Embattled celebrity chef Paula Deen’s efforts to climb her way to redemption after a humiliating racial discrimination scandal last year continued Tuesday, in the place where the intensely public aspect of it all began: The chair across from the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer.
A year ago, after Deen admitted in her deposition for a racial discrimination lawsuit that she had used the N-word, her cooking show was canceled and partners and sponsors bailed. Deen then appeared on “Today,” declaring to Lauer in a tearful interview: “I am not a racist.”
That interview was startling, if only because it revealed the depths of Deen’s lack of understanding regarding the gravity of what she had admitted to in that deposition. She had not only acknowledged freely (to her credit) that she used a deeply offensive word to describe black people, but she also admitted to having daydreams about recreating a “Southern plantation-style wedding” replete with African-American servants playing roles of their slave ancestors.
On Tuesday morning, Deen returned to the “Today” set and as archival tape rolled of her tearful interview with Lauer a year ago, she refused to look.
“I don’t know that woman, and when I see things like that, I’ll run from the room,” Deen said. “I probably should not have been here, I probably should have been at home, maybe even under the care of a doctor.”
So a year later, does Deen finally understand why her admissions sparked the outrage that it did?
“I have to say it took me a while because I was confused as to the length of time since that kind of … those words had been part of a language,” Deen said. “I had a hard time understanding, because it had been 30 years.”
Plenty of others have come to her defense, noting that at the age of 67, Deen is entitled to make mistakes and come to an understanding that the world is vastly different from the one she may have been raised in. Her life’s work should not irreparably suffer from mistakes of her past, New York University professor John McWhorter, an African American, wrote in the midst of the fallout last year.
But all of this comes against the backdrop of Deen’s attempt to stop the hemorrhaging that her own admissions have caused to her brand and business.
Deen is now pitching her new subscription-based television network, which will air her old Food Network shows as well as newly produced episodes. She is opening yet another new retail store in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. And she says there are plans for a Paula Deen documentary as well.
It is this steady stream of self-promotion mixed with mea culpa that is mildly unsettling. Indeed, when Lauer asked what lessons she learned from the controversy, Deen did not begin with an apology, but rather with another pitch.
“Matt, I’ve learned so much for the year, I really feel like it’s going to require another book,” Deen said.
Several moments later, after going on about “telling her story” through a book and a documentary, she returned to self-reflection.
“Frankly, I disappointed myself, and for that I’m so sorry,” Deen said. “I’m so sorry for the hurt that I caused people because it went deep. It went deep.”