If you have an internet connection, functional ears, and staunchly liberal or conservative friends on Facebook you know about everything that’s happened with Paula Deen. Long story short, because of a disturbing lawsuit filed against Deen and her brother Bubba Hiers from a former employee word got out that Deen had made some racist remarks. As word spread her sponsors dropped her fast, and now people are wondering what will happen to the woman who used to be America’s favorite chef and top butter enthusiast.
This blog post won’t be about whether or not what Deen said was inappropriate, or if her sponsor’s decision to drop her was wrong. Deen didn’t get fired for expressing her views, nor did she get fired for being sexist/racist/butterist. Deen was fired because she was a very public figure for a lot companies, and she made the mistake of saying/doing something to upset the public. Deen has made the mistake that others have made in the past, and her whole debacle highlights the particular problem of building a business empire that’s solely based on the presentation and promotion of a person’s personal life story.
People loved Paula Deen’s feel good recipes, but what really propelled the woman into stardom was her life story and personality. Deen lived in poverty and was in an abusive relationship with her husband, and her comfort food gave her a way to escape the horrors of her relationship. Her food wasn’t just a mental escape; it offered a physical escape from her husband and poverty. She started off selling her sandwiches and dishes to locals, and after getting in touch with the producer and celebrity Gordon Elliott she was rocketed into stardom.
Paula was the perfect person to bring back southern food. She could cook like nobody’s business, she had an adorable southern accent, and she looked like she could easily be a stand-in for your average food loving southern mom, grandmother, or aunt. He trade mark “hey ya’ll” catchphrase and her origin story made her a beloved public figure, and soon her sponsors were selling the Paula Deen persona as much as they were selling her food.
It’s important to note that the lawsuit that got Deen in trouble had little to do with her, and focused on the wrong doings of her brother Bubba. Deen being associated with Bubba would have been enough to shake her empire, but her racist remarks are what put the nail in the Deen empire’s coffin. When people found out about Deen’s dark side, her image as the loving southern mother figure who wanted to feed you comfort food was utterly shattered. The persona that made her popular was gone, and the companies that were associated with her know that she would eventually start to be revenue poison.
Deen’s meteoric rise and fall shows the perks and perils of having your business propped up by her personality. Her southern charmer personality made her famous, but when people found out about her less desirable parts of her personality she was ruined. Beware of the allure of making yourself a brand. Once you become a brand, you better forget about being a person.