Paula Deen's TV Sob Story

The TV chef’s emotional “Today” show interview proved riveting television. But getting a handle on how it might help or hurt her is as slippery as her beloved butter.

Paula Deen, whose empire built on plainspoken folksiness is crumbling under the most unwholesome of words, tellingly sought refuge in a colloquialism during her interview Wednesday on "Today." 

"I is what I is," the suddenly former TV chef tearfully told Matt Lauer.

The phrase – by turns oddly charming and perhaps unintentionally revealing, saying nothing while perhaps saying it all – typified the extraordinary interview, which followed news of Deen’s past use of the N-word.

For Deen, who has spent countless hours on television serving up Southern-style comfort food, the appearance marked the most painful – and crucial – 13 1/2 minutes of tube time in her career. For Lauer and millions of NBC viewers, the Deen sitdown delivered 13 1/2 minutes of riveting television – packing a raw, emotional intensity unlike other, slicker celebrity apology tours.

Maybe that’s partly because Deen, who posted a pair of mea culpa YouTube videos last week, didn’t do much actual apologizing in her conversation with Lauer. "I have never, with any intention, hurt anybody on purpose" was the closest she got.

She cried – a lot. The tears seemed as real as the 66-year-old grandma's carefully crafted homespun TV persona, no more so than when she invoked the Bible.

“If there’s anyone out there that has never said something that they wished 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,” Deen declared with an almost chilling conviction.

The power of a familiar figure weeping before us, as we’ve learned from Oprah, can’t be underestimated. It was difficult to tell at times, though, whether Deen was crying for herself, for those she may have hurt – or for both. She spent much of the interview playing a combination of offense and defense, insisting she’s no racist and decrying the “lies” against her.

Deen described spewing the slur “a world ago” after a black man put a gun to her head during a bank robbery in the 1980s. But she denied other uses and didn’t directly address her alleged plans for a “Southern plantation-style wedding.”

She tried to turn the conversation to young people’s “distressing” use of the N-word. That echoes the defense of many of her supporters, but comes across to some critics as a false equivalency.

Getting a handle on how the interview might help or hurt Deen, who lost her Food Network show because of the controversy, is as slippery as the butter that's the star of her culinary repertoire. For a woman who parlayed a simple approach to cooking into a fortune, she’s put herself in a mess that reflects the complicated racial history of a country now split between those she’s offended and those who defend her.

Paula Deen is what she is – which is open, as we’ve seen in recent days, to vast interpretation. Whether she changed any minds during her 13 1/2 minutes with Lauer remains to be seen. Still, she’s now likely to be as defined by those 13 1/2 minutes as by that ugly word she admitted to using at least once three decades ago. Check out the interview below:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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