Going from selling bagged lunches out of a Best Western motel to becoming one of the world’s most renowned celebrity chefs, Paula Deen was a textbook American success story. In fact, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when Paula Deen was America’s ultimate sweetheart. While she had some critics — including Anthony Bourdain, who called her the “worst, most dangerous person in America” (via CBS News) — most of the country ate up her southern charm along with her sugar and fat-laden recipes.
In the 2000s, Paula Deen was the face of the Food Network. She hosted multiple shows, made guest appearances on several others, and owned restaurants that attracted guests from all over the country. But in 2013, a series of scandals threatened Paula’s established empire. And then overnight, just like that, it all came crumbling down. What exactly toppled Paula Deen’s empire? And what is the famous southern chef doing now?
The beginning of the end for Paula Deen
Paula Deen’s fall from grace began in January 2012 when she publicly revealed that she had Type 2 diabetes, confirming longtime rumors. Deen told The New York Times that she had been diagnosed three years prior, but waited to come forward because she “wanted to wait until [she] had something to bring to the table.” Just what did Deen decide to bring to the table? A cookbook full of healthy recipes? No. Instead, Deen announced a promotional deal with Novo Nordisk, the manufacturer of the diabetes medication Victoza. She and her sons became the public faces of the drug, all while Deen said she would not be changing her cooking or eating habits. “I’ve always preached moderation,” Deen said. “I don’t blame myself.”
Many people at the time found her announcement opportunistic and hypocritical, as she spent years pushing heavy, unhealthy foods onto the public. It was for this reason that Anthony Bourdain lashed out against her, saying (via CBS News), “She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is f***ing bad for you.” The New York Times reported on negative social media reactions to the announcement. “Sorry Paula,” one user wrote. “I think you hid the disease because the network thought people would dump your show.” Another user wrote, “These deals don’t get done overnight. I think she’s known for quite some time she’s had this, and in the meantime, has been pushing recipes filled with sugar and fat.”
A lawsuit exposed deep-seated racism in Paula Deen's restaurants
Later that year, Lisa Jackson, a former manager at one of Paula Deen’s restaurants, filed a $1.2 million lawsuit against Deen and her brother Bubba Hiers, claiming racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Radar reported several grievances listed in the lawsuit. In one, Jackson claimed she was put in charge of catering Hiers’ 2007 wedding. When she asked Deen what the servers should wear, Deen allegedly replied, “Well what I would really like is a bunch of little n***ers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around. Now, that would be a true Southern wedding wouldn’t it? But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.”
Jackson also made startling allegations against Hiers, particularly that he would frequently watch pornography in the office the two shared and even asked her to bring him photos of her when she was young. Jackson also alleged that Hiers said while in her presence that they should send President Obama down to the oil spill “so he could n***er-rig it.”
Perhaps most egregiously, Jackson claimed Deen forced Black employees to use a separate entrance in the back of the restaurant, and forbade them from using customer-designated bathrooms, while she allowed white employees to do so, per the Chicago Tribune. Deen stayed silent on the topic until another bombshell came to light.
The final nail in Paula Deen's coffin
Attorneys questioned Paula Deen in a three-hour deposition that was later made public, per Eater. In the deposition, when asked if she had ever said the N-word, Deen said, “Yes, of course.” Specifically, she said it happened when she worked at a bank and a Black bank robber put a gun against her head. When asked if she had used it since, she said, “I’m sure I have, but it’s been a very long time.”
Deen said that while she and her husband taught their children not to use the N-word in a mean way, the same standard did not necessarily apply to direct quotes or jokes. “We hear a lot of things in the kitchen. Things that they — that Black people will say to each other,” she told attorneys. “If we are relaying something that was said, a problem that we’re discussing, that’s not said in a mean way.” On jokes, Deen said, “It’s just what they are, they’re jokes … Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, Black folks.”
Although Deen denied using racial slurs in the workplace, her longtime cook Dora Charles came forward a month later to say that that was not the case. Charles also told The New York Times that Deen asked her to stand outside the restaurant and ring a dinner bell. Charles refused, saying, “That’s a symbol to me of what we used to do back in the day.”
Paula Deen lost everything overnight
Once the deposition made the news, the fallout was swift and unforgiving. On June 21, 2013, The New York Times reported that the Food Network announced it would not renew Paula Deen’s contract when it expired at the end of that month. That same day, Deen failed to show up for an interview on The Today Show, citing exhaustion. “Her publicity people have told us that she’s exhausted and will not be showing up,” then-anchor Matt Lauer said on air (via The Hollywood Reporter). Lauer said that he had spoken to Deen the night before, and she had agreed to be “open and candid, no holds barred,” telling him, “I don’t know how to be anything but honest.”
After posting a series of apology videos on YouTube, Deen finally appeared on The Today Show on June 26, sitting down with Lauer for nearly 15 minutes. In the emotional interview, Deen tearfully defended herself. “I believe everyone should be treated equal, and that’s the way I was raised, and that’s the way I live my life,” she told Lauer.
Unfortunately for Deen, it was all too little, too late. Deen ended up losing virtually all of her sponsors, including Walmart, QVC, Target, and the controversial Novo Nordisk, according to a list compiled by Eater. Caesars Entertainment also shuttered four Paula Deen restaurants in their casinos.
For years, Paula Deen kept a low profile
After she lost everything, we didn’t hear much from Paula Deen. Uncle Bubba’s, the Deen restaurant at the center of the discrimination lawsuit, abruptly closed in April 2014. Savannah Morning News reported that employees were given no notice of the closure, and showed up that day to learn they no longer had a job.
In September 2014, Deen returned to The Today Show, this time accompanied by her sons, Jamie and Bobby. Again, she sat down with Matt Lauer, this time to discuss what she learned after reflecting on her sudden demise. “I’ve learned so much over the year. I really feel like it’s going to require another book …” she told Lauer. “I absolutely understood it, but I had to go home, sit on my sofa and get off the merry-go-round. I had to remove myself and sit quietly, so I could think and see things from all angles.”
Deen expressed her remorse and admitted that she would make an effort to be more careful and reticent in the future. “Unless you do something that I can see you’re trying to hurt me, in my heart, you’re good,” she told Lauer. “That’s childlike and it’s naïve, and I’m trying to be more guarded.”
Unfortunately, Deen elicited yet another racial controversy in July 2015, when she posted a photo of her son in brownface, dressed as Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy. Deen’s spokesperson blamed the post on a bad social media manager, per The New York Times.
Paula Deen has been slowly mounting a comeback
Although she largely disappeared from the public eye, Paula Deen has slowly been trying to work her way back into Americans’ hearts. In 2015, fresh off the I Love Lucy debacle, she competed on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, where she placed ninth. In 2016, Deen and her family appeared on Celebrity Family Feud, competing against Queer Eye for the Straight Guy‘s Carson Kressley and his family. In October of that year, Deen’s syndicated show Positively Paula premiered. “I’m so excited to invite my friends from around the country into my home kitchen each week,” Deen told People.
In April 2020, as COVID-19 forced the entire world into indefinite lockdown, Deen began regularly posting new content to YouTube, beginning a series she called “Quarantine Cooking.” She followed this later in the year with a series called “Holiday Recipes.” Prior to the COVID quarantine, Deen’s channel had been posting clips and full episodes of her previous shows; as of April 2021, Deen’s channel has been uploading new content every day, all in the same vein as her classic shows that made her a household name.
Paula Deen seems to be doing just fine without all the corporate sponsorships she once had, which goes to show the true magnitude behind the self-distribution powers of the internet. Whether you’re a teenager with no resources but your phone or a household name whose star has faded, there is a platform to put yourself out there and share yourself with the world.
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