BREAKING… UPDATED (with video): TV’s Southern cooking queen Paula Deen confessed she was “heartbroken” when she sat down with Matt Lauer on Today this morning. This was her much delayed but much ballyhooed live interview to salvage her business empire in the wake of her admission she had used “the N-word” in her 66 years and The Food Network’s controversial decision not to renew her contract. “I’m here because I want people to know who I am,” Deen said, choking up. Lauer responded, “Millions of dollars are at stake for today’s interview. Are you here to say what you just said, or to stop the financial bleeding?” Deen replied, “I’m here because I want people to know who I am,” Deen choked up. “People I have never heard of are all of a sudden experts in who I am. And what hurts most is that their words are being given weight.”
I think Deen did very well on the show and cried at all the right moments. To build drama, the Today cameramen zoomed in on her anguished face throughout the segment, especially at the end when she really got going with the tears. For his part, Lauer is also trying to save his career with big ‘gets’ like Deen, and he followed a stern line of questioning sure to please those calling for Paula to be punished. But her supporters will not be happy with the way he treated her. He didn’t hug her or ooze sympathy; instead he sat back in his chair looking like judge and jury. By way of explanation, he said several times he wanted to keep the dialogue with her confined to business and not make it too personal.
“You’re the head of a brand,” Lauer noted, “Given the same circumstances, would you have fired yourself?” Deen responded, “Would I have fired me? Knowing me? No.” When asked by Lauer whether she was a racist, Deen replied simply, “No.” Then she added, “I believe that … every one of God’s creatures was created equal. I believe that everyone should be treated equal. That’s the way I was raised and that’s the way I live my life.”
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Deen raked in $17 million in 2012 and was the fourth highest paid chef last year, according to Forbes. But now she’s the subject of a national debate about old and new Southern attitudes towards race. The Savannah grandmother noted the many business partners who are sticking by her. But, on Monday, Smithfield which was selling hams with Deen’s name and face on them said it was ending their relationship and “condemns the use of offensive and discriminatory language and behavior of any kind”. Other companies like QVC, Sears and Target are sitting on the fence “monitoring the situation”. QVC last week said it has no plans to put Deen on the air at this time. “They say they’re weighing their options,” said Lauer. “I’m so thankful for my partners,” Deen persevered.
Lauer pressed her asking if, by birth or osmosis, she has racist tendencies. Deen said she was raised in a home that tolerated bad grades and curfew breaking, but her daddy told her that if he ever caught her thinking she was better than others, she’d catch it. Deen insisted she used the ‘N-word’ just once and that was “a world ago – 30 years ago” – when a black man at a bank where she was working put a gun to her head.
“Do you have any doubt African Americans are offended by that ['N'] word?” Matt asked. This gave Deen the opening she’d been looking for. “I don’t know. It’s very distressing for me to go into my kitchen and hear what these young people are calling each other,” Deen answered. “I think for this problem to be worked on, that these young people are gonna have to take control and start showing respect for each other and not throw this word at each other.”
That provided a good place for Matt to note the long lines outside Deen’s Georgia restaurants and the people organizing a boycott of the Food Network, and other supportive measures on her behalf. “Is your salvation that core group of fans?” Lauer asked. Deen didn’t really respond.
The host wondered if there wasn’t another side to Deen instead of “this personality we see, this warm sugary sassy girl of the South.” Replied Deen: “No. What you see is what you get. I’m not an actress. I’m heartbroken.” With that, Deen began to weep and talk about having to hold friends in her arms who were sobbing because they were so distraught over her situation. She noted that she’s had “wonderful support from Rev. [Jesse] Jackson.”
She continued: “If there is anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back, if you’re out there, take that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me, please, I want to meet you” as the Today Show camera showed a close-up of her mascara-streaked face and red eyes.
Lauer noted that in the deposition she said most jokes are about “Jewish people and rednecks and black folks”. But Deen said about herself, “I can’t determine what offends another person.”
Deen bailed on Lauer last week after she’d admitted to using the ‘N-word’ under oath in a May 17 deposition for a racial and sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former employee at the Georgia restaurants she owns with her family. On Friday, The Food Network announced Deen’s contract would not be renewed, though news reports say it had been under review because of sagging ratings for weeks leading up to the June 17 court revelation.