When the Celebrity Redemption Cycle Breaks Down: Paula Deen, Serena Williams, and the Evolution of the Public Apology


When it comes to high-profile celebrity screw-ups, there’s an expected narrative for the public figures in question to follow. Somebody does something embarrassing for all to see, whether it’s using a racial slur or getting arrested or having an affair. Then he or she goes through the motions: holding a press conference, reading off a generic statement, and retreating for a few months, keeping quiet and biding one’s time, before attempting a comeback. But if the recent experiences of Serena Williams and Paula Deen are any indication, this narrative is falling apart — and it might be a good thing, for celebrities’ audiences if not celebrities themselves.

In the more high-profile of the two scandals, a leaked deposition transcript from a lawsuit filed by former employee Lisa Jackson showed Deen not just admitting to using the N-word in the past, but replying, “Yes, of course,” when asked. The details of Jackson’s allegations were even more horrifying: Deen and her brother, Bubba, reportedly instituted race-segregated bathrooms at their Savannah, Georgia restaurant, and Deen had supposedly entertained the idea of employing an all-black wait staff at a Civil War-themed wedding, refraining out of concern for her image. Unfortunately for Deen, her image took the hit anyway: by Wednesday afternoon, the lawsuit had spurred countless outraged op-eds, frenzied retweets, and, of course, a few memes.

By now, the source of the Deen controversy is well-trodden territory. What’s interesting, however, has been the chef’s response to a possibly career-ending PR fiasco. Initially, Deen appeared to be going through the motions, booking an appearance on The Today Show, the perfect place to regurgitate a shortlist of prepared responses to softball questions posed by sympathetic hosts. Deen would apologize profusely through a medium as old-school Americana as the food she cooks: daytime network television.

But then things got interesting: Deen canceled her appearance due to “exhaustion,” despite flying into New York for the interview, and opted to make a statement on her own. Two days later, a 45-second video appeared on her official YouTube account; strangely lit and poorly edited, it showed the Food Network star on the verge of tears, literally begging her family and fans for forgiveness. As suddenly as the video appeared, it was taken down — but not before a few archived copies made sure it survived. Within hours, two more videos surfaced. One, a two-minute long dispatch that simultaneously apologized to fans and denied Jackson’s allegations, was posted on a brand-new, unverified YouTube account under the name “Paula Deen.” The other, a 40-second explanation to Today’s Matt Lauer that she was “physically in no shape” to sit through an interview, was uploaded by former Reuters editor Matthew Keyes. Based on Deen’s outfit, both follow-up videos were filmed on the same day as the original clip.

The various apologies — and the drastic tonal shifts between them — are obviously an image-control screw-up for Deen and her management. But they’re also a fascinating peek inside the typically inscrutable world of celebrity self-branding. Whoever uploaded the videos, they are all obviously Deen, sending three very different messages that were presumably never meant to all see the light of day. In the first video, we see Deen at her most raw and most candid, failing to elaborate on her actions beyond a brief reference to “inappropriate and hurtful language” or even deny Jackson’s claims. In the second, we see Deen dial down the emotion in favor of calmly apologizing for what she’s admitted to (“I’ve worked hard and I’ve made mistakes, but that is no excuse”) and denying what she hasn’t (“My family and I are not the kind of people that the press is wanting to say we are”). The revisions to Deen’s original, presumably more uncensored statement are fascinating; the thought processes underlying them even more so.

The Deen controversy also had the unfortunate side effect of obscuring another celebrity scandal, this time centered on tennis star Serena Williams. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Williams offered her opinion on the Steubenville, Ohio rape trial — an opinion that sounded an awful lot like callous victim blaming: “I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you — don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? …Obviously I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.” Cue collective face-palm.

As with Deen, there’s a standard procedure Williams could have followed: hold a press conference, recite the necessary stock phrases, and get back to tennis. And just like Deen, Williams opted to voice her opinion before her scheduled public appearance, this time via her website. The original post feels distinctly unpolished; Williams begins, “What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only 16, is such a horrible tragedy!” She apologizes, describing herself as “deeply sorry,” but also refers to her comments as “what I supposedly said” (emphasis mine).

Within 24 hours, the original post was nowhere to be found, replaced by a dramatically more formal statement apologizing for her “insensitive and misinformed comments… Sexual assault perpetrated against men and women is never acceptable and *never* the fault of the victim.” The newer post scrubs any ambiguity from Williams’s apology, but replaces it with language that verges on antiseptic. The first statement, meanwhile, remains on sites such as Jezebel for all to see (and compare with the revised version).

Of course, both Deen and Williams followed the standard procedure eventually. Williams gave a press conference yesterday where she reiterated her apology (“I feel like, you know, you say things without having all the information”), and Deen is scheduled to finally appear on The Today Show this Wednesday. But as an audience, we already know what disgraced celebrities are going to say in official settings. What’s interesting, and relatively new, is the opportunity celebrities have to show us what they really think — or at least a different version of their thoughts than the airbrushed one that makes it through an army of publicists and managers.

Like most other cultural sea changes of the last decade and a half, this shift in how the public interacts with celebrities and their mistakes comes straight from the Internet. Much has been made of how media like YouTube, Twitter, and personal blogs allow public figures to “connect” with their fans, but it’s typically unclear what that connection amounts to beyond announcing TV appearances or dispatching a few one-liners a week. But scandals, and celebrities’ efforts to recover from them, give that connection a tangible meaning: an unfiltered, or at least less filtered, look at the denial, introspection, and self-adjustment that follow from being called out, loudly, by millions of people at once.

For those of us who pay attention to the fallout of celebrity screw-ups, dispatches like Paula Deen’s videos or Serena Williams’s blog post offer an alternative to the formulaic responses we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. It’s a more realistic glimpse at how people deal with the possibility that long-unquestioned views or impulsive actions could be genuinely wrong, and how that realization changes the way they think of themselves and their relationships. And as public figures with a certain level of influence over their audience, celebrities present an opportunity for their fans to undergo the same experience by proxy. The more we see Paula Deen genuinely grapple with her own racism and its consequences, or Serena Williams with internalized sexism and its impact, the more we’re prompted to do the same — meaning something more might come out of this week’s headlines than just #PaulasBestDishes.