Updated 6:55pm ET
After a week of intense scrutiny, celebrity chef Paula Deen defended her reputation in an exclusive Today show interview Wednesday, blasting recent stories besmirching her character as “lies” and insisting she has only ever used the N-word on one occasion.
“There’s been some very, very hurtful lies said about me,” she told NBC’s Matt Lauer, adding later that she was “distressed” to find “people I’ve never heard of are all the sudden expert on who I am.”
Deen insisted she was not a racist, and when asked how she could have used the racial slur that clearly offends so many African-Americans, she focused on the extreme circumstances.
“The day I used that word, it was a world ago. It was 30 years ago,” she said, referring to a robbery. “I had had a gun put to my head.”
Lauer asked Deen to explain the part of her deposition in which she talked about how “most jokes” focused on “Jewish people, rednecks, black folks” and said that “I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.”
Lauer: Do you have any doubt in your mind that African-Americans are offended by the N-word?
Deen: I have asked myself that so many times because it’s very distressing for me to go into my kitchens and I hear what these young people are calling each other. It’s very, very distressing.
Lauer: And you never joined in on that language.
Deen: No, absolutely not, it’s very distressing. It’s very distressing for me because I think that for this problem to be worked on that these young people are gonna have to take control and start showing respect for each other and not throwing that word at each other.
Deen has overseen a small empire of food-related businesses from hosting TV cooking shows to authoring cook books and endorsing products, but has lost some of those high-profile deals since her deposition in a discrimination lawsuit leaked to the media last week. In the transcripts of the deposition, Deen revealed her past use of the N-word, her desire to throw a “true southern wedding” with exclusively African-American waitstaff, and jokes about “Jewish people, rednecks, black folks.”
She released two video apologies Friday afternoon, but her most high-profile deal soon dissolved, as the Food Network announced later that day it would allow her contract to expire. Since then Smithfield Foods has also announced it will drop her deal, while QVC has said it is weighing its options.
Deen said she felt “lucky” to have only lost two of her deals. ”There’s only two that has dropped me,” she said. “And I am so very thankful for the partners I have that believe in me.”
Shortly after her appearance on the Today Show, Caesars Entertainment Corporation, which runs Paula Deen-themed restaurants at four properties, announced it would not be renewing its business relationship with Paula Deen Enterprises. Later in the day Wal-mart announced they were ended their relationship with Deen’s company as well.
“I am here today because I want people to know who I am,” she said.
“And people who’s worked beside me, who’ve walked beside me, know what kind of person I am,” she said, adding later she would leave it up to the people who know her to highlight the work she’s done for “people of color.”
She also spoke warmly about the fans who have come to her defense in recent days. “I think that we can never underestimate the power of those voices, because these people who have met me and know me and love me, they’re as angry as the people are that are reading these stories that are lies.”