For 10 years, wielding slabs of cream cheese and mounds of mayonnaise, Paula Deen has become television’s self-crowned queen of Southern cuisine and one of the country’s most popular chefs, with an empire built on layers of gooey butter cake, fried chicken and sheer force of personality.
On Tuesday, she suddenly unveiled a new career for herself: herald of a healthy lifestyle. In an interview on the “Today” show on NBC, she revealed — as has long been rumored — that she has Type 2 diabetes, a diagnosis she said she received three years ago. In an interview with The New York Times, she said the delay had been part of a necessary personal journey.
“I wanted to wait until I had something to bring to the table,” she said.
Now, Deen, 64, has brought to her own table a multiplatform endorsement deal with Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceutical company that makes Victoza, an noninsulin injectable diabetes medication that she began promoting Tuesday morning. She and her sons Jamie and Bobby (who do not have diabetes) are all being paid to spearhead the company’s upbeat new public-relations campaign, “Diabetes in a New Light,” which advocates using the drug along with eating lighter foods and increasing physical activity.
All the same, Deen said she would not change her own lifestyle or cooking style drastically, other than to reduce portion sizes of unhealthful foods.
“I’ve always preached moderation,” she said. “I don’t blame myself.”
Bobby Deen, who was at his mother’s side throughout the day, has a new healthful-cooking show, “Not My Mama’s Meals,” that began last month. Through a spokeswoman, the Food Network denied that it knew of Deen’s illness before last week.
Deen’s announcement, delivered with the liveliness of the head cheerleader she was back in 1964, testified to her savvy as an up-from-the-roots businesswoman, turning a personal setback into a fresh opportunity with a series of media appearances that played out through the day. Andrew Essex, head of the New York marketing agency Droga5, which advises candidates and companies on branding, said Deen’s bid for transformation was ambitious.
“There’s no question that she was the face of a certain kind of egregious indulgence,” he said. “If she can now become the face of healthy living, it will be a Gatsby-esque turnaround.”
Her revelation also adds a fresh story line to a roiling national debate about obesity, with elements of celebrity, schadenfreude and the current popular favorite, class warfare.