After her shocking admission to using a racial slur – and fumbled attempts to apologize – celebrity chef Paula Deen is dropped by the Food Network and struggles to hold her reputation – and empire – together. What will she do next? Will she survive this scandal? Is apologizing enough? This week’s issue of PEOPLE investigates.
Last Sunday Paula Deen was able to carve out a brief moment of joy, celebrating the christening of her stepdaughter’s baby girl near the Savannah home she shares with husband Michael Groover. “The subject of the sermon was stand strong. She felt like it was a message,” says a source close to the family. During the service, “when Paula went to pray with the minister, he said, ‘We’re behind you,’” adds a Deen pal. “She got emotional.”
Since the Food Network announced it was severing ties with Deen – after she admitted in a deposition released on June 19 that she had used the N-word – the shamed TV chef has needed all the support she can get. She has been “beyond devastated,” says a producer friend of Deen’s. “She can hardly put one foot in front of the other.” The 66-year-old was not prepared for the fallout. Deen posted not one, but three awkward apology videos. “I beg for your forgiveness,” she implored in one – but it wasn’t enough. Smithfield Foods became the second company to cut ties, with other retail partners considering their options as well.
The consequences are personal for Deen. “She isn’t upset about the loss of money because she has all the money that she’ll need. She’s upset about her reputation,” says the producer friend. “She can be a little clumsy or insensitive, but she is not hateful. Her real issue is that she has an inappropriate sense of humor.” Adds Deen’s former publicist Nancy Assuncao, “She’s a bawdy broad, and she goes too far sometimes. I don’t think she realizes that some things aren’t appropriate to say.”
It was Deen’s southern sass that transformed her from a local caterer to a multimillion-dollar culinary mogul. The Food Network launched Paula’s Home Cooking in 2002, inspiring fans to try her sinful recipes like the donut burger – a hamburger patty nestled between two donuts. Last week the same loyal fans descended on Savannah and waited up to three hours for a seat at her restaurant. “She said some things that she shouldn’t have said,” says diner Evelyn Agan, 59. “But it was a long time ago.” Online, the Deen faithful took to the Food Network’s Facebook page to express their ire, with comments like, “I am formally boycotting this network,” and “I am furious with you for what you did to Paula Deen.” A source close to Deen says, “Paula is strong because her fans are strong.”
Also, “Her sons have been so good to her,” says the producer friend. Jamie, 46, and Bobby, 43, whose Food Network contracts remain intact. They are “telling her that nothing has changed in the way they feel about her.” A Deen friend adds, “The boys are there as the rock-solid family members they’ve always been. They’ll do anything for her.” Now Deen can only hope others will come around too. “She’s trying to figure out what’s next for herself,” says a friend. “Paula likes people to like her. She hates it when just one person doesn’t like her, let alone millions.”
More on Paula Deen is featured in the 7/08/13 issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.
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