A standard American testimonial must have a happy ending. Once lost, the subject has to be found. The messy details have to be shoehorned into a tidy narrative arc that dips before soaring greatly. So it’s no surprise that Paula Deen, the celebrity chef who fell from grace after charges of racism, recently “staged a comeback,” as the newspapers put it, by telling a crowd of adoring fans: “I am not a quitter.”
While not mentioning the details of the accusations — that she said she wanted to stage a “true Southern plantation-style wedding” for her brother Bubba complete with a “bunch of little n-----s” in antebellum costumes — Deen told the crowd at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival that if they hadn’t heard her apologize already she was going to do it again, right there while cooking chicken and dumplings.
Whether Deen is sincere in her apology is between her and God. But what’s certainly true is that Deen is caught up in her own story of sweet redemption.
A few years ago I saw Deen tell her life story to an intimate crowd. Deen was unhappily married at 18, had a child at 19, and lost both parents by 23. She then fell into a monumental two-decade depression during which she almost never left the house. Agoraphobia left her nothing to do but stay at home and cook, which is how she became a chef. What struck me was how deeply Deen inhabited the tale. There was no evidence of present-day suffering — her hair was perfect, her diamonds glittered, her mink coat was draped over a chair — and yet nearly everyone in the room cried (me included). The takeaway: When she’s recounting the arc, she is living it.
Recently Caity Weaver wrote a fantastic story on Gawker about going on a Paula Deen cruise. The best part is Deen’s interactions with Brad Turner, a chef known as the Grill Sergeant who was one of the few African-Americans on the cruise. Here is the story Deen told several times during the cruise about how she and Turner met at a cooking show in Dallas:
Brad was alone on stage, singing a song he had just dedicated to Paula; Paula, in another part of the auditorium, heard his voice and, wonderstruck, rushed the stage to see what angelic creature was capable of producing such a melody. They met. They danced. A Grill Officer and a Lady.
It’s possible, of course, that this story is true. But as Weaver points out, it would be a right well coincidence, for the obvious reason that “One of them could use a famous friend right about now, and one of them could do with a black one.”
For people like Deen, there really is no difference between the truth and the stories she tells herself. One measure of sincere remorse is that the person doesn’t profit from the error, but these days, when more than ever “losing is the new winning,” we are unlikely to see that from our celebrities. Deen for sure is not looking back.
At the end of her South Beach event, urged by celebrity chef Robert Irvine, who was accused of résumé fraud, she straddled his back and yelled, “I’m back in the saddle!” In America there are a million places to win from losing, and Deen will surely ride off to one of them.
is off this week, but will return next Sunday.