Paula Deen has gotten quite a drubbing in the media since revealing that she'd waited three years to tell the world she had diabetes. She crushed any chance of public sympathy by opening up about her disease while endorsing a major diabetes drug, for which she was paid millions of dollars. But last night, Deen made a bold bid for sympathy on Oprah Winfrey's new show, "Oprah's Next Chapter." Though she did not address her diabetes directly, the show is filled with dark personal references to mortality and anxiety about money.
The central trauma in Deens' early life, as it's depicted in the episode, was the early death of her father. Paula was 19 when he died, and she struggled to reconcile that tragedy with her religious faith. She came to believe that her father had died so young because God was trying to spare him the pain of watching her die.
"I was my daddy's princess. And God was gonna take me. I was gonna die," she explains. "And God knew my daddy couldn't take that, so he went ahead and took him first. So at 19, I woke up every day waiting to die. That's heavy." Here's the clip:
Deen's mother died just four years later, leaving Deen and her family in a state of financial turmoil. That led, Deen says, to serious anxiety about money -- one that persists to this day, much to Oprah's surprise. Deen tells Oprah that she has a recurring dream in which she "can't even find two nickels in [her] purse." Her central hope, she explains over brunch, is that "I want to put them in a position where, if I die, I never have to worry about [my family] being hungry." Here's the video of brunch:
The message of the episode serves a canny PR purpose for Paula. The idea here is that Paula is worried about dying -- perhaps of diabetes -- and she wants to be able to provide for her family before she does. That's a lot more sympathetic than Bourdain's idea that Deen is just plain greedy. And there's genuine pathos throughout the episode; there's no doubt that Paula has suffered a lot and worked hard to succeed.
Still, it's hard not to see Oprah's failure to ask Paula about her diabetes as a disappointingly missed opportunity. TThe show was filmed before Deen made her diabetes public, so it's possible that Winfrey's team didn't know to ask. But we're talking about a woman who once reunited a Rwandan genocide refugee with her long-lost family. It seems hard to believe that Oprah wouldn't have known that Paula, a longtime friend, had been diagnosed with a life-altering disease.
Intrigued by the clips above? Don't fret: the Paula Deen episode of Oprah's Last Chapter airs again tonight, March 5, 2012, at 10 p.m. on OWN.