch provided her with something she desperately needed — a bit of relatively positive publicity after a brutal barrage of negative press. Deen's Today show appearance "might not save her career," says The Washington Post's Reliable Source blog, "but it may be her best move after a disastrous few days."