Paula Deen is in a legitimate scandal with this whole diabetes thing, and her clumsiness in handling it is getting her in trouble not just with the foodie set, but with groups that, with a little bit of courting, could have been her allies. Deen's in a low ebb right now, and she might just slink off the radar to become the Tanya Harding of celebrity chefs. But she can get her career back easily enough if she does some basic damage control. And there are plenty of examples to follow.
Deen's bad timing in announcing she'll be hawking a Novo Nordisk-made diabetes drug as she revealed she had diabetes earned her scorn from everyone from food lovers and health activists to advertising analysts and diabetes sufferers. Gawker's Hamilton Nolan called her a "greasy villain" for her craven hypocrisy in continuing to say fatty foods are alright, and Anthony Bourdain tweeted, now famously: "Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later." Diabetes advocates, for whom Deen could so easily have become a spokeswoman, now say she's a hypocrite for keeping her condition a secret for three years. And even the people who are supposed to be cool with cynically making money off image say she's taken things too far. On Thursday, Eric Webber slammed her in Advertising Age as setting a bad example:
It's the kind of thing that gives our industry a black eye -- the reputation that we'll do anything, sell anything for money. That at best we operate in a gray area and at worst our ethical compass isn't well calibrated. That our most marked characteristic is not creativity but cynicism."
Clearly, Deen is getting it from all sides and she needs to start making some power moves in order to get her reputation back. If not, she won't even get to renew that Novo Nordisk contract for which she traded so much goodwill. It's called crisis management, and celebrities are supposed to be great at it. All Deen has to do is follow the lead of those before her who've fallen and resurrected. Here are a few simple maneuvers.
Have a big, public breakthrough, preferably with a lot of crying. Unfortunately, Oprah's off the air, so Deen won't be able to do a James Frey-style meltdown there. Which is too bad, you know, because that ultimately worked out pretty well for Frey. Oprah apologized for being mean, and he got more book deals and everybody was happy. But Deen didn't exactly lie directly to anyone, so she might be better off following the example of Kanye West just simply telling Jay Leno "I'm ashamed" for crashing Taylor Swift's MTV Music Awards speech. Or even Hugh Grant's "I did a bad thing" tour after he got caught with a prostitute. Both those guys are doing fine.
Deen hasn't conceded she's done anything wrong yet, and she's not going to get anyone on her side until she does. Telling people to eat cake while you sell them diabetes medicine is not going to work, Paula. You should apologize, not offer alternatives in the form of lasagna with seven cheeses.
Give up the Novo Nordisk deal. This one's obvious, but crucial. West gave up ruining people's acceptance speeches, Frey gave up writing fictional nonfiction, Michael Vick gave up dogfighting, Martha Stewart gave up insider trading. You have to give up the thing you're in trouble for, or nobody will believe your teary apology from above. After a little time you can surely get a new one, and you'll be much better at it and can charge a higher price because you'll have followed our next suggestion.
Become an activist for your cause. This does not mean signing big endorsement deals for products marketed to diabetics. That's what got Deen in trouble in the first place. It means really putting money and star power behind efforts to combat diabetes, loudly and frequently. Kathie Lee Gifford is the go-to example here. After it came out that a line of clothing she owned was made with Honduran sweatshop labor, she joined President Bill Clinton's task force on an international code of conduct policy. Now you've got Forbes crediting her as the "parent of corporate social responsibility." Michael Vick's another good example: After he finished serving time for running a dog-fighting ring, he lobbied for a bill to criminalize it even further. Now he gets to play football again.
Deen looks like she sort of tried to do the same thing a little, with her whole "Diabetes in a New Light" thing. But there's no note of social responsibility to that. It's all Deen-centric right now: "I didn’t want to let this slow me down. I wanted to take control and have a delicious time doing it." Fine, but what are you going to do for me now that I have diabetes from eating bacon burgers on donut buns? Instead of just offering costly medication slightly less-unhealthy recipes, Deen needs to become a full-fledged advocate for diabetes prevention, testing, and care.
If you can, make a joke out of it. This one will take a little time, but Deen's perfectly poised to eventually win people over by cracking a few jokes about her condition. Remember when Paul Reubens did that at the 1991 MTV Awards after he got caught masturbating in a porno theater and lost his job as Pee-Wee Herman? Hmm, maybe not. But it was hilarious. Michael Richards tried it on Curb Your Enthusiasm last year, referencing his 2006 racist rant at the Laugh Factory that pretty much killed his career. That one was fine too, but it's a lot harder to bounce back from yelling the n-word at somebody, so let's stick to Reubens as the best example here.
Deen's pretty common condition and the relative banality of the scandal she's in right now mean she's going to be all clear for joking about this just as soon as she's ticked off the above two boxes. Once she gets her admission out of the way and establishes her diabetes activists bona fides, Deen will be set to start making little cracks about how diabetes just means you're sweeter, or some such nonsense.
A little Southern charm, some heartfelt public chats with her fellow diabetics, maybe a couple dietitians visiting the show, and Deen will be back on everyone's good side in no time. Except for those who never could stand her. Like Anthony Bourdain.