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Southern-fried Deen

Celebrity cook's road back from racism controversy will be a bumpy one and could be a dead end, damage-control experts say

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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 out 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 L.A.

"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."

So far, what could go wrong pretty much has, said Larry Kopp, president of The TASC Group, a communications firm for 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 misbehaviour?

"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, adding: "It's been a very long time." And she said she doesn't use the word anymore.

She bailed on the Today show on June 21, instead posting a series of criticized YouTube apologies. She was dropped by the Food Network the same day.

She did appear on Today June 26, dissolving into tears and saying that anyone in the audience who's never said anything they've regretted should pick up a rock and throw it at her head.

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.

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 Monday.

Galliano 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.

While Galliano was always considered a bad boy, 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.

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."

On June 26, Caesars announced it was taking Deen's name off four buffet restaurants in the U.S. The company said its decision to rebrand its restaurants in Joliet, Ill.; Tunica, Miss.; Cherokee, N.C.; and Elizabeth, Ind. was a mutual one with Deen. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced it will no longer carry Deen-branded merchandise.

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-fuelled 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.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 27, 2013 C8

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