Sure, Paula Deen’s mainstream career is over. But now she has her very own digital network—uncensored, y’all—and she’s making millions in a booming new sector: the martyrdom industrial complex.
By Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Illustrations by Earl Barrett-Holloway
Below is the complete inventory of my interactions with Paula Deen, deep in the Caribbean Sea, on the Reflection, the vessel of the Celebrity Cruise line which hosted the Paula Deen cruise. The cruise, which took place in January, advertised via a hacky Web page that invited the reader to join Paula on the, yes, “white, sandy beaches.”
Paula Deen locked her eyes with mine across the Lawn Club Grill. The white-haired crowd parted as she cut through them, a Red Sea to her Israelite, and when she arrived in front of me, she took my hand, which contained an ice cream cone (ice cream cones are available around the clock on this cruise, availability I tested at many hours), and licked my cone. She backed away, vanilla soft-serve on her chin, cone still in my hand, eye contact still intense. In her eyes is everything she wants to tell me to make me love her, which I sort of do for a minute. This is her specialty, getting people to love her despite it all.
On the first day of the cruise, she had taken a picture with me. At the various events throughout the cruise where pictures were permitted, she posed with me and said, “How’re you doin’?” with enthusiasm that seemed like a parody of enthusiasm, her assistants’ eyes twitching, ready to hood me and take me away if I said anything other than “Fine!” or “This is so much fun!” When it was my turn to approach her, the assistants would swarm, as if I were a known Southern woman molester and they were the supervision the state had provided for my visits.
Just before one of the cooking demonstrations (there were two) she asked me if I had kids, and I told her I did, and she asked me what I cooked for them. I told her that my nanny did most of the cooking, that I worked full-time. Here she made eye contact again, dazzling eyes the same color as the water we floated upon, her eyebrows quivering a little, and said, “You have to cook with your children. How else will they have memories of you?” It was day five of a cruise I was on for work, and I hadn’t spoken to my sons for the longest-so-far-in-their-lives period of time. I went back to my stateroom and cried on my bed.
After the lawn Olympics, the winners were asked to pose for a picture. (I won third place, because of the egg-and-spoon race. Also because I was 20 years younger than the other contestants.) At the last minute, Paula turned around and bent over to moon the camera, the cheap white leggings that she bought at a flea market showing all that cheap white leggings bought at a flea market will. Everyone took out their cameras, and her security detail and assistants rushed her to try to save her from herself.
That last one is all you need to know about Paula Deen. What follows next is commentary.
In Paula Deen’s video invitation to the Paula Deen Network, which debuted last week, she stands in front of her folksy home, near her folksy porch, on an eternal spring day, and from her tanned jaw-hide you can hear her speak excruciatingly slowly as she entices you to “come on in.” (I know it is a stereotype of Southern people that they speak slowly, but Paula speaks almost as if she is imitating tape that has been slowed down.)
Inside the network are shows with names like “What Did Paula Deen Just Put In My Mouth?” and “Deen There, Done That.” Her eyes pop out in surprise that her son Bobby’s favorite herb is dill. She uses the word “asshole” a couple of times. There are a lot of recipes, new ones and old ones, healthy ones and scary ones. There is an entire show devoted to “Dad Dinner Time,” which means either things that real men will like, or that real men could make. I’m not sure.
In February, following the cruise, a new company had been announced— Paula Deen Ventures—which had been bankrolled to the tune of a reported $75 to $100 million by an investor named Jahm Najafi. His website says he “seeks to make strategic investments in undervalued assets,” but really, homeboy loves a fire sale: he was the last known owner of Book of the Month Club and BMG Music Service — you remember, 12 tapes for a penny — and in 2011 considered buying Borders, which had dwindled to 405 all-but-dead stores. He specializes in businesses that still have some juice in them; he doesn’t care how much because he buys them so cheap and a profit is a profit. (You can only imagine how quickly calls made to the Najafi headquarters were not returned for this story. Paula Deen’s publicists also denied my many interview requests on the boat and after; they did not respond to our many fact-checking queries.)
And there is still profit to be squeezed from the Paula Deen brand. Deen’s products — through collaborations with Meyer Corporation, among others—had seen a reported 35 percent sales increase in the first two quarters of this year; subscriptions to her magazine reportedly grew by 40 percent. (For perspective, in those two quarters, paid subscriptions for magazines in general faltered 1.8 percent and single-copy newsstand sales fell a significant 11.9 percent from a year before.)
An investment in Paula Deen conveys a deep understanding of America’s political temperature and where we’re headed: that Paula’s comeback isn’t about forgiveness — it’s about standing her ground. Even in her pre-scandal life, she didn’t care when Anthony Bourdain called her “the worst, most dangerous woman in America.” No, she was defiant. “There was a time,” her recipes always seemed to say, “when we didn’t ruefully chew our tree bark and soy cheese on gluten-free foam bread in the hopes of making it to 94. We lived. We ate, and we enjoyed it — right until the moment we suddenly clutched our chest on a golf course, keeled over and died at the age of 69. Men had died so we could do this.” Now we are a nation that is leaning further and further toward conservative clansmanship and white tribalism, and this sets Paula on her way to being a true tycoon of her own martyrdom.
First, there’s the digital network. Then there’s the 20-city tour of a cooking show with the whole Deen family; according to the venues I checked, which were large, the tour sold quite well. She’s out there reminding everyone that she still exists, that she just won’t be subject to the same scrutiny and censorship she once was. She’s gone rogue, she has, and nobody will tell what she can’t say ever again. One man on the boat was not a particular fan of hers even just a year before, but when he heard that Food Network had dropped her, he canceled his Food Network magazine subscription, bought a Cooking with Paula Deen one, and joined her on the cruise, because if you can’t say what you’re thinking, what good is a democracy?
“Here’s what I’m learning about Paula’s persona,” said Andrew Morton, the lawyer who oversaw Paula’s Bag Lady Foundation while I was reporting this story (and who has since been discharged of this duty). “Post-excrement hitting fan blades, her haters hate her more, and her fans love her more, because they feel like she got a bad deal. But in a funny way, net/net, she may come out ahead.” He pointed out the amount of pro-Paula Facebook pages out there: hundreds of thousands of likes in total. The people were rallying around her. Paula Deen was no longer a guilty pleasure; no, she had become a cause to support.
The opening night of the cruise, Paula said to the crowd, “My family had a rough, rough summer. It’s y’all who got me through the last six months, because it’s you who know who I am.” A woman who wore body glitter and purple swirl-art tennis outfits complete with sun visors called out, “You’re the bomb, no matter what people say about you.”
There were three journalists on the boat: me, a woman from Gawker and a woman from People. Gawker and I would lament our lack of access, and People would nod silently, halfheartedly, but we couldn’t help noticing that People seemed to sit with Paula’s entourage more often. People didn’t have an interview lined up, but if People knows one thing, it’s that when the big thing happens, Paula will want to talk to People about it.
People and Gawker and I recognized each other initially as journalists only because of our comparative youth. The cruise was made up of mostly older, wealthy Southern women, clad in capris in lady pairs, their husbands either dead (yes, many) or refusing to attend. Paula had inspired so many of them with her story of starting a successful business with $200, the ex-wife of an alcoholic and single mother of two sons. They admired her, and they were dazzled by her gregariousness and her ability to push the limits on both her Southernness and her ladylikeness.
Also on the cruise was Peggy, a Paula Deen look-alike who was not there in any official capacity. She did bear a strong resemblance to Paula, but disconcertingly off in an uncanny valley way, like when you dream about someone you know but something’s wrong. On the boat, she did nothing to refute the notion that she was Paula when people outside the Paula Deen group who had heard that Paula was on the boat approached her. They’d tell her how they supported her and squeezed her hands and said that they believed in her. I asked Peggy if she thought Paula would be okay with her impersonating her not for a bar mitzvah or a retirement party but in real life, and she said, “I think it takes a lot of pressure off of her.”
I don’t know if Paula would agree. Her whole game is her warmth, and Peggy would say a polite thank-you and turn away from her approachers, cold and maybe even sullen — looking like Paula Deen is not being Paula Deen, after all. Paula fast-tracks friendship, so that when you encounter her you feel that something special had happened there. So many of the guests identified Paula as a friend, and within this friendship’s boundaries is paying for this cruise, $1,000 more than it costs to go on this same cruise minus Paula Deen. She is supremely talented at the art of charisma: she’d refer to the women as heifers, which made them explode in paroxysms of laughter, she’d make naughty double-entendres about tenderizing (“beating your meat”), she’d make self-deprecating jokes about herself, from her false teeth to her mostly fake hair to her aging body (punch lines included: “They’re 40 longs” and “Choking your chicken, y’all!” and “One in the grits and one in the gravy”). The audience shook in anticipation of what she would say next, and, like a master, she would pivot and instead say something so touching about her impoverished youth, her dead parents, her troubled first marriage, her agoraphobia. She makes use of the word “y’all” at the ends of sentences, particularly when she’s saying something she doesn’t feel she’s getting the proper approval or love for. It’s a long, drawn-out y’all, an empty heart into which you can pump your empathy and love and mirror neurons and identification. Yaaaa’oooooowwwwllll.
In our group was a bunch of women from Alabama whom I became extremely fond of and who wore matching purple T-shirts they’d made just for the trip that said “NO CRUISE CONTROL, PARTYIN’ WITH PAULA DEEN, COOKIN’ UP SOME FAMILY FUN.” Someone on the boat had thought they were the Cupcake Girls, and one of them shouted, “We may have muffin tops, but we ain’t no Cupcake Girls!” There were women named Bubbles and Bunnie and Doc — a nickname for everyone; if you didn’t have one, Paula would provide it for you, as in the case of Doc, who I was able to surmise is maybe a nurse, and who had given Paula a Z-Pak because Paula had been coughing. Superbugs were not taken into account, nor was the fact that Paula’s coughing could have been attributed to the many, many cigarettes she smokes each day. Each event she arrived at, she smelled of both nicotine and an aggressive campaign to cover the nicotine: Her breath a tobacco-Breath Savers layer cake, the icing of which was a seemingly endless supply of wintergreen gum, chewed loudly and for emphasis; her hair smelled like Binaca. But underneath it was the rotten cancer smell of the cigarettes. This is the way it is with Paula. If you get close enough and stay long enough, it is hard for her to keep anything that is underneath covered up.
In February, guests converged upon the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival’s main Friday night event, the Burger Bash. A culinary team of 200 had prepared 54,000 hamburgers of about four ounces each. “That equates to 13.33 cows, roughly!” a publicist told me proudly, and I immediately pictured all of those cows lined up, even the .33, and my heart fell through the ground. The Bash was not unlike a wine tasting: people grabbed a hamburger, took a bite, nodded with a downward thoughtful frown, commenting perhaps on the notes of cowiness and the subtle undertones of mass slaughter, and threw the rest into one of the many large trash bins placed throughout. There were also bottles of water, and to cleanse the palate between burgers, patrons would open up these bottles, take a sip, cap them again, and throw them away too.
When my mother was a baby in the recently established state of Israel, my grandparents gave her the one egg they were rationed every week, because she was sickly. She spat it out. My grandparents, malnourished from the war, watched as the egg fell to the floor. That’s the story I kept thinking of at the Burger Bash, which, to be fair, other people seemed to really enjoy.
Food Network is a big sponsor of the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, obviously, and back when Paula was a star of the channel, she would come and show her fealty to Network. When people think of Paula’s downfall, they think of her being fired for being racist — the events of June 2013 happened in such a flurry that of course they think that, and certainly no one in the Deen camp will correct them.
But she wasn’t fired for racism. At the time that the story broke that she’d admitted to using the N-word during a deposition in a lawsuit brought by a manager in one of her restaurants, her Food Network contract was already under review. (Besides, a judge later dismissed the racial bias claim against her.) I was told that Paula didn’t have the typical arrangement in which Food Network would see a portion of the profits from her licensing deals, as it reportedly did with its other stars. She was only making them ad money. But that ad money was on the wane, because her ratings were in the gutter.
The downfall had long since begun. The year before it had been revealed that Paula had been diagnosed with diabetes and kept it a secret while she shored up an endorsement deal for Novo Nordisk, maker of the diabetes drug Victoza. Paula had already taped a full season’s worth of episodes of the show—at a higher weight, making the food she was known for, all the while knowing her own secret.
“I think viewers started feeling like they were watching an alcoholic drink themselves to death,” says Allen Salkin, the author of the excellent From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network. “All of a sudden, you’re watching this woman who you know has diabetes stuff her face.” Food Network was pissed off at the diabetes-drug deal and its implications — she had given America diabetes, and now she could cure them, all under the auspices of a tiny Food Network logo on the bottom right of the screen.
(Barry Weiner, the agent who’d made the deal and who’d made her a star to the tune of a $17 million reported fortune — her pre-scandal net worth — was fired because someone always gets fired in these situations.)
The N-word scandal contributed in a way to Paula’s release, but it was also conveniently coincidental. She was on her way out, anyway. Still, Salkin adds, Food Network was building Food Networks all across the world. “The UK, Asia, Mongolia,” he says. “So, once you have somebody who’s tarnished with racism, you’re now a company that is trying to make it in Africa and Asia—this is not somebody you can be in business with.”
On the boat, Paula was everywhere she was scheduled to be, wandering in a half-hour late, looking around as if she’d just materialized on the planet — really, her head would rotate up and around, rainbow formation, from floor to ceiling and back again, mouth agape — and leaving exactly on time, ushered out, as if she weren’t on a boat and had someplace to be, by her entourage: her husband, Michael (MAH-kool), a hearty Hemingway look-alike (no, really, he has competed for this title in a contest for men who resemble Hemingway in a Florida key), a docking captain who became the luckiest man on earth the day many years ago that Paula’s dog wandered into his yard; a man named Jamie, whose job it was to clip silver-blue extensions into her hair; her assistant, Brandon, an interior decorator who could say everything like it was a disgusted dis, complete with neck movements, and whose duties outside of just plain assisting included decorating her house for Christmas and the sets on her now-defunct TV set Southern; another few assistants; her 84-year-old aunt Peggy, a self-described “slot slut” who spent much of her time at the machines on the ship’s yes-there-was-a-casino (and a Flywheel and an actual Apple store and a morgue, just in case any of those things didn’t work out quite the way it is hoped they would); her longtime muscle, Hollis, who wore matching Ralph Lauren baseball caps and polo shirts and whose eyes would prowl rooms wide-eyed so that Paula was just free to be Paula, or at least the Paula she claims to be (it is easy to be gregarious when other people seem to be airlifting you away every few minutes); and Brad Turner, who seemed to be there only because he was black.
It is some amount of risky but very educated conjecture that makes me think to say this. Brad is a 20-year army veteran who had been a chef with the Pentagon and so goes by the nom de rotisserie the Grill Sergeant. He asked people if they liked hugs, because he loves hugs, he said, and it is true that he would hug everyone he engaged with.
They’d met the prior September. He’d been singing — he sings while he’s cooking is his thing — during a cooking demonstration at the Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show in Dallas, a song dedicated to Paula, who was across the great hall, and Paula heard it, dropped what she was doing, and floated like a magnetized zombie to his voice. He continued to sing while they slow-danced.
On the cruise, on the first night, Brad told this story and he also sang. Here again Paula drifted in, the matter of her very soul drawn to this voice, and again they danced. She expressed some surprise that he was there, and Brad later confided in me how confusing that was, since he had been told he’d been specially requested by her. After that, Brad waited and waited for something to do (aside from his one scheduled cooking demo with Michael), and eventually shrugged and told me he didn’t quite know why he was there. He seemed to want to talk about race with me; he knew I was a journalist, and he knew why a journalist would be on this cruise.
“Paula Deen is not racist,” he said. “I know racists. They don’t touch you, they don’t hug you, they’re afraid of you.” Paula hugs and touches and isn’t afraid. This was the first but not the last of the many alternative and convenient definitions of racism I’d hear during the reporting of this story. For Brad, racism was a physical disgust, a fear for harm or some sort of cooties that only a person of another race could transmit.
But I heard other definitions, too. “There’s being racist,” said a producer I spoke with who had worked with her before the downfall, “and then there’s being an asshole.” He argued that merely saying an epithet was a sign of inconsideration rather than true endemic racism, that real racism amounted to a refusal to promote black people where white people would receive a promotion. And she certainly hadn’t been that kind of racist: There were black people in leadership positions in both of her restaurants.
On the cruise, there was a black woman, a surgeon from Los Angeles who had come on the cruise with her friend; she told me that she didn’t think Paula was racist, she understood that Paula was a woman from the South who grew up hearing it, and that this new generation won’t hear it quite so much. I heard from endless numbers of people that if the N-word is so problematic, then why were rappers using it? I heard that it is nearly impossible to make a joke unless “a black person, a Jew, or a homosexual” was the butt of it. I heard very compelling arguments from people who were not necessarily fans of Paula’s that she’s a racist only if your definition of racism is narrowly defined as anyone who says epithets (which I suppose mine is, and which it continues to be over the almost-year I was on this story).
Besides, the Grill Sergeant told me, that incident — the one in which she referred to the man who allegedly robbed the bank where she worked as an N-word — was 25 years ago, in the 1960s. People used different words then. This is a thing I’d hear very often: that 25 years ago was in the 1960s, that it was a different time. Over and over, people on the boat — in the Deen group but also at large, who saw my lanyard identifying me as part of the Deen group — would bring up race and say what a different time it was 25 years ago in the 1960s. It was just at the dawn of the civil rights movement, after all. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., all that. Actually, I’d point out, 25 years ago was just about 1990. For perspective, here’s what was going on in 1990: pregnant women knew not to smoke; Beverly Hills, 90210, was on; the Internet existed. 1990 was pretty recent, in fact.
In Miami, between events, the Deen brothers sat down with me, near the pool at the Loews, where they were staying. The brothers, into their 40s, have not yet made it as stand-alone brands. Their success exists in reaction to their mother; literally and figuratively, they exist because of her. Bobby worked at a Circuit City when his mother started her first restaurant; Jamie was helping her deliver sandwiches, having not yet found his own path.
Bobby is not what I’d call a natural star, but he had a great gimmick for his own projects: his show, Not My Mama’s Meals, and a cookbook, From Mama’s Table to Mine — healthier versions of his mother’s artery busters. When I met Jamie, who is dimpled and charismatic and animated, he shook my hand warmly and held onto it for a moment as he smiled into my face. He is very handsome, and yet he couldn’t stop making self-deprecating jokes/apologies about how fat he is, which he isn’t.
Both spoke bitterly about all that their mother had had to endure. “It was really tough,” Jamie said, “But see, we know who Mom is; we never questioned who we are. We kept our faith in ourselves and our faith in our faith and our faith in our business and our faith in our employees, and so without the challenges of last summer? There’s a million people that have walked up to us since then and said, ‘We love your mom, we love you.’
“Opinions are like buttholes,” Jamie summarized. “Some of them are just bigger than others.” (Which, I don’t know. Is that true? About opinions, I mean. I can imagine that it’s true about butt holes.)
Yet, the two can separate the issues of their betrayal and all those who left them behind and still continue working with Food Network; Bobby has a show on the Cooking Channel, which is the “younger, hipper” offshoot of the network, and Jamie kept on with his Home for Dinner until it was cancelled this past summer. (Food Network tells us the three personalities had separate talents arrangements. A source involved, however, suggested that the sons’ shows were a result of Paula’s last negotiation with the network.)
Bobby piped up. “We employ nearly 400 people in the city of Savannah.” One of those people, who works at Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, looked at me with wide eyes and shook his head slowly when I asked if he was treated well, a look that still haunts my dreams. Two employees at the Lady & Sons swore they were given 401(k)s but when I asked if they knew how to contribute to them they didn’t understand what I meant. It’s important that I note here that every person I spoke with who dealt with Paula on TV or in her restaurants talked about how very nice and professional she is.
“We make great food,” Bobby said, probably not talking about the chicken pot pie I waited 75 minutes at the table for at the Lady & Sons, which ended up being chunks of dry chicken in a “broth” of just heavy cream, or the congealed macaroni and cheese that is supposed to be decadent in its flagrant disregard for my LDL, but just comes off as being something a five-year-old would like. That said, I watched a five-year-old not eat it. I left the restaurant believing I had scurvy.
“We are great for the city of Savannah,” he said, despite the fact that a waitress at Bubba’s told me that they import their shrimp from Thailand.
What brought Paula down, they want me to know, is not the fact that she admitted to using the N-word in a deposition. It’s not that she wanted to dress up black people as slaves and have a plantation-themed wedding. It isn’t even that her disgusting mouth-breather cokehead embezzler of a brother — these crimes diminish in scope when you taste his food, which is a butter-soaked cardiac event, as I can attest having eaten one of the last meals served before Uncle Bubba’s shut its doors — exposed employees to pornography on his computer at work. (That matter, along with the n-word allegations, was the substance of the lawsuit of a former employee, and how these issues came to public light.)
No, it’s the media who did them in. By their reasoning, we in the media never liked Paula, according to Deen family logic, because “she’s from the South and she’s self-made. And she’s homey. She’s a cook, not a chef,” Jamie said. He might be right, in a way. The only outrage I ever found were from the labor attorney who represented the former employee who sued Paula, and people who wrote stories about what had happened. (Reader, nobody else gives a shit.) “It sells copy,” he said, referring to the hundreds of articles that came out around that time.
“Have you ever heard the term ‘kicking somebody while they’re down’?” I assured him I had. “You’ve seen the cycle of what the media does. People succumb to it.” And then, of course, there is some big mystery that Paula alluded to several times on the boat, that their producer Gordon Elliott wishes he could tell me, that the sons shake their fists at the heavens for. If only they could tell me what really happened! Alas, they are bound by a court gag order. But if only! Then we’d all understand, and it would make her have, I don’t know, un-said the N-word, un-suggested that black people dress up as plantation workers, un-gotten diabetes, and un-signed the lucrative drug endorsement, all of which contributed to her ouster from Food Network and her dismissal from Target, QVC, Walmart, and nearly every other brand that had aligned with her.
Paula spent many of the off-hours on the boat in a hidden corner of the buffet, surrounded by her posse, and in the “casiner” (she goes out of her way, I am sure, to overpronounce some Southernisms). There, she could let it all hang out and be the slot slut that she deep down was born to be. At one point there was a slots tournament, and, reader, I can’t tell you how the fuck they played that game, balloons popping up and buttons to press and maybe a touch screen. I, meanwhile, had made friends with two women named Martha and Sandi, who were from North Carolina. Sandi had been a teacher at a Daughters of the American Revolution school, and she was the sharp, sassy wit of our boat. Sandi was a widow, but she wasn’t upset about that. “He deserved to die,” she told me of her husband, a rake who once had taken another woman to Paris. She found a new life traveling after him, going to China and Tibet and to Alaska, and every time she landed somewhere new she would raise her arms and say, “This is my Paris!”
“Paula got a bad rap,” Sandi told me one day. “The only thing that I didn’t feel like she was judged too severely for it is when it came out that she was pre-diabetic and she was also a representative for the drug company.”
Sandi found it hard to believe I’d never said the N-word before. Martha explained to me that her parents had been relatively liberal for the time; they allowed use of the N-word only for a black person who was bad. To be clear, nobody on the Paula Deen cruise used the word (in front of me at least). But the people who were on the boat at large did. They would casually say it like it wasn’t awful, like “Oh, people just couldn’t get over the fact that she said [I won’t type it here, which I’m sure they would also find stupid, not because they’re racist but because what kind of person is afraid of a word?].” One charmer even talked about a nut that is sometimes called by a phrase that incorporates the N-word, and how can it be a bad word if that’s just a nut?
Then there were the people who couldn’t even understand the question. Bubbles, who is on her third marriage (“I did the good, the bad, and the ugly — but in reverse!”), lives in Georgia, and sits on the board of Paula’s Bag Lady Foundation, which gives scholarships to women with a startup idea and which benefited from the proceeds of her ready-to-eat freezer and pantry products. As of this writing, about $200,000 had been collected for the foundation en totale, according to a lawyer who was affiliated with the foundation, and none of it distributed. (On the cruise, there was an auction to raise money for the foundation. Paula’s old wig extensions were more or less sold directly to Peggy the look-alike. Someone bought an earring out of Michael’s ear. There were used bedroom slippers and a stained Panama Jack shirt Michael had worn the night before. Paula paints portraits of pigs with long eyelashes, and she auctioned these things off, too.)
All Bubbles can think of is how people’s limited interpretation of words put on hold the opportunity to sponsor so many women with no money and so many good ideas. But Bubbles is right. This is about words, after all. It wasn’t that the Southerners I spoke with didn’t think the N-word was offensive; they just didn’t think that words could offend that much at all. They truly couldn’t understand what the big deal was, and it’s not because they aren’t smart. It’s a cultural difference that doesn’t get examined that much: We in the media sit behind our screens and measure out words to fit into tweets, we craft headlines, we make every piece of a sentence count and stand for something. That’s ridiculous to them. “People say redneck and I don’t get upset, but it’s clearly an insult,” one of the ’Bama girls told me. For them, words are just how you get from here to there.
I left the cruise with none of my points ever fully made. I don’t know if it would have mattered. Paula was much bigger to them than her words.
“In my opinion, Paula represents everyone who hasn’t made it yet,” her publicist had told me on the boat. A few weeks later, she was unable to stop People from printing Paula’s quotes comparing her struggles to those of “that black football player” Michael Sam, quotes she did not make while drunk and quotes she was not tricked into saying. The publicist was gone soon after.
“In my opinion,” continued the publicist, back in happier times, “she’s a wonderful person.”
I did not tell her what a wise man once told me about opinions.
The digital network is the Mayflower to freedom from mainstream scrutiny that so many of our American martyrs have sailed: Glenn Beck, too conservative for even Fox News, took his emotions to a digital TV and radio network and a news website that he owned, knowing that his fans would pay $100 a year to hear his sobbing wisdom. Sarah Palin beseeches you, on a site that features an actual countdown calendar to the end of the Obama presidency, to join her “beyond the sound bites,” and to “cut through the media’s politically correct filter” on her channel.
The culture of underdog boosters gathers around such figures once they are spotlit and then ejected from the mainstream by the media for their alternative values, or their mistakes. When Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Duck Dynasty, said incendiary things about homosexuality and sin, his empire only grew bigger; not one bit of his reported $400 million was ever at stake. On Paula’s network, she is no longer beholden to the gentry of appropriateness and our pointy-headed approaches to right and wrong. The only thing is, you have to opt in hard for it. You won’t find it flipping channels. You have to pay for it. Freedom isn’t free. But it is discounted if you pay for a whole year at once.
Still, it is not a foregone conclusion that the Paula Deen Network will be successful. The least expensive subscription costs the same as Netflix, but Netflix has great movies, and a variety of them, and even some cooking shows. Right before the network launched, The Wall Street Journal announced that Paula had purchased her library from Food Network, which was just fine by them. Cooking shows cost, per episode, up to $75,000 to make, and Paula got hers back for a very nominal fee — my very educated guess is about $500 per episode. But you don’t need reruns or a network subscription in order to cook like Paula: According to the Google alert I established when writing this story, every single recipe she’s done is floating around somewhere on Pinterest.
She’ll also learn what Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck already know, which is that to make these things work, you need at least 100,000 subscribers — and that’s just to become profitable, not rich. Glenn Beck does well, but that’s also because he makes a ton of money of selling discounted NRA subscriptions.
Throughout the cruise, we were told that the reason attendance was so low was because it was January, that we should consider coming on the July cruise, to bring our grandchildren, just like Paula planned to, that it will be much better. But July came and there were only 90 people aboard, 39 fewer than on the January cruise.
Gawker and I discovered the cold room in the spa thanks to the ’Bama girls on the last full day we were at sea. We sat in towels and we talked about racism. One of them, upon hearing that I was Jewish, did her impression of a Jew for me. I couldn’t tell if this was a Southern Jew, or if she just couldn’t withhold her accent from the impression. In the impression, the Jew is in a rush and she is nagging at her husband to keep moving; I am not sure which stereotype this plays into. She told me that her father had had an alcoholic father, and that on Christmas, the black field hands would come into the house and put apples inside socks so that her father and his siblings would have a present on Christmas. She remembered one of them, very old, talking to her one day about this and she broke down when she remembered it. “I don’t know why I’m crying,” she said, there in the cold room.
It’s very complicated to be from the South. It’s a culture that begs to be celebrated for its values, and yet how do we reconcile wholesome Americana and slavery? It’s a culture that longs for the rights to its nostalgia, for a better time, and yet the rest of the country believes that it’s now that’s the better time. We Northerners like to take a lot of credit for fighting to free slaves instead of fighting to keep them, but there isn’t an innocent region of the country, is there? The problem is, we are all reflexively nostalgic, and how are you supposed to long for something that should never have existed? How are you supposed to parse what was good and what was bad about our childhoods and families when it all seemed good at the time?
These are all valid questions, but they have nothing to do with Paula Deen. While I’m fairly certain that the martyrdom offered up to her is a cloak she is eager to wear, it’s not one she necessarily donned intentionally, or that holds an ounce of sincerity. Paula found the limits of what she could say, and for that she is sorry, but go look at her network. Go on her cruise. Listen to her talk about herself like a victim. “So many lies. You cannot believe anything you read,” she said during one cooking demo, when asked about still another rumor, that she’d taken a diet drug to lose weight. She squinted her eyes behind her Prada glasses. “But our laws are set up to protect the guilty,” and the crowd—her crowd, her supporters, her constituents — clucked an mmhhmmm along with her.
So often we attribute a lack of kindness or decency to something endemic to the culture. But Paula Deen got into this mess because of Paula Deen. She can be unapologetically ruthless when it comes to growing the fortunes of her family while keeping those around her just not-broke enough to survive and be grateful — and this ruthlessness she hides behind the very acceptable Southern value of looking out for your children. She can use her warmth and charisma to pull people in, and she doesn’t quite understand or care about the damage she’s done when she shows them the door. And though she may not say the N-word anymore—and she sure as hell won’t admit to saying it if she does ever again — she is still someone who will call out her longtime bodyguard in front of a crowd to show he is as “black as that board” (referring to a chalk board) and therefore how could she be racist? She is someone who will invite Brad the Grill Sergeant on a cruise — Brad, who is a a real person, who served our country, and who is now reduced by the Paula Deen machine, and I regret, also by me in this story, to someone who is just a token of his color — and leave him wondering exactly what he’s doing there and maybe even, in the pit of his stomach, knowing full well what the answer is.
You can be not-racist and still be kind of a bad person.
On the final evening, we all gathered on the back deck and listened to an a capella group. Brad sang “L-O-V-E” and Paula clutched her heart, voice of an angel. Sandi and Martha ordered me a daiquiri; they found it very hilarious that I would drink daiquiris, though I could never figure out why. Sandi invited my family to stay with her in North Carolina sometime, and maybe we will. I talked to Bunnie, who is married to Bob, a former pro-football player — you could imagine how they shone in their Homecoming dress—and who can’t help but tear up when she considers all that Paula has been through in the last year. “I just pray for her every day,” Bunnie said. “It’s been a hard year; she’s been busier than a one-armed paper hanger, but she’s needed our friendship, and so we’ve been there for her.”
Bunnie cried, and I cried, too, though I’m not sure why. She was a good heifer, that Bunnie. They all were. I took a picture with Bunnie and Sandi and Martha and the ’Bama girls and good old Gawker; Bubbles photobombed it. Paula and Michael slow-danced off to the side, Hollis guarding them at the perimeter. They were there but they were not, out of reach to others, existing only for themselves.
This story was written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. It was edited by Mark Lotto, fact-checked by Hilary Elkins, and copy-edited by Will Palmer. Illustrations by Earl Barrett-Holloway for Matter.