Paula Deen is toast. There are many ways to describe the celebrity chef's career spiral and quite a few can be articulated in culinary terms. In just a week, the Food Channel's one-time darling of Southern cooking has seen her reported $18 million-a-year business fall like a hastily prepared soufflé (as noted by my friend, crisis management expert Howard Bragman). In short, Paula's goose is cooked. You get the picture.
She has seen, firsthand, that free speech still comes with a price. Hateful language, especially racial epithets, will not go unnoticed or unanswered. Her most notable transgression, which she admitted under oath in a deposition, occurred in 1987. She said she probably uttered the slur during a private conversation with her husband when describing the man who allegedly pointed a gun at her head while attempting to rob the bank where Deen was then working. According to her testimony, Deen used the "N word." Hateful? Certainly. Offensive? Of course.
While I cannot speak to whether Deen is, in fact, a racist, she is undoubtedly guilty of one of the biggest PR fiascos in recent memory. First, she allowed the discrimination lawsuit filed against her (by a white employee, incidentally) to proceed to trial rather than settling the dispute out of court. Second was her bizarre and self-destructive sworn admission to using racial slurs in the past.
Q:"Have you ever used the 'N word' yourself?"
Deen: "Yes, of course."
I suppose someone insensitive enough to use such language does not recognize the additional affront in openly admitting it.
You do not have to be a Deen apologist (which I am not) to ask the legimate question, "Does her punishment fit the crime?" Careers in the public eye have withstood sex scandals, assault and battery convictions and even worse. Does Deen's admitted utterance of a racial slur 26 years ago warrant the implosion of her image, not to mention her numerous business ventures? I suspect Deen's offense was magnified by her bungling series of statements and missteps: a cancelled Today Show interview, the release of a highly edited video apology which was widely perceived as contrived and less than sincere, another video statement seen by many as a thinly veiled "do-over" and then, her over-the-top television morning show interview, which included a bizarre biblical reference inviting those without sin to cast the first stone. Deen even tearfully implored that the blow be fatal. Sadly, for all of Deen's employees, the response from her various corporate partners was quick and final.
Paula Deen may have been judged too swiftly and too severely, but she has only herself to blame. No matter how great her skills in the kitchen, from a public relations standpoint, Deen only followed the recipe for disaster.