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. Failure—sometimes spectacular failure—is a necessary part of the story; otherwise what is there to climb back from? So it’s no surprise that on Sunday, Paula Deen, the celebrity chef who fell from grace after charges of racism, “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 niggers” 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 or not 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. The tale, recounted in her memoir, is genuinely inspirational. Deen was unhappily married at 18, had a child at 19, and lost both her parents by age 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 at the time was how deeply Deen inhabited the tale of her dark decades. She spoke about that time like she’d just climbed out of it, even though more than 20 years had passed. 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 of the piece 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 that Deen told several times during the cruise about how she and Turner had first met at a cooking show in Dallas:
As the story goes, 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.” But Deen will not only repeat the story many times on the cruise, she will also re-enact it, hearing Turner sing “My Cherie Amour” and then rushing over to him as if it’s the first time all over again, as if she didn’t even know he was there, telling her husband, “It’s the Grill Sergeant! No one told me he was coming!”
For people like Paula Deen there really is no difference between the truth and the stories she tells herself. Some people on that cruise—and no doubt at the food festival—will gravitate to her now for unsavory reasons, believing that she too is secretly incensed that a white person can’t have a plantation-style wedding anymore. Some people just crave a story that ends how it’s supposed to: “You don’t need to apologize!” they yelled in South Beach. “We want you back, Paula!”
One measure of sincere remorse is that the person apologizing doesn’t profit from the error, does not immediately get to spin it into a story of ultimate triumph. 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 event, urged by celebrity chef Robert Irvine, who was accused of resume fraud, she straddled his back and yelled, “I’m back in the saddle!” She may not get a second chance on the Food Network, and she may not even have another best-selling cookbook, but in America there are a million places to win from losing, and Deen will surely ride off to one of them.