Lessons Learned from the Rise and Fall of Paula Deen

The rise and fall of Paula Deen is a cautionary tale.  A southern cook who scraped her way to the top with no culinary school background and a few family recipes, Paula Deen represented some of what is so powerful about the South – a connection to family heritage, a welcoming “Hey Ya’ll” and abundant good food.    Her big laugh, big hair and her Southern charm took her to a $17 million a year empire.  But it also created a world bigger than I think she ever imagined and one that is not nearly as forgiving (at least in the short-term) as you might hope.

This is not the first controversy for the former TV chef.  In 11 years, there have been a few.  Most notably, in recent years, was her revelation that she was diabetic.  After years of teaching people to add more butter and more cheese and more and more and more, her personal dietetic choices left her in the crosshairs of public scrutiny.  Nevermind the fact that she never told people to eat like that all the time (something she herself said she does not do), by virtue of her teaching people to cook those delicious dishes, she had somehow “promoted” the unhealthy lifestyle that may or may not have attributed to her diabetes.  (I will note: there are a host of reasons that someone can be labeled diabetic and it is not exclusively tied to your diet.)

She has endured the public slaps of Anthony Bourdain (who has made quite a few remarks about other TV chefs like Rachael Ray in addition to Paula Deen).  She has been lambasted for creations that feature the Krispy Kreme donut (like the Krispy Kreme Bacon Cheeseburger – two donuts serve as the bun).  There have been people who were unhappy to find out that Ms. Deen has a saucy sense of humor and when seeing her in public, have been turned off that her TV persona is so wholesome while her real personality is not.

However, the current criticisms of Ms. Deen, have by far been the worst.  First, if you have not read the deposition, I urge you to.  It is long and trying but it does clarify some of the remarks that have been mischaracterized by the press.  I have heard everything from “she admitted to using the n-word often” to “she flagrantly used the word often” to “she mentioned she used it once and never again”.  What she actually said was, she remembered one time she specifically used it after being held up in a bank she worked at and she was telling her husband about the day.   And that she couldn’t remember if she had used it other times in her life, but she probably had.

Ms. Deen is over 60 years old.  I can’t remember if I used a word last month much less years and years ago.  She did not say she used it recently.  She did not say she used it regularly.  She said, that she probably had at some time used the word.  She could have been 10, she could have been 50, but she never says that.  Granted this is a pretty loaded word.  But there was a time when it was used with much more frequency and it is possible that is what she was referring to.

Either way, she used the word.  Which is more than many of us can say.  Whether it was cause to end her career is really the question.  And no matter the question, we seem to already have the answer.

I want to take a moment to look at the lesson in this part of the story:  Words have power and in this day and age they will come back to haunt you.  I don’t believe that Paula Deen should have lied about her past – it certainly would have been easier to just say she never used it but it would have been a lie.  And those depositions, now part of the public record, have been used against her – right or wrong.  We cannot escape our past.  And in today’s age, your past will not disappear.  I would like to use this story of Paula Deen to warn the young women so willing to pose nude on a text message or on the internet…it is now part of the public record and it will always be there – no matter how long ago it was.  So lesson one is: Your past will follow you once you make it public (and sometimes when you have not).  Watch the choices you make and understand the future potential consequences.

For the second part of the story, we have to go to the company Paula Deen Enterprises which holds our next cautionary tale.  Paula Deen invested in her family – her two sons have made careers that started on their mothers’ coattails and still tie into her brand (note Bobby’s show is all about redoing Paula’s recipes).  And she invested in her baby brother Bubba.  Bubba is the subject of the controversy that is bringing down his sister and a good deal of the deposition is about him and his restaurant.  She owned it but she trusted him to run it.  She apparently had very little interaction with the restaurant and the running of it on a daily basis.  Or at least that is how she portrayed it.

And that brings us to our second lesson: Be careful what you attach your name to and who you trust to run it.   It is hard to imagine that giving your brother a business could be a bad thing.  But if you are not able to be there to help oversee it, it may be the wrong choice for you.  She could have given him the money to start the business and not had it under her umbrella company and truthfully, she would not be here right now.

Finally, the last cautionary tale is from the aftermath of the controversy.  Paula posted 2 videos and then appeared on the Today show with Matt Lauer.  In none of them did she come out looking well.  I don’t think she should have hidden – it would only fuel the flames.  But in today’s media savvy time, she needed a publicist – and bad.  Her response to all of this has been as raw as I am sure she is – “I is what I is” she famously said on the Today show.  But when you have $17 million a year on the line, you need more than that.  So the last lesson is: When you find yourself in need of help, real help, you need to go to the experts.  Going with your gut, when you find yourself with such raw emotion, can be dangerous.

I am not going to comment on my personal feelings about the controversy other than to say – read the deposition if you want to know what she really said.  And then, and only then, can you really draw your own conclusions about her.


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