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How did Paula Deen, a spunky 66-year-old TV chef, go from being the much-loved “queen of Southern cuisine” to exiled pariah in just days?
Deen, who campaigned for President Obama in 2008 and cooked alongside Michelle Obama on national TV, was ranked as the fourth highest-earning celebrity chef in 2012. She’s now under fire for admitting in a legal deposition to use of the “N”-word many years ago.
The controversy ensued after a former employee at Deen’s Savannah, Ga., restaurants filed a lawsuit accusing Deen and her brother, Bubba Hier, of racial and sexual harassment.
In the wake of the news of her admission, Deen’s empire has been rapidly crumbling. Retailers and suppliers continue to sever ties with her, including the Food Network, QVC, Target, Wal-Mart, Sears, Kmart, Home Depot, Smithfield Foods, Caesars Entertainment and pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk.
Just as so many companies reject Deen, public support has boomed for the TV chef. Her fans have formed lines outside her restaurant, taken to Twitter and Facebook to defend her, skyrocketed her latest cookbook to the top spot on Amazon, boycotted companies that have turned on the star and voiced their public support for her.
Many of Deen’s staffers have rushed to her defense on Facebook. Brianna Beaudry Blagg, who worked as a producer for Deen, wrote, “I can say with certainty that I have never witnessed her say or do anything that could be construed as racist or bigoted. Paula has proved herself to be a warm, caring, compassionate person, with close friends of all races and sexual orientations.” While Blagg said Deen isn’t perfect, she accused the media of behaving like a shark that sense blood in the water: “I find it disturbing the way her words are being distorted in our scandal-hungry ‘headline instead of the whole story’ media culture, and the sheep-like angry-mob cruelty that goes along with that.”
Even Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson came to Deen’s defense. Sharpton, arguing it’s not fair to hold a decades-old comment against her, said, “She deserves what’s fair, but that’s based on what she’s engaged in now.”
Jesse Jackson announced that he will help Deen make amends for using the language, saying she shouldn’t be a “sacrificial lamb” over the issue of racial prejudice. Jackson told the Associated Press if Deen is prepared to admit fault and make changes, “she should be reclaimed rather than destroyed.”
Author Ann Rice compared media attacks on Deen to “a crucifixion.”
Deen, who grew up in Albany, Ga., was dealing with a number of traumatic life events when she used her last $200 to start a home-based catering business, The Bag Lady, in June 1989. Her marriage had failed, her parents died and she suffered from agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder. Deen had two teenage boys at the time, and the family was on the verge of homelessness.
In 1994, Deen opened her first restaurant, The Lady and Sons. Four years later, she released her first cookbook, “The Lady and Sons Savannah Country Cookbook.” Later, she made a TV appearance on QVC.
Deen became a nationally known celebrity after the Food Network began airing her show, “Paula’s Home Cooking,” in 2002. By 2008, the Food Network also launched “Paula’s Best Dishes.”
Her brand continued to flourish. She and her brother opened Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, a seafood restaurant in Savannah. Deen has authored 14 cookbooks, which have sold more than 8 million copies. According to her website, her magazine, “Cooking with Paula Deen,” is distributed to nearly 1 million people every month. Deen’s name is on numerous products, including cookware and furniture.
According to Forbes magazine, Deen made $17 million last year – though some experts estimate as much as half her annual fortune could dry up in the wake of the scandal this year.
The following is a timeline of the scandal rocking Deen’s empire as it continues to unfold:
May 17: Deen admits to using the “N”-word in a videotaped deposition, but explains that it’s “just not a word that we use as time has gone on.” The deposition was part of a $1.2 million lawsuit in which former employee Lisa Jackson accused the chef star of using the racial epithet repeatedly, including at least once in reference to Obama. Jackson also claims Deen wanted to hire black waiters to dress as antebellum slaves at her brother’s wedding. The former employee claims Deen said, “What I would really like is a bunch of little [N-word] to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties. Now that would be a true Southern wedding, wouldn’t it?” Deen said she doesn’t recall using the epithet to describe waiters.
June 19: As word of the deposition began to spread the mainstream media hype the accusations in top headlines. A Deen spokesman said, “Contrary to media reports. Ms. Deen does not condone or find the use of racial epithets acceptable. She is looking forward to her day in court.”
June 21: Deen canceled a “Today Show” appearance to discuss the scandal with Matt Lauer. An irritated Lauer told viewers, “We started to hear from her people that she is exhausted. She has not called us at all. Her publicity person and I spoke a little while ago. Simply said, they believe she is in the hotel but she has not confirmed anything other than she is not here.”
On the same day, Deen released the following YouTube video begging America for forgiveness. She said, “The pain has been tremendous that I have caused to myself and to others, and so I’m taking this opportunity now that I’ve pulled myself together … to offer an apology to those that I have hurt. I want people to understand that my family and I are not the kind of people that the press is wanting to say we are. … your color of your skin, your religion, your sexual preference does not matter to me, but it’s what’s in the heart. My family and I try to live by that. I’m here to say I am so sorry. I was wrong.”
The Food Network immediately announced it would not renew its contract with Deen at the end of June. Upon the news that they would part ways, Deen thanked the network for 11 "great years."
June 23: QVC, a retail giant that sells Deen's cooking products and books, says it's "reviewing its business relationship" with her and has "no immediate plans" to have her on the network. QVC later determined it would "pause" its relationship with Deen and released a statement saying, "Paula won’t be appearing on any upcoming broadcasts and we will phase out her product assortment on our online sales channels over the next few months."
June 24: Lauer says he scored a second shot at an interview with Deen, to air June 26. Meanwhile, Smithfield Foods, which sells Deen's hams, says it's "terminating" the agreement because "it is important that our values and those of our spokespeople are properly aligned."
June 25: Celebrity Cruises announces it will add two more excursions in 2014 featuring Deen due to "amazing response we've had in the past years from Paula's fans." Deen's sons take to CNN to blast the vilification of their mother, arguing "it began as extortion and it has become character assassination."
June 26: Deen breaks into tears after she explains to Lauer on the "Today Show," "I believe that every creature on this Earth, every one of God's creatures, was created equal – no matter who you choose to go to bed at night with, no matter what church you go to pray – I believe that everyone should be treated equal."
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart and Caesars Entertainment turn their backs on Deen. Caesars released a statement saying it had "reached an agreement with Paula Deen Enterprises not to renew the business relationship." But her cookbook, "Paula Deen's New Testament: 250 Favorite Recipes, All Lightened Up," soars from No. 16 to No. 6 on Amazon in just hours.
Deen's spokesmen released two statements with letters of support from nine of her partners, including
Tasty Blends Foods of Frasiers Bottom, W.Va.; Landies Candies in Buffalo, N.Y.; Springer Mountain Farms; Sandridge Food Co. in Medina, Ohio; 450ID, a graphic design company in Philadelphia, Pa.; Harvest NA, a company in Wales, Mich.; IQ Craft; Epicurean Butter and Club Marketing Services.
Tasty Blends Foods said, "We appreciate her commitment and how she stepped up and apologized to her viewers, fans and the nation. We personally endorse Paula Deen and what she stands for. We are very saddened that she is being judged by her past, everyone has made a mistake sometime in their lives. We look forward to our continued partnership with her."
Springer Mountain Farms said Deen is a "compassionate, caring person. We have seen her with all types of people and have never seen any sign of prejudice. We truly believe her when she says she is sorry for any hurt she has caused."
450ID said Deen's appearance and apology was "right on the mark."
Carlo M. Gigliotti, director of operations for Harvest NA, wrote, "Paula, you have responded to an allegation and responded truthfully. With your honest answer you have done what is right in the (sight) of God. You know that this is right no matter what anyone else says or thinks. I am proud of you for that, the apology that followed and asking for forgiveness from the people. Continue in being truthful no matter what happens. … We ask that the best that God has for you will come out of this situation and that you will know Him closer than ever before and that those offended will forgive you."
June 27: Target, Home Depot and pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk announce they will withdraw from their contracts with Deen. Novo Nordisk said it has "mutually agreed to suspend ... patient activities for now, while she takes time to focus attention where it is needed." Target, announcing it will sell off its remaining Paula Deen cookware, told the Associated Press, "Once the merchandise is sold out, we will not be replenishing inventory." Wal-Mart stated it will not place "any new orders beyond what's already committed."
Deen's forthcoming cookbook, "Paula Deen's New Testament: 250 Recipes, All Lightened Up," soars to the top spot on Amazon. Several other Deen books were out of stock.
June 28: Sears Holdings Corp and J.C. Penney Co. announce they're cutting ties with Deen. Macy's says it's still evaluating the situation, and Kohl's Corp. has reportedly declined to comment.
Deen's publisher, Ballantine Books, announces it has canceled publication of the top-ranking "Paula Deen's New Testament: 250 Favorite Recipes, All Lightened Up," scheduled for October release.
Concerned individuals may contact the following partners who have dumped Deen:
Food Network: Email Food Network and network owner Scripps Networks Interactive and its CEO, Kenneth Lowe, or call (865) 694-2700.
QVC: Email, call (484) 701-1000 or fax (484) 701-8170
Target: Email or call CEO Gregg Steinhafel at (612) 304-6073
Wal-Mart: Email or call 1 (800) 925-6278
Sears & Kmart: Email or call (847) 286-2500
Home Depot: Email or call (770) 433-8211
Smithfield Foods: Email or call (757) 365-3000
Caesars Entertainment: Email or call (702) 407-6000
Novo Nordisk: Email or call (609) 987-5800