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June 26, 2013

The Comeback Trail: Is Paula Deen toast in controversy?

NEW YORK — Will Paula Deen go the way of Michael Richards or Charlie Sheen?

One unleashed a bigoted tirade and is no longer a lovable, easily employable clown. The other carved a brand out of crazy — reported hotel N-word rant and all — but is back on TV earning millions.

Her Food Network shows gone, her endorsements crumbling, is Paula Deen — in a word — toast?

A week after Deen’s admission of using racial slurs in the past surfaced in a discrimination lawsuit, pop culture watchers, experts in managing public relations nightmares and civil rights stalwarts who have tried to help other celebrities in her position see a long, bumpy road ahead.

They also see a week full of missteps and believe the queen of comfort food reacted too slowly to her latest controversy at a time when hours count. They say it could take years, if she can make it back at all to the earning power she has enjoyed.

“Paula Deen has, I would say, taken an irreparable hit because she had this appearance of being more or less a nice older woman who cooks food that’s bad for you. That in her own way sort of made her lovable,” said Janice Min, editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter in Los Angeles.

“But this presents a whole other picture of, ‘Wow, maybe she’s just an old racist white southern woman.’ That image is hard to shake off for a large chunk of people,” Min added.

So far, what could go wrong pretty much has, said Larry Kopp, president of The TASC Group, a communications firm for sports figures and celebrities with experience in high-profile, racially charged cases. His current clients include the family of black teen Trayvon Martin, whose shooter, George Zimmerman, is on trial for second-degree murder.

In celebrity terms, where do Deen’s troubles land her in the crowded hierarchy of misbehavior?

“I think it’s right up there with Mel Gibson,” Kopp said. “One of the first rules of crisis is to apologize thoroughly and completely and immediately. She didn’t follow Crisis 101.”

Deen, 66, and her brother, Bubba Hiers, are being sued by Lisa Jackson, a former manager of the restaurant they own in Savannah, Ga. Jackson accused them last year of sexual harassment and a hostile environment of innuendo and racial slurs.

According to a transcript of Deen’s deposition, an attorney for Jackson asked Deen if she has ever used the N-word.

“Yes, of course,” Deen replied, though she added: “It’s been a very long time.” And she said she doesn’t use the word anymore.

She bailed on the “Today” show on Friday, instead posting a series of criticized YouTube apologies. She was dropped by the Food Network the same day.

An apology, at this point, isn’t enough, said Dara Busch, executive vice president and managing director of Rubenstein Associates in New York, a top PR company.

“It will take years for her to fix how she will be viewed by the African American community. She has to find ways to prove that she’s not that way any longer,” said Busch.

Howard Rubenstein, who founded Busch’s firm and is known as a damage control guru, helped facilitate Richards’ apologies to the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson after the comedian was caught on video using the N-word and making a lynching reference on stage against a black heckler. Rubenstein declined an interview.

Kopp said Richards apologized over and over on TV and elsewhere, yet his career has never been the same.

Gibson’s work life imploded after he claimed Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world and was caught berating his ex with the N-word, though he still works behind the camera.

Deen has already surpassed the actor in the apology department, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League who has met regularly with John Galliano after the fashion designer’s inebriated rants about Hitler were caught on video.

“Mel Gibson really never apologized. There’s this apology, ‘If I offended anybody, I didn’t mean it.’ That doesn’t go anywhere. You have to be specific. What, where, who. Mel Gibson never really stepped up to the plate,” Foxman said by telephone Monday while on a trip to Jerusalem.

Galliano, who recently sat down with Charlie Rose for a rare interview, has studied Jewish history with rabbis, owned up to addiction and tried to atone, Foxman said, yet he’s struggling as Richards is to make it back professionally.

Will Deen follow up with action to back up her apologetic words?

“I want to believe her, that she’s not that way anymore,” Foxman said. “It used to be very simple rules: You say something that’s offensive, that’s hurtful and there’s a formal apology, an explanation, and depending how severe it is, you do a good deed, you volunteer, whatever. There used to be a clear path. It used to be over. That was before the Internet.”

While Galliano was always considered a bad boy on the job, Deen’s ability to earn a living depends on a squeaky clean, though cheeky, reputation despite her hiding her diabetes for years, then signing on as a paid endorser of a drug for the condition while continuing to cook up deep-fried everything on TV.

The previous controversy may have dinged her, but it didn’t take her down.

“You know, this sort of thing hasn’t been a career-ender for that many people,” Min said. “But she’s reliant on television, pretty much mainstream wholesome television, to prop up her brand. If you’re not on the Food Network, you just don’t have too many other places to go.”

Smithfield Foods, where she had her own line of hams, also dropped her this week as a pitchwoman.

Min, Kopp, Busch and others say Deen has been her own worst PR enemy in the fallout from her race-fueled deposition, which also included her seeing the “beauty” in a Southern-style wedding she once considered for her brother, complete with formally dressed black waiters.

That and her oddly spliced video apology, later swapped out for an unedited one after she bailed on Matt Lauer and the “Today” show, “made her seem shifty, sort of erratic and strange,” Min said. “She had already dug herself in by waiting three or four days before talking at all and what she finally did say dug her in a little deeper.”

Sharpton knows that “we’ve all said things we’ve regretted,” and he’s not particularly worried about what words Deen used long ago. “She’s being condemned for now. There’s a live lawsuit accusing her of racism and bias now and that’s what I’m concerned about,” he said.

Deen was invited back on the “Today” show Wednesday. If Sharpton had the chance to swap seats with Lauer, what would he counsel?

“I would tell her if she’s guilty of this she should be prepared like Michael Richards to lose a lot of her gigs,” he said. “It’s one thing to have done something growing up in the South, or in your past. It’s another thing that in your success you continue to do that, and she like anyone else should have to pay a price if that’s what she’s done.”

———

Follow Leanne Italie on Twitter at http://twitter.com/litalie

 

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