It's probably safe to say that few of her viewers were surprised when down-home-cooking doyenne Paula Deen announced on Jan. 17 that she has Type 2 diabetes. Deen's recipes are so gruesomely unhealthy, so prodigal in their use of butter and cream and sugar and all the things we are supposed to avoid, that her show has, for several years now, had an almost libertine glee to it. Deen, 64, shrugged off cholesterol, damned the consequences and embraced her role as the Hunter S. Thompson of the Velveeta set. Now that she has diabetes, her critics are crowing, as she surely knew they would. But Paula Deen may know her audience better than they do.
The Food Network star, who has earned a prodigious income in recent years from both her show and a portfolio of Deen-branded products--everything from cookbooks and eyeglasses to hams and mattresses--admits that she has known of her ailment for three years. But now, she says, she's going to start talking about it--as a paid spokeswoman for the manufacturer of a diabetes drug. Many observers don't know whether to be horrified or high-five her. But that is very much the spirit of her career to date.
After all, it's Deen's very doggedness and her refusal to bend to contemporary mores that have made her what she is. Deen knew that, and her enormous success over the past decade on the Food Network was based on her personal lan and a freewheeling indifference to health concerns that in today's climate seemed in some weird way heroic. The woman just didn't care; she was going to deep-fry some Twinkies, and that was the end of it. The result, just as our mothers told us, was predictable. "Paula Deen was going to have some kind of health problem," says New York City chef Franklin Becker, the co-author of a well-known cookbook for diabetics. "It might not have been diabetes, but it would have been something. If you cook that way, if you eat that way, you're going to get issues." Becker, who has the same ailment as Deen, says he "completely identifies" with her to-heck-with-it approach to cooking, as he felt the same before his diagnosis. But not everybody feels so sympathetic toward her right now.
The truth is that Deen has some real questions to answer, and she hasn't done a very good job so far. It's one thing to be diagnosed with diabetes after you've built a career promoting bacon-wrapped mac and cheese and other I-dare-you dishes that contribute to obesity--a risk factor for developing the disease. But Al Roker, speaking for tortured dieters everywhere, asked her on the Today show why she took so long to tell people the news. The Georgia native responded with some folksy claptrap about how she was waiting to come forward until she could offer her "friends" some "hope." The eyes of even her admirers had to roll on that one. (She told USA Today that she knew "when it was time, it would be in God's time.")
Deen has yet to say anything especially helpful; on the website she just launched with the makers of an injectable drug that triggers insulin production, the only dietary change she revealed is that she has "cut back" on sweet tea. ("For a Southern girl, that's a big deal!") Meanwhile, she has diversified her revenue stream, profiting from her new status as America's First Lady of Diabetes even as her son has started his own show doing Paula-lite recipes on the Food Network's Cooking Channel.