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Paula Deen Tries Tearful Defiance


Paula Deen Tries Tearful Defiance

Photograph by NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

Updated 4:35 after Wal-Mart Stores and Caesars Entertainment ended their business relationships with Deen.

Updated June 27 10:15 after Novo Nordisk suspends Deen from its diabetes education campaign

If you believe celebrity chef Paula Deen is being undeservedly punished for having made one racist comment years ago, her appearance on The Today Show this morning will probably have reassured you. And if you believe that Paula Deen is being rightfully punished for being insensitive to race, or worse, her appearance will probably have infuriated you.

Deen was defiant and tearful during the 13-minute interview with Matt Lauer and still seemed in shock over her crumbling empire. Her appearance came one week after a court deposition was published by The National Enquirer, leading to accusations of racism. The Food Network, where she hosted two shows, fired her two days later. Great American Country, a channel also owned by Scripps Networks Interactive, quietly dropped her from its schedule days afterward. Smithfield Foods (SFD) ended its partnership with her on June 24. QVC (LINTA) has said it is reviewing its business relationship with her.

Deen began the interview by saying, “There’s been some very hurtful lies said about me.” And toward the end, she said: “I is what I is and I’m not changing. There’s someone evil out there, who saw what I worked for, and they wanted it.” In between, she said she believes everyone should be treated equally, that she never intentionally hurt anyone, and that she wants people to know who she really is.

When Lauer asked her if she could survive with only the support of her “base” of fans, Deen said: “I think we can never underestimate the power of those voices. These people who have met me and know me and love me, they’re as angry as the people are who are reading these lies.” That base might have been shrinking even before the current scandal: Ratings for “Paula’s Best Dishes” on the Food Network dropped 22 percent in the 18-49 demographic prized by advertisers during the 2012-13 season, according to a Wall Street Journal report  .

In the hours following her appearance, Deen’s publicist began sending out letters of support from various companies: Epicurean Butter, IQ Craft, Club Marketing Services, Harvest NA, Landies Candies, and Sandridge Food. Tasty Blend Foods said, in part: “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.”

David Johnson, chief executive of public relations firm Strategic Vision, said after the interview: “I think she sunk herself. That was the worst apology I ever saw. … She cried that she was a victim—that’s the one thing you never want to do in these situations.”

So now we’ll see if Deen’s comments were enough to keep intact the rest of her empire. Or if she’s stewed.

Update: Later in the day on June 26, Walmart cut its ties with Deen, whose products it has sold since 2011. “We are ending our relationship with Paula Deen Enterprises and we will not place new orders beyond those already committed,” says Danit Marquardt, a Walmart spokesperson. And, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Caesars will re-brand the Paula Deen- themed restaurants at four of its properties.

Update: On June 27, Deen lost another important sponsor, the diabetes drug maker Novo Nordisk. The southern-fried chef was denounced as a hypocrite when she revealed in 2012–years after her initial diagnosis–that she had Type II diabetes, and at the same time, that she would be a paid spokesperson for Novo Nordisk. This morning the company said it was suspending her “patient education activities for now, while she takes time to focus her attention where it is needed.”

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Susan-berfield-photo-200x200
Berfield writes about retailers, restaurants, and other consumer companies for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @susanberfield.

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