Maybe Anthony Bourdain was right after all. Maybe Paula Deen is “the worst, most dangerous person to America” for promoting unnecessarily fatty and sugar-laden recipes to her viewers. Though “most dangerous” probably confers more power on her than she possesses. (Especially after today.) He was quite correct though, in describing her fans as “scary.”
Paula Deen is toast. Responding to facts that came to light yesterday from a deposition last month, Food Network announced that they would not be renewing her contract, which expires at the end of June. If I were Paula I wouldn’t be expecting any residuals from re-runs either. That she bailed on the Today Show and instead posted not one, but two staged videos begging forgiveness didn’t help her case.
The deposition was from an ongoing federal lawsuit brought against Deen by Lisa Jackson, who worked for Deen and Deen’s brother, Earl Hiers, at Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House in Savannah. Jackson, who is white, alleges that the siblings created a hostile atmosphere with ongoing racial slurs, sexual harassment, and separate entrances and restrooms for black employees.
In addition, the deposition explored Paula Deen’s desire to produce an “old style plantation wedding” for her brother featuring “little n*ggers dressed in long-sleeved white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties” as servers. She later amended this to say that what she wanted was older black men in white jackets, “like before the Civil War.” House slaves, in other words.
When asked during the deposition whether or not she ever used the “N-word”, she responded “Of course.”
“Of course”, like “Doesn’t everyone?” “Of course,” like “what a silly question.” One has to wonder if Paula Deen saw her career flash before her eyes in that instance, because she certainly started back-pedaling, offering as example an episode where as a bank teller she was held at gunpoint by black man. Uh huh. Her fans are clinging to that like it’s the last piece of chocolate cream pie.
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent years as a journalist that I have a keen ear for lies, spin and misstatements, but something uttered many decades ago, before she was a public figure, would not find its way into a current law suit.
More cogent perhaps are the statements that followed. When asked if that was the only time, she said no. When asked what other instances she said “Probably repeating something I heard.”
“Like a joke?” the lawyer asked.
“No, like a conversation between blacks.”
Really, how could Food Network even consider keeping her on the air?
It’s not like she’s the first television star to get the boot. Remember Pee Wee Herman, whose career was wrecked when he was discovered with his pants down in a porn movie house? Did you know that Cindy Williams was rather unceremoniously let go from “Laverne and Shirley” because she got pregnant? Or how Paris Hilton’s The Simple Life was de-railed by her sex tape? Don Imus lost his long-time radio show after he referred to the Rutger’s women’s basketball players as “nappy headed hos.” Cocaine addiction precipitated Mackenzie Phillips departure from “One Day at a Time.” Michael Richards (“Kramer” from Seinfeld) famously responded to a group of hecklers at a stand up gig by calling them “n*ggers.” His career has never recovered.
Paula’s fans can’t believe she’s being canned, especially given that chef Robert Irvine has been restored to Food Network, writing on the network’s page (in capital letters, naturally) that he “LIED, EXAGGERATED and EMBELLISHED” his resume. Er. As if exaggerating one’s accomplishments is somehow equal to forcing people of another race to use a different bathroom.
(And for the record, Robert Irvine was fired after the St. Petersburg Times reported his embellishments. In 2008, Irvine launched a blog that cleared up some inconsistencies in his work history, demonstrating that the contested claims were somewhat exaggerated, but not outright lies. A few months later he was rehired by the network and continues to be one of their most popular personalities.)
Many have flounced all over Food Network:
“I hope you people are as perfect as you expect Paula to be!”
“I’m canceling your channel today!” (As if you can cancel one channel.)
“You have thirty days to reinstate Paula or else!”
“Your programs will never be on in this house again!”
“I can’t believe you’re firing her because she made one little mistake years ago.”
“At least she didn’t lie like Robert Irvine!”
“Are you going to ask every employee if they ever used the n-word? You’ll have a huge cut in payroll.”
A common theme was to compare Paula Deen to every other person in the world who may have uttered an ethnic slur. (My guess is most of the people who are defending her are guilty of the same. )
And many people have told an off-color joke or two or ten. Or grumbled some thing unforgivable while stressed out. When a friend’s husband left her for a woman who happened to be black, I’m sure she said a few unsavory things in her rage and pain. But those in the public eye are held to a higher standard and they are rewarded for it with fat paychecks.
It is a bit disconcerting that everyone is against racism in the abstract, but as soon as it’s the least bit inconvenient (i.e. their favorite television chef getting fired) they are eager to excuse it.
Others (and not just fans) have queried why the plaintiff in the lawsuit (remember the lawsuit?) stayed on for five years. I don’t know the answer to that. But how many people stay in a bad job for five years? Quite a few in the current economy. For that matter, how many people stay in a bad marriage for five years? Untold millions. Don’t you wonder if Lisa Jackson wasnt a fan herself when she was first hired? Isn’t it likely that she was thrilled to get the job? And just like people who’ve worked for Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Cosby and Bob Barker, she discovered that her boss was somewhat more complicated than the public persona revealed.
I know people who use the “n-word” and I wish I could say it was just my black neighbors referring to each other. Nope. it’s white folks. None of them, that I know of anyway, are related to me. My grandmother, in South Carolina, used say “negro” or “colored” but that other word, that was not allowed. Most genteel folks in the south don’t say n*gger. At least not anymore.
Finally, this gets to the heart of the problem that is Paula Deen.
She’s a parody of a particular kind of southern woman and about as genuine as a three-dollar bill. I resent her co-opting the heritage of so many southerners and selling it back to them as her own. She didn’t invent her “best dishes”. Go to any church supper in South Carolina (or Alabama, or Georgia, or Mississippi) and you’ll have that and better. She tried to fold white-trash cuisine into the repertoire of good, honest Southern food like it belonged there. It wasn’t just that she denigrated people of color (and that’s bad enough) she exploited and corrupted an entire culture of Southern Cooking. All the while, she just so sweet it makes your teeth hurt, but scratch the surface and there’s little there but blind ambition.
So she’s toast. And deserves to be. Pass the butter, would you?
But Paula fans, take heart. She made $17 million dollars last year. Only the Lord above and Deen’s accountants have any real notion of her net worth. Carefully managed, that should make for a comfy retirement. And as God is her witness, she’ll never be hungry again!