Everyone has advice for Paula Deen these days.
The down-home Southern food maven is catching plenty of criticism in the wake of her cringe-worthy attempts to recover from the release of a lawsuit deposition in which she acknowledged using racial slurs.
There were the much-derided videos – not one but three. Some said she didn’t speak out quickly enough. Others advised that the celebrity cook stay silent for a while, not do any interviews until the fuss blows over. And now, after Deen broke down in tears in an interview with “Today“‘s Matt Lauer on Wednesday morning, some P.R. pros say Deen still hasn’t done enough to take responsibility for her transgressions.
Deen’s day got even worse following the “Today” interview when a casino resort company dropped her name from four buffet restaurants and Wal-Mart — which has faced plenty of stereotypes about its own shoppers — decided to end its relationship with Deen’s Southern food empire.
But all that advice implies that Deen’s road to recovery is similar to those of other celebrity figures — Martha Stewart, Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, Michael Vick — who rebuilt their careers after a fall from grace. Americans have short memories and give second chances to their celebrities, the conventional wisdom goes, and at some point, we’ll all forgive and forget.
Maybe so. But Deen’s case may also turn out a little different. That’s because her scandal reinforces stereotypes — simplistic ones, to be sure — of Southern culture. She already personified perceptions so often used to mock the South: the deep-fried cooking and the big hair, heavy makeup and even heavier drawl. For those people who, consciously or not, already paint all Southerners as prejudiced people, the Deen lawsuit deposition fits squarely into the mold.
Before Martha Stewart was accused of insider trading, no one associated the domestic guru with white-collar crime. Likewise, Tiger Woods’s epic sex scandal came as a shock to many of his fans, as it wasn’t in keeping with the disciplined, focused golf professional. But Deen’s admission that she used racial slurs — and her interest in planning a “plantation party” complete with black men as servants — fits with an image, albeit an unfair, outdated and overly simplified one, of Southerners and race.
That could make Deen’s scandal stick — and make it stickier for her to recover from it.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.