Update, 4:45 p.m.: Updated to reflect a statement by Food Network that it will not renew its contract with Paula Deen.
A number of companies have built media empires on Paula Deen’s throwback Dixie sass, urging viewers to damn their health concerns and dig in. Now those same companies are being forced to deal with a less savory byproduct of the mid-century South: racism.
Deen’s admission in a court deposition last month that she “used the N-word” has bubbled to a high boil on social media networks and mainstream media outlets alike, putting her corporate partners in a tricky and controversial spot. The Food Network, which gave Deen her big break in 2002, said in a statement late this afternoon that it will not renew Deen’s contract when it expires at the end of this month. The channel, a property of Scripps Networks Interactive (SNI), has recently carried three Deen-based cooking shows.
Caesars Entertainment (CZR), which has Deen-branded restaurants in four of its casinos, did not go as far. Spokesman Gary Thompson said the company has “a long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion,” “strongly objects to any use of racial epithets,” and would monitor the situation. Also close to the flare-up is privately owned Hoffman Media, an Alabama-based company that publishes a bimonthly magazine, Cooking With Paula Deen, as well as Southern Lady, TeaTime, and Louisiana Cookin’. Hoffman did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment on Friday.
Deen, a Georgia native, had already alienated some of her fan base a little over a year ago when she admitted she had been living with diabetes for at least three years. The celebrity chef tried to distance herself from the latest controversy as soon as she admitted to uttering racial slurs. “But that’s just not a word that we use as time has gone on,” her testimony reads. Her corporate entity, Paula Deen Enterprises, released a similar statement this week: “She was born 60 years ago when America’s South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants and Americans rode in different parts of the bus. This is not today.” Deen’s website, meanwhile, says she remains as “genuine” as she was when she launched her first catering business, The Bag Lady.
The star’s appetite to tackle the PR nightmare head-on seemed to wane on Friday when she failed to show up for a Today show appearance. Host Matt Lauer said Deen was “a no-show” while on-air. Later Friday she released an apology video on YouTube. “I want to learn and grow from this,” she says. “I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, but I beg you, my children, my team, my fans, my partners, I beg for your forgiveness.”
Meanwhile, the backlash simmered on Twitter as people aired imaginative names for supposed Deen recipes, including “back-of-the-bus biscuits” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot cake.” A second rash of tweets, labeled “#PaulaDeenApologyBingo,” suggested Deen will make her situation worse with a tone-deaf apology.
Plenty of high-profile celebrities have swamped their own careers by using racial slurs. But few have offered explanations akin to Deen’s, which boils down to noting that “racism was just part of the world I grew up in.” She is right about that—and her die-hard fans may appreciate her frankness—but many contemporary executives won’t find that as comforting as her food.