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Paula Deen's Controversial Year

Piper Weiss
Shine from Yahoo! Canada
March 7, 2012

Paula Deen in February. (Photo by Serg Alexander/Getty Images)
Paula Deen in February. (Photo by Serg Alexander/Getty Images)

Paula Deen is used to trouble:  She's been robbed, had a ham thrown at her head and been called the "worst, most dangerous person."

That's nothing compared to her problems in 2012. Since January she's been at the center of controversy that's only gotten worse in the past week. The latest accusations come from the former general manager of a restaurant she co-owns with her brother in Savannah.

Lisa Jackson, who worked at Uncle Bubba's Seafood and Oyster House for five years, has filled a sexual harassment lawsuit against Deen and her brother Bubba Hiers, claiming the siblings are responsible for a hostile work environment rife with sexism, racism and other types of "outrageous and intolerable conduct."

In court documents, Jackson claims when Deen promoted her to GM she said she was "going to do something I've never done. I'm going to put a woman in a man's job." That's just the beginning.

Jackson accuses Deen's brother of repeated sexually explicit comments and advances, even spitting at her in one instance. She also claims she was underpaid compared to male employees in similar positions.

Perhaps the most shocking accusations are of Hiers' blanket racism, including slurs, physical attacks and forcing black employees to use a separate bathroom and entrance. Jackson believes Deen overlooked her brothers' racist attacks instead of addressing them.

In a statement on behalf of Paula Deen Enterprises, attorney Oliver Maner called Jackson's allegations "baseless" and "inflammatory". Maner accuses Jackson of "threatening to go to the press and ruin Paula Deen’s reputation and the reputation of her businesses unless we paid her a large sum of money."  

"We refused to bow to that kind of pressure and refused to pay money to address false claims," claims Maner. "We will hold Ms. Jackson and her lawyer accountable for these false allegations."

If Jackson was looking to soil Deen's reputation, as Deen's lawyer suggests, she was late to the game. Her lawsuit comes on the heels of a separate controversy the celebrity chef has faced since January. After months of speculation, Deen admitted to having Type 2 Diabetes. It's a secret she's kept from her fans for the past three years.

"I made the choice at the time to keep it close to me, to keep it close to my chest," she told USA Today at the time. "I felt like I had nothing to offer anybody other than the announcement."

Not everyone would agree. Critics complained she was protecting her brand at the expense of her fans' health. Famous for her deep-fried butter-battered recipes, Deen's made millions off of the kinds of meals that contribute to dangerous health problems like Diabetes. One of Deen's most famous recipes, hawked on her Food Network show and in her recipe books, is The Lady's Brunch Burger. A few of the ingredients: a beef patty drenched in butter, topped with bacon and a fried egg and pressed between two glazed donuts.

"When your signature dish is a 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," longtime Deen critic and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain told Eater.

The backlash worsened when the chef announced she'd been named a spokesperson for the Diabetes drug Novo Nordsick, prompting many to accuse her of being a hypocrite and again profiting from her lack of dietary responsibility.

Appearing on The Today Show in February after dropping two dress sizes, Deen was in image-saving overdrive. The challenge of regaining trust, maintaining her down-home gluttonous cooking brand and still projecting a healthier image with a new drug partnership in tow, was a challenge even for someone who's been tackling sordid headlines for years.

Still, Deen's troubles last month were a cakewalk compared to these new alarming allegations. Just weeks after a major report on the rampant gender inequality in the restaurant industry, some wonder: is Deen a part of that problem too?

Back in January, when her long-hidden health problems were first revealed, Deen told USA Today: "I don't care what the haters and naysayers say. If they make jokes about me, I'll laugh because they'll probably be funny." It's hard to imagine her laughing now.

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