Paula Deen is a businessperson. Don’t be fooled: This comeback into the public sphere is a calculated ploy.
Celebrity apologies are the public relations equivalent of triage—classify the injurious action(s) through a carefully crafted series of talking points on whichever television show is willing to play along, all while hoping the public buys into canned notions of healing, recovery, and forgiveness.
After a year of absence from the public eye, celebrity chef Paula Deen returned to NBC’s Today show on Tuesday to reflect on the outcome of a 2013 lawsuit that cost Deen her reputation and endorsements.
The New York Daily News reported that Deen feels “upset [that] the incriminating deposition remained in the spotlight despite the woman’s credibility being questioned.”
The woman in question is Lisa Jackson, the former restaurant manager for Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House. Jackson sued Deen and her brother, Earl “Bubba” Hiers, on the grounds that Hiers subjected his employees to racist commentary and sexual harassment. In August 2013, a federal judge ruled that Jackson (who is white) did not fall under the protected class of individuals who faced Hiers’ repeated acts of racial discrimination. Deen claims that “everybody needs to know the whole entire story,” but her reframing of the lawsuit’s outcome is conveniently twisted to serve Deen’s redemptive-arc narrative.
Furthermore, exactly what sort of “amends” has Deen made up until now? What work has she done to understand the impact of institutional and interpersonal racism? What apologies has she extended to the employees who collected their severance checks in the parking lot of Uncle Bubba’s so that Hiers could “explore development options for the waterfront property on which the restaurant is located”? What amends were made to these employees who weren’t even given the dignity of termination notices before the announcement was posted on Facebook?
Or how about an apology to Michael Sam for her February 2014 interview with People—does she understand how comparing her suffering to Sam’s high-profile outing as a gay football player is an offensive co-optation?
What’s most troubling in Deen’s awkward attempt at a public mea culpa is her inability to grapple with the reality of her racial epithets hurting others—her former employees and former fans alike. Throughout the interview, she under-sold the impact of her racial slurs and disturbing public fantasies of a Southern “before the Civil War” plantation wedding by labeling her actions as “disappointing.” Her behavior was more than a mere disappointment; it was racism. The soft-peddled inauthenticity of a term like “disappointment” only serves to underscore her absolute cluelessness.
The timing of Deen’s Today show apology-circuit interview appearance on the day before her subscription-based online Paula Deen Network launches is particularly cynical, even though she claimed in the interview that she sees herself as “very, very naïve.”
Let’s be real: Deen is a businessperson. This comeback into the public sphere is a calculated ploy meant to pull on stereotypes of innocence and pearl-clutching.
She lost control of a booming financial empire after her business relationships with companies such as The Food Network, QVC, Kmart, Target, Home Depot, Sears, and Wal-Mart crumbled—and now her reported $75 million investment from private-equity firm Najafi Companies is at stake. Deen may be trying to distance herself from last year’s PR nightmare by claiming that she doesn’t “recognize that woman,” but it’s clearly the same Paula who is dodging accountability.
Allison McCarthy is a documentation specialist and freelance writer. Her work has been featured in print and online publications such as The Guardian, AlterNet, Ms., Bitch, Girlistic,