The Anatomy of a Celebrity Flameout

Paula Deen is down. But for how long?

It was March 2012 when Lisa Jackson originally filed her lawsuit against Paula Deen‘s companies, naming Deen herself as a defendant and Deen’s brother Earl W. “Bubba” Hiers, and claiming Deen’s company created a hostile work environment saturated with sexual harassment and racism. It aimed mostly at Hiers, whose alleged work antics — showing pornography and spitting on Jackson, to name a couple — make Deen herself look downright grounded.

But the suit had plenty to say about Deen, too. It was here where Deen was originally accused of throwing around racial epithets and entertaining bizarre antebellum wedding fantasies, wherein black servers might “tap dance around.”

It was a damning allegation, but it took a full year before Deen — great American culture casserole that she was — flopped completely. Somehow, the lawsuit flew largely under the radar: A few major newspapers picked it up that spring, but after Deen avoided public comment through spokes-folks and attorneys, the news fizzled. Deen went back to the deep-fryers, and stayed quiet on the whole subject.

Until she didn’t. Until May 17, that fateful deposition day when she coughed up precisely the ludicrous celebrity soundbite the world needed to hear to bring the Deen empire down to just a few chicken strips. Once a trial brought Deen’s bigotry into the unforgiving public spotlight, the fallout was fast. Her agent, TV network and publisher slashed ties, and the public certainly made up its mind: She was as toxic as the trans fats she peddled.

Deen’s downfall hasn’t been unlike other celebrity downfalls we’ve witnessed recently. People we basically knew didn’t deserve our admiration, but tolerated because they hadn’t quite tipped the scales of douchery, yet. I keep thinking of Lance Armstrong, who was under federal investigation for doping for two years before his lies came into high-definition. And Michael Vick, who always seemed to be in trouble for one thing or another, but whose true character wasn’t completely condemned in the public eye until he pled guilty to dogfighting and, within moments, was stripped of his NFL jersey. Or even Chris Brown, who no one thought was a charmer, even before he admitted to beating the daylights out of his girlfriend.

In the steps celebrities take from fame, to shame, to recovery (because they always seem to recover, as Deen, I theorize, will too), the unfiltered confessional is the crucial second step. There’s a suspicion or an investigation, a “gotcha” moment that boils public outrage, and then, of course, an excruciating apology. In an era where our public figures’ lives are more transparent than ever, the celebrity apology has become a reflex. A ceremonial gesture that we culturally mandate but are never moved by. We insist they come forward with a “statement,” something to say for themselves, and then collectively fester in our disappointment or indifference when they do.

Armstrong’s Oprah interview was met with indignation; many thought it was more self-pity than apology. When Vick re-joined the NFL as a member of the Eagles a couple years ago, Philly Mag ran a piece about how his public remorse lacked enough authenticity for the public. A two-minute YouTube apology from Chris Brown would hardly cut it. Deen’s YouTube grovel was not graceful (nor sincere), but the point is that once a grave is dug, last-minute apologies don’t matter, anyway. All these public icons had left to do — and what Deen must do, now — is burrow underground for a while.

For some, this meant simply being knocked off their pedestals with lost sponsorships. For some, it meant good old-fashioned resignation (See: Spitzer, Eliot). For others, hard time. And when just enough time passed for them to tie their way back into the spotlight, even though no one had forgotten their crimes, they did so. And they weren’t run out of town. One blue-sky day, there was Martha Stewart in a K-Mart commercial. After a few days of griping and a couple of seasons, sports analysts were talking about the likelihood of Vick starting as quarterback with straight faces. Brown is still releasing pop hits like line drives. Armstrong himself is already tip-toeing his way back onto the cycling course.

Down the line, doesn’t it seem likely that Deen will land a couple of small public appearances? Maybe even forge a new book deal? Pretty soon, we may be downloading her elaborate pastry recipes and simply shaking our heads at the memory of that time she said that idiotic racist thing. Eclair, anyone?

Of course, willing consumption doesn’t equal forgiveness. Armstrong’s breach of public trust will never be forgotten, even if he does impress us with more cycling performances or charitable endeavors; there are some people who won’t even turn on an Eagles game because of Vick’s presence. Chris Brown will always be a malignancy on the roster of pop icons. But still, we’re surprisingly good at compartmentalizing our consumption apart from our character judgment. Remember that time Martha Stewart went to prison? Yeah, me neither.

Paula Deen may never overcome her newfound reputation as a Southern gentile bigot. We may never find that in our hearts. But as for her chicken pot pie? Well, there might be room for that.