You know when she’s in the room because the voice is unmistakable. Paula Deen is still here. Still smiling and still doing her best to make people smile, laugh and enjoy a good meal. If we were to rewind the tape on her life and go back 12 months or so to the morning she sat with NBC’s Matt Lauer on The Today Show and tried to defend herself against allegations that she was a racist, the skies were pretty dark. Anyone watching that interview either cried with her, winced or perhaps both. Hardly a great week to be one of America’s most beloved television personalities. She had no choice really but to disappear, let the noise simmer down and make plans to return to the public eye, on a timetable that had yet to be determined. Radio silence comes to mind. If not for a few leaks about her son Bobby quietly getting married at her Wilmington Island home, there was nothing. Her staff, usually quick to chat on the street if you spotted them, offered little more than a smile. “She’s ok.” I remember getting one day late last summer. Was it a summer storm, would it last longer? How bad was the damage going to be. No one really knew. For Paula Deen’s part, however, there was unwavering faith. “You know, I knew that in the beginning of the 12 months. That does not say that you don’t feel the pain.” She told me this week on the set of the Paula Deen Network. “The pain was incredible. But so was my faith. For some reason God wanted me to have that experience.”
It would be easy to say “everything happens for a reason” and get back to work. We get passed over for job promotions or go through a messy break up and eventually those wounds will heal, and you move on to your next chapter. In Paula’s case, the last year has been very different. Accusations of racism in a racially charged society don’t go away watching bad television and eating Oreos. It usually takes a little more effort than that to change public perception, keeping in mind that some of that public will never be convinced that she isn’t who the plaintiff in a lawsuit said she was. That wasn’t about to stop Paula Deen from trying to find her comfort zone again. A comfort zone best described as spending time with her family, her team –which essentially is an extended family-and trying to show her fans a good time.
“It feels good.” She says. “I like to stay busy. This time last year, I went from a hundred miles an hour to zero. Everything came to a screeching halt.” “Now I’m back up to a hundred miles an hour.” How would you describe shooting for TV network essentially two weeks a month, 6 or so hours a day, promotional commitments for a 20 city tour of live shows and still trying to find time for your family? A hundred miles an hour seems conservative, but like so many others who have been lucky enough, she says “When you are doing what you love, it doesn’t feel so much like work.”
The comeback plan was hatched a while ago, obviously. Enter an investor with about $75-$100 million to offer to the mix and it’s amazing how quickly everything can come together. Her restaurant on Wilmington Island was closed and put up for sale, she has a new manager and a new public relations team. All eyes are on the future, trying to get passed the events of 2013 as quickly-and as graciously- as possible.
The television network is fascinating to see how it is coming together. There are a good many elements to it. There will be cooking segments of course. Some with Bobby and Jamie, others with some of Paula’s friends. I don’t know who they all are, but I can tell you there are a good many of them. There are lifestyle segments with Paula’s assistant Brandon Branch and even game shows. I will admit, I was skeptical at first when I heard the idea, but I saw one of the game shows being shot last month and they are funny. The Deen family knows how to spin a yarn and even make fun of themselves. Some of the things I’ve witnessed are truly entertaining.
“Sometimes I get a trolley.” Paula says “and we go down to the Lady and Sons and pull people out of line and say ‘you wanna come home with me and let’s cook.?” Can you imagine the look on that unsuspecting tourists face? And it doesn’t end there. “The other day I was roaming the parking lot of a grocery store, looking for a mother with children so I could share some easy affordable recipes.” Throw in some vintage Paula Deen spontaneity and it has all the makings of good television.
The same goes for her Paula Deen Live shows. 20 cities over the summer with two shows here in Savannah at The Lucas Theatre August 8th and 15th. It’s Paula on stage being Paula. The shows are produced by Paula’s long time producer Gordon Elliott, so naturally there is a lot of scripting and promotion of the network involved but the best part for Paula is pretty obvious “My favorite part of these shows is reconnecting with my fans.” She says. “They’ve given me an incredible amount of support. So to be with them again, it just recharges my batteries.” Her first time on stage in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee she cried as the crowd roared. The cynics will say that was part of the script. But put yourself in the position of a 67 year old woman who fought and clawed her way to the top of her profession, only to be dragged off against her will. If someone puts you back on the path to the top after an ugly fight, you’re going feel good standing on your two feet again. It doesn’t matter if you are wealthy or famous or not. That’s irrelevant. It’s human nature.
Still, she smiles and works as hard as she ever has to entertain her “salt of the earth” fans. So many have proven to her that they aren’t going anywhere. “They are the best people in the world.” She says. That’s her motivation these days. Enjoy her time doing something she loves for as long as she’s happy doing it. To see her at work and hear her talking about work you see a woman who absolutely has no plans of slowing down regardless of what gets tossed her way. “There’s a reason that this happened. I would never ask God why. Because I know that he will show me.”
See you on TV.