In an emotional interview, her first since she admitted having used racial epithets, Paula Deen tearfully told TODAY's Matt Lauer Wednesday that she is not a racist; that as a businesswoman, she does not think Food Network's decision to terminate her contract was right, and that she was unsure whether the N-word was offensive to black people.
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"
When Lauer asked if Deen, who was let go from the Food Network Friday, believed her offense was a fireable one, Deen said it was not.
"Would I have fired me? Knowing me? No," she said. "I am so very thankful for the partners I have who believe in me." Unfortunately for Deen, most of those partners would drop her by Friday.
The fallout from Deen’s admission that she’s used the N-word and had considered throwing a “plantation-style” wedding – which came to light during a legal deposition on May 17 and went public early last week – was fast and furious. By Friday, Food Network announced it was canceling Deen’s contract, after she failed to appear for a scheduled interview with Lauer and started posting a series of strange apology videos on YouTube.
By Monday, Smithfield Foods terminated its partnership with Deen, who raked in $17 million in 2012 through all her ventures and was the fourth highest paid chef last year, according to Forbes.
And the fallout continued Wednesday morning. Less than two hours after Deen's interview with Lauer, Caesars Entertainment Corporation, which operates Paula Deen-themed restaurants at four of its properties, ended its relationship with her. Hours later, Wal-Mart said it would stop selling Paula Deen-branded products as well, and by Friday, Target, Home Depot, QVC and Sears had all followed suit. [UPDATED on Friday, June 28]
During the deposition that launched the controversy, Deen was asked about racist jokes, and she responded that she could not determine what offended various groups of people.
On Wednesday Lauer specifically asked Deen if she had any doubt that African-Americans found the N-word offensive.
"I don’t know, I have asked myself that so many times," Deen said. "It's very distressing for me to go into my kitchens and hear what these young people are calling each other ... it’s very distressing for me. 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."
Experts: Deen's TODAY apology 'failed,' 'bizarre'
And while Deen said during the deposition that she was "sure" she'd used the N-word more than once in her life, she told Lauer Wednesday she had only used it to describe an incident in 1986, when she says she was held at gunpoint by a black man.
“The day I used that word it was a world ago -- it was 30 years ago -- I had had a gun put to my head,” said Deen, who continued to cite the incident.
When Lauer pressed her about the inconsistency, Deen insisted that the 1986 incident was the only time "in my 66 years on Earth had I ever used it.”
Deen also said that, despite the fallout, if she could go back and do it again, she still wouldn’t have lied under oath.
“There’s a couple of kinds of people that I don’t like, that I am prejudiced against, Matt – and that’s thieves and liars,” Deen said, before tearing up and recounting a conversation she'd had with her grandson about lying. Still in tears, Deen added, “I know how I treat people, I know my love for people, and I’m not gonna sit here and tell everything I have done for people of color … somebody else can tell that."
Deen conveyed that she sees herself as the victim in this controversy, describing herself as "heartbroken."
"I’ve had to hold friends in my arms while they’ve sobbed because they know what’s being said about me is not true," she cried. "And I’m having to comfort them and tell them it’s gonna be alright, if God got us to it, he’ll get us through it," adding that she's received "wonderful support from Reverend [Jesse] Jackson."
And while Deen didn't utter the words "I'm sorry" once during the 13-minute Wednesday interview, she did reference a previous apology on YouTube. Though she said last Friday that she wanted "to learn and grow from this" in one of her three YouTube videos, Deen told Lauer Wednesday that she "is what she is."
"If there’s anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back, if you’re out there, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me, please I want to meet you," she said. "I is what I is and I’m not changing."
After the interview, Lauer commented on air: "Without breaking any confidence …Paula was extremely, extremely emotional here in the studio after we went to commercial."
Fans and chefs have been divided over Deen’s comments and the consequences she’s faced. Thousands of people have posted on Food Network’s Facebook page to defend the celebrity chef, while others, including “Bizarre Foods” host Andrew Zimmern, have applauded the company for taking swift action to cut ties with her.
In discussing the interview, Savannah Guthrie made the point that "People probably went in with an opinion, and left the interview with the same opinion."
Former Food Network colleagues like Aaron McCargo, Jr., who is black, voiced support for Deen via social media. “Paula has always been very helpful and supportive throughout my career and as her friend, I’m saddened to see that she is going through a tough time right now,” McCargo wrote on Facebook Monday. “We are all human and we should never be quick to judge anyone...”
For some Southern chefs, the real tragedy is that this scandal has rocked the region in the court of public opinion.
“To say things like, ‘that’s just the way it’s always been’ is not only inaccurate, but far worse, it is lazy,” Louisville, Ky.-based chef Edward Lee, who blends Korean and Southern traditions at his restaurant, 610 Magnolia, wrote on Eater. “The South that I live and travel in is one that is buoyed by diversity, acceptance, generosity and love — the people and kitchens of the American South have enriched my life with culture and respect.”
Deen ended the interview in dramatic fashion, saying, “There’s someone evil out there that saw what I had worked for, and they wanted it."
This story was originally published on June 26.
First published June 26 2013, 5:00 AM