Published on 28 Jun 2013 Sections , ,

US celebrity chef in hot water amid racism scandal

She’s one of America’s highest earning celebrity chefs. But companies are rapidly cutting ties with the self-styled queen of southern cooking, Paula Deen, amid revelations that she used racial slurs.

Paula Deen (Getty)

Paula Deen’s calorific cooking style was already under attack when she came under greater fire for brushing off her controversial use of racist language.

Although her latest cookery book hasn’t yet been published – despite the furore which has emerged over the last few days, her collection of 250 favourite recipes has shot straight to the top of Amazon’s charts.

Another book, her Southern Cooking Bible, has reached number two, with several other titles now out of stock.

It is the one glimmer of good news for the former Food Network star, as a succession of companies line up to sever their business relationships. It is estimated that she has already lost almost half the value of her media and merchandise empire, costing her millions of dollars in endorsements and contracts.

Last year Deen was ranked as America’s fourth highest earning celebrity chef, raking in a tasty $17 million. But now some of her biggest backers have dropped her like, well, a hot pan.

Southern discomfort

The Food Network, which turned her into a household name, has declined to renew her contract. QVC followed suit, telling its customers it was taking a pause: “We all think it’s important, at this moment, for Paula to concentrate on responding to the allegations against her and on her path forward.”

Walmart and Target have withdrawn her range of kitchen goods: now Sears has become the latest to phase out products linked to her brand, after what it called “careful consideration of all available information”.

Deen, the self-styled queen of southern cooking, involving copious amounts of deep fat frying, butter and cream, built her image around that of a cheery southern grandmother, whipping up home-style comfort food with plenty of stories about her family thrown in.

The selling point, as NPR put it, was all about “the warm embrace of a southern woman, making nutritionally reckless food while telling you great stories.” Which presumably, you could chuckle over while scoffing down another helping of bread pudding made from Krispy Kreme donuts.

But the first dent in that rosy image came last year, when Deen disclosed that she had been diagnosed with type-2 diabetes; enough to put you off your chicken-fried steak with biscuits and white gravy.

The warm embrace of a southern woman, making nutritionally reckless food while telling you great stories. Linda Holmes, NPR

But then came the bigger scandal: allegations of racism, and of creating a discriminatory environment at work. A former employee, Lisa Jackson, testified that Deen had repeatedly used the N-word, and had planned a “plantation style” wedding for her brother in 2007, with an all-black waiting staff.

Deen denied any discrimination, but admitted she had used the n-word – “not in a mean way”. She issued a tearful apology to her fans, begging for forgiveness. However the accusations did not end there.

Other comments emerged, among them a quip that “most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks.” It was evidence, for some, that the segregationist, prejudiced attitudes of the south had not really changed. The Deen brand of southern comfort would never look the same again.

Reaching the depths

As James Poniewozik wrote in Time magazine – “Deen made a pile of money off a certain idea of old-school southern culture. In return, she had an obligation to that culture – an obligation not to embody its worst, most shameful history and attitudes.

Instead, in one swoop, fairly or not, she single-handedly affirmed people’s worst suspicions of people who talk and eat like her.”

America can be a forgiving place: many people have short memories: Martha Stewart famously bounced back after serving a spell in prison for lying to investors about a stock sale.

The Stewart brand emerged undiminished, while it did not take long for her business empire to clamber back into profitability.

And despite the allegations of racism and discriminatory attitudes – the way back has not been totally closed for Paula Deen. Those advance book sales, for a start. And QVC, one of the companies which has put itself as a distance, added: “People deserve second chances.”

Even the former US president Jimmy Carter has stepped in: telling CNN he has known Deen for a long period of time. “I advised her to let the dust settle and to make apologies”, he said.

He stressed that there was no condoning the use of language that abused other people. However, Deen’s best bet, he said, was to reach out to the African Americans she has helped in her community, to show how far her attitudes have changed over the years.

Felicity Spector writes about US affairs for Channel 4 News