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Foodisphere Erupts Over Paula Deen Diabetes Announcement

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This time last year, we observed Paula Deen's birthday—today, January 19—with fond tribute to her Kit Kat bars and gooey butter cake.

This year, however, Paula Deen's all over the news, and the topic isn't just Deep-Fried Butter Balls. On Tuesday, she went on the Today Show to announce that she has type 2 diabetes, has for several years, and is now the spokeswoman for diabetes drug manufacturer Novo Nordisk. In quite a turnaround from the recipes she usually promotes, she's now the face of their diabetes management campaign Diabetes in A New Light while she's on their drug, Victoza.

But the reactions to this news have been just as disconcerting as Deen's announcement itself. Anthony Bourdain, it's little surprise, has little sympathy: "When your signature dish is hamburger in between a doughnut, and you've been cheerfully selling this stuff knowing all along that you've got Type 2 Diabetes... It's in bad taste if nothing else." (A follow-up tweet: "Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later.") Still, he's hardly the only one; comments and tweets all over the Internet have piled on, blaming Deen for her own disease and crying hypocrisy.

Frankly, the ugliness this brings out in all sorts of people is enough to make me want to turn off the Internet. But it's been pretty inescapable this week—even more so than an ordinary Paula Deen headline or "Bourdain Insults X" story.

So what about this really hit a nerve?

There's the fact that Deen's always been a bit of a scapegoat, her peddling of simple and fat-laden recipes a target for those promoting healthier eating or less reliance on processed foods (fairly or unfairly). There's the "I told you so" or "You get what you have coming" camp—the disease is strongly correlated with poor diet and exercise habits, and Deen is queen of adding an extra stick of butter or an extra layer of frosting to whatever's in the oven.

Of course, no blogger or outside observer is qualified to judge the exact nature of Deen's illness, and saying that she "deserves" her current health struggles is both unhelpful and uninformed. For all we know, she takes one bite of everything she eats on-screen and lives off steamed broccoli and grilled fish the rest of the time. (As a person in the food media myself, I know that I write about every doughnut at the Doughnut Plant and every soda from the Coke Freestyle machine—because that's what people like to read—but what do I eat on an average day? An egg white omelet and roasted vegetables.) Unlikely? Maybe. But claiming insight into Deen's health and medical condition based on a glance at her waistline and a recipe from her show is a little ridiculous. As with heart disease or skin cancer, there's an enormous difference between saying that certain behaviors (dietary habits, sun exposure) are correlated with the increase in risk of a medical condition, and that medical conditions are necessarily caused by them.

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Bacon Hamburger Fatty Melt. I mean, we're not advocating you eat THIS every day. [Photo: Robyn Lee]

Then there's the "people eat what they want and TV doesn't tell us how to live!" camp. In a sense, Paula Deen is no more responsible for her fans' eating habits than, say, Adam Kuban is. (The infamous Bacon Hamburger Fatty Melt—a bacon cheeseburger with two bacon-stuffed grilled cheese sandwiches as buns—could go calorie-to-calorie with any Deen creation.) Nowhere has Deen advocated that viewers eat her recipes for every meal, every day. As with all things, we're believers in moderation. Having a Bacon, Doughnut, and Egg Burger for brunch once won't leave you with any ill heath effects (other than indigestion). A habit of them? Yeah, it might.

But the very fact that she struck a lucrative deal reminds us that public figures do impact what we buy, do, and eat, and Novo Nordisk is banking a lot of money on that.

Probably the sanest reaction to this whole scenario was Jane Black's, noting that celebrities can have a real effect on the treatment and perception of disease:

Deen, despite herself, might just be the secret ingredient to changing the way Americans eat. If that sounds ridiculous, think again about the power of celebrity-awareness campaigns. Magic Johnson singlehandedly changed the debate about the AIDS virus when he public with his diagnosis of HIV. (It's worth noting, too, that the move hasn't damaged his career as a broadcaster and endorser.) Christopher Reeves, aka Superman, raised money for research on spinal cord injuries and public empathy for people with disabilities. Lance Armstrong, despite all the controversy over doping, has made supporting cancer research eminently cool.

What's different about Deen? There's the timing of her announcement, essentially revealing that she's spent three years making Twinkie Pies as a diabetic and then turning around to help others manage a disease that, in many cases, their lifestyle has contributed to. "What you eat has no consequences... but if you develop diabetes, take Victoza!" comes across as the message. It's hard to imagine Deen's motives are just to help others manage their illness when she spent years saying not a word about simple actions that could: namely, improving diet and increasing exercise.

The statement that she kept her illness private because "I knew when it was time [to tell], it would be in God's time" (told to USA Today) presumably credits the Almighty for her lucrative pharma-deal. Regardless of your religious beliefs, that's a pretty egregious claim. Even Ad Age, hardly a publication inclined to be cynical about advertising and celebrity brands, thought the situation was poorly managed:

Her illness is not just bad news for Deen, it's unfortunate for our industry as well. It's the kind of thing that gives our industry a black eye -- the reputation that we'll do anything, sell anything for money. That at best we operate in a gray area and at worst our ethical compass isn't well calibrated. That our most marked characteristic is not creativity but cynicism. And I don't object to her speaking out about diabetes or even getting paid for it. Yeah, the twinge of hypocrisy rankles a bit. But it's the PR choices she is making—colossal missteps in my opinion—that bother me and cast a pall on her and the image business.

I'm inclined to agree with both parties quoted above. Any person who chooses to be a public figurehead for disease management—and is paid handsomely to do so—should commit herself to addressing the disease and its treatment honestly, not shrug off Al Roker when he asks about the link between diet and type 2 diabetes. It is indeed a missed opportunity to have a national conversation about the way we eat—and the consequences of it. That's not an opportunity Deen seems to be taking.

And any public figure who suffers from a disease but conceals it until the sponsorship check cashes—well, comes across as a clumsy self-promoter, at best, and a crass opportunist willing to turn even her own health into a marketing opportunity, at worst.

Have you been following the Paula Deen story? Do you think there's anything wrong with Deen promoting Victoza? Does it seem like a savvy move? Or is this whole thing just blown out of proportion?

About the author: Carey Jones is the Editor of Serious Eats New York and co-editor of Serious Eats: Sweets. Follow her on Twitter (@careyjones).

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