When celebrity chefs cut themselves, how much they bleed is a matter of brand.
Case in point: this year’s messy public eruptions around two of the food world’s most powerful women, Paula Deen and Nigella Lawson. Both made unsavory admissions about their pasts after being accused of unsavory acts. Both found themselves at the center of a whirlwind of negative publicity and lawsuits. And both had two big things to lose — fortunes and reputations.
But while Deen seemed helpless and shocked as her empire crumbled in June, Lawson has remained stoic and mostly unscathed after revelations this past week, and her image among loyal fans could even be buoyed in the longer term. And the difference tells us much about the power of personal brand in 2013.
Fact is, we love the spectacle of off-screen chaos in stars’ lives — the sex tapes, the arrests, the divorces, the boozing, the affairs. They become a value-added layer to the personalities we love to watch. But while some might be appalled by Kim Kardashian’s carnal video, it’s more awkward sideshow than personal affront. Stars are there to entertain us, even when they don’t intend to.
Food celebrities are a bit different. They seem more accessible and, however falsely, we bond with them. Their books, shows and tweets purport to bring us into their kitchens and connect us to their traditions in service of that most intimate of activities — sharing food. And we bring them into our kitchens, too, turning to them to help feed our families. So when they step out of line, how they’ve sold themselves to us matters, probably far more than they anticipated.
Deen was on the losing end of that lesson. This is a woman who urged fat-conscious America to embrace butter and all things fried. And she led us to the trough with a sassy grandmotherly vibe, a hard knocks coming-up story and tales of an amiable, genteel South. It was enough — barely — to insulate her in 2012 when she revealed she had both diabetes and a lucrative endorsement deal for a drug to treat the condition she’d until then hidden.