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The Chrissy Teigen-Alison Roman debacle underscores the fundamental flaws of food media

This post has been updated.

On Friday, Chrissy Teigen, the cookbook author and general force of nature, took to Twitter to express what seemed like genuine pain over recent comments from author and New York Times cooking columnist Alison Roman, who basically accused Teigen of creating a brand-name empire that was sprawling out of her control.

By the time the weekend was over, Teigen’s tweet had generated conversations about white privilege, white feminism, a lack of diversity in food media, casual racism, hollow apologies, women who take down women, hypocrisy, wild online conspiracy theories, whether the rich and famous deserve sympathy, and celebrities who must take a break from social media to regain their sanity.

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It was, in short, a multicar pileup on the information superhighway, and many people slowed down to take a look. But did they learn anything as they stopped to gawk? Did they ask themselves tough questions? Or did they do what most people do on social media: finger point, ridicule and take the side of the argument that’s most comfortable for them? Twitter is a platform with an inherent contradiction: It’s a place where we go to be seen and heard, and where countless people will never truly see and hear us.

There were lots of tough questions asked over the weekend, not just of Roman and Teigen, but of a wider food media establishment dominated, especially at mainstream organizations, by white writers and editors (like myself). Those who hold those jobs (like myself) clearly have more to learn about language, cultural dynamics and privilege. In a world where the balance of power still resides in largely white-controlled management offices, it’s rarely, if ever, a good look to criticize how people of color find happiness and success in society.

Let’s review the evidence.

The multiday affair began with an interview in the New Consumer, in which Roman told Dan Frommer that “what Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me.” Roman continued:

She had a successful cookbook. And then it was like: Boom, line at Target. Boom, now she has an Instagram page that has over a million followers where it’s just, like, people running a content farm for her. That horrifies me and it’s not something that I ever want to do. I don’t aspire to that. But like, who’s laughing now? Because she’s making a ton of [expletive] money.

Not coincidentally, in the same interview, Roman also took a swipe at Marie Kondo, the best-selling author devoted to decluttering our lives. When Frommer asked Roman about the fine line between consumption and pollution, the author of “Nothing Fancy” sought to point out the hypocrisy of Kondo. “Like the idea that when Marie Kondo decided to capitalize on her fame and make stuff that you can buy, that is completely antithetical to everything she’s ever taught you,” Roman said.

It wasn’t just Roman’s opinions that rubbed readers the wrong way; it was her language. She labeled Kondo a sellout and casually described the Japanese author as a “b—-.” Roman even appeared to mock the English-language syntax of those native to Asian countries, though Roman said she was actually quoting from an Eastern European cookbook as an “inside joke.” Roman also suggested that Teigen, as the face behind the Cravings brand, was running a “content farm,” with its overtones of disinformation and manipulation.

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Enter Teigen’s tweet from Friday. (She made her account private after saying she was going to “take a little break” on Sunday.)

“This is a huge bummer and hit me hard,” Teigen tweeted about Roman’s comments. “I have made her recipes for years now, bought the cookbooks, supported her on social and praised her in interviews. I even signed on to executive produce the very show she talks about doing in this article.” Teigen then suggested that they should probably unfollow one another, advice that Roman has so far declined to take.

Roman offered a public apology on Twitter, not long after Teigen’s original tweet, saying she was “genuinely sorry I caused you pain with what I said,” and calling her comments “flippant” and “careless.” (Roman did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.)

Roman added in a follow-up tweet: “Being a woman who takes down other women is absolutely not my thing and don’t think it’s yours, either (I obviously failed to effectively communicate that). I hope we can meet one day, I think we’d probably get along.

The apology seemed to go over like a fallen souffle.

From here, the Twitter threads unspooled in many directions, some more serious than others. Some were quick to point out that Roman criticized only people of color for their capitalistic tendencies, but didn’t specifically call out Gwyneth Paltrow for her Goop lifestyle brand, which hawks products of questionable scientific merit.

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It wasn’t long before the conversation turned to the lack of diversity in food media and how its white complexion leads to the kind of comments that Roman throws out so casually about people of color.

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Yes, Teigen and Kondo had plenty of defenders. Some were more high-profile than others. Chef and humanitarian José Andrés offered his support for Teigen, as did the model and celebrity cook’s own husband, otherwise known as the multiple-Grammy Award-winning musician John Legend. Kondo had plenty of supporters, too.

But because these conversations were happening on social media, it didn’t take long for the tone to turn dark. Some brought up the in vitro fertilization process used to conceive Teigen and Legend’s two children, as well as the unfounded conspiracy theories linking the couple to the late Jeffrey Epstein’s pedophile ring. Others just suggested Teigen was not above the kind of criticism leveled by Roman.

By Sunday, it apparently was all too much for Teigen, who took a break from Twitter and made her account private. Before signing off, though, Teigen wrote, “I really hate what this drama has caused this week. Calling my kids Petri dish babies or making up flight manifests with my name on them to ‘Epstein island’ to justify someone else’s disdain with me seems gross to me, so I’m gonna take a little break.”

“This is what always happens,” Teigen continued. “The first day, a ton of support, then the next, 1 million reasons as to why you deserve this. It never fails.”

On Monday, Roman posted a lengthy statement of apology on Twitter, calling her original comments “tone deaf,” “stupid, careless and insensitive.”

“I’m a white woman who has and will continue to benefit from white privilege and I recognize that makes what I said even more inexcusable and hurtful,” she wrote.

“I also want to acknowledge that this is part of a broader, related discourse about cultural appropriation in the food world, and who gets to be successful in this space,” she wrote. “I want anyone reading who has been hurt by my actions or comments (past or present) to know that I am listening and I am sorry. I commit to being open and receptive to this conversation as it continues and to accept the criticism that is coming my way and to try to do better.”

Not even two hours later, Teigen ended her brief Twitter break to thank Roman for her apology and explain that success and fame brings with it the need to more carefully consider one’s public remarks.

She added: “I still think you are incredibly talented. And in an industry that doesn’t really lend itself to supporting more than a handful of people at a time, I feel like all we have are each other!”

Where was Kondo as these arguments were unfolding? She was sitting this one out, clearly understanding that her life doesn’t need such messiness. Teigen acknowledged this, too, on Monday, tweeting “and if anyone needs a lesson on how less is more, please look at the amazing Marie Kondo, who so very wisely didn’t say [expletive] through any of this.”

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