Telling the truth may be Deen’s undoing

Opinion Column

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Honesty. It’s such a lonely word.

— Billy Joel

While an Albany group’s plans to build a Paula Deen Museum are no doubt low priority for the celebrity chef today as she goes into damage-control mode to try and keep her considerable empire from crumbling around her, the museum idea that generated so much excitement in this community has taken a damaging, if not mortal, hit.

The Food Network announced Friday it would not renew Deen’s contract when it runs out at the end of the month, in essence severing ties with the celebrity whose star wattage had played a crucial role in making the network relevant. Deen’s ability to connect with a global audience helped the Food Network, which had been little more than a seldom-watched TV peculiarity for foodies, become a must-watch for millions of casual viewers.

In a deposition given last week as part of a racial discrimination suit brought against Deen and her brother, Earl “Bubba” Hiers, the celebrity chef admitted that she had in the past used the so-called “n-word” in reference to black people. The backlash that followed once the transcript of that deposition was released led to a furor that included the Food Network’s decision to end its relationship with Deen.

One of the key members of the local group behind the Deen museum effort said Saturday that the group, despite the controversy, had not changed its plans.

“The people behind this project love Albany, they love Paula Deen and they love what she represents,” businesswoman/restaurateur B.J. Fletcher, who has announced plans to run for the Albany City Commission, said. “Every person in this country deserves their day in court, but it looks like the Food Network has already convicted Paula.

“Our plan to bring a Paula Deen Museum here was not just about Paula; it was also about Albany. It was an opportunity to bring people who’d never been here to our community and show them what all we had. What Paula said was wrong, but it’s nothing different than what pretty much every other person in this country has said at one time or another.”

Ironically enough, it’s Deen’s well-documented penchant for saying what’s on her mind — a trait that TV executives and Hollywood types not accustomed to honesty found “quaint” — that created the controversy that swirls around her today. Certainly some of her advisers would have recommended that she either “talk around” tough questions posed during her deposition or that she out-right lie.

But Deen chose to tell the truth.

Responding to a question about whether she’d used the offending word, Deen replied, “Yes, of course.” She went on to describe how she’d told her husband about a 1980s bank robbery by a black man and suggested she might have used the word then.

A former employee of Paula Deen Enterprises who is suing Deen accused her of using the particular racial epithet while planning a 2007 wedding party.

The controversy has already cost Deen her highly visible position with the Food Network, and it seems likely that some of her many promotional deals are in jeopardy as well. Companies that “loved” Deen’s down-home honesty when she was the darling of the food world are just as likely to hate the way she’s now become a figure of controversy.

A high-ranking African-American Albany official once told me he had more respect for people who were open in their racial mistrust than for whites who “said all the right things to your face, then turned around and started dropping ‘n-bombs’ behind your back. I’ll take honesty,” he said.

That’s what Paula Deen gave when she was deposed. Sadly, it may be her honesty that’s her undoing.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.