Paula Deen offered a simple explanation for many of her most controversial actions of the past few years at a TimesTalk with New York Times Atlanta bureau chief Kim Severson on Saturday: naivete.
"I was so naive, y'all," she said. "I always think everybody thinks like me."
She first pleaded ignorance as a defense against charges of animal cruelty leveled against her after she signed on as a spokesperson with Smithfield Hams, which critics say mistreats its hogs. "I was always of the opinion that God put [animals] on Earth for mankind's survival. I had just never thought about it from another perspective," she explained.
She was at least as eager to chalk her divisive response to her diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes up to a kind of blind optimism. "I was so naive about that, too, Kim," she said, when Severson broached the topic.
Still, Deen gave probably her fullest account yet of what went on behind the scenes after she found out about her diabetes at the Times Talk. As she recalls it, her initial response to her diagnosis was denial. She just didn't believe that she had the disease. Eventually, more tests by doctors convinced her that they were right -- but even then, she didn't feel ready to go public, because she was still "absorbing it."
Plus, she felt confident that God would send her a message when it was time for her to tell her story to the world.
"To say I'm a very religious person, I can't say that, because I don't go to church. But I'm a very spiritual person. I knew that the opportunity to share would present itself," she said.
That opportunity ended up coming in the form of an unsolicited call from the marketing division of pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk. Deen says they had no idea that she had diabetes herself. They just wanted to partner with her on a website of diabetes-friendly recipes. She wondered how they knew that she had diabetes, given that she'd kept it a secret from almost everyone outside her family and friends. But it turned out they didn't. So she told them -- and, as she recalls, "they just about fell out of their chairs."
Deen says she was shocked by how negative the public response was when she announced that she was becoming the spokeswoman for Novo Nordisk's diabetes drug Victoza. "I couldn't understand the haters. It just about killed me when people were saying all that," she said.
But Deen has not responded to the stress by overeating. She has embraced moderation. And as a result, lost a great deal of weight -- over 40 pounds, she said. And her husband Michael, who was in the audience at the Talk, has lost 60. But that doesn't mean that she's changed her diet completely.
"Do I still eat fried chicken? I certainly do. Once every six weeks, maybe. Not once a week like I used to," she said.
Deen also touched on other hot-button issues on Saturday afternoon, thanks to unusually aggressive moderation by Severson. In one of the most awkward segments of the discussion, she addressed the South's history of racism and slavery, arguing that white people in Georgia are actually less racist than people in the North, because they've always lived in such close proximity to blacks. She noted that one of the people on her staff that she feels closest to was black, and called him up on stage to prove it. But she also said that she wasn't sure that racism would ever end completely, because many people instinctually experience prejudice, regardless of the color of their own skin.
"I think black people feel the same prejudice that white people do," she said.
At another point, Severson tried to get Deen to talk about her views on national politics. But that didn't go well. Deen flashed a deer in the headlights look and glanced over at her publicist, who signalled that Deen could not say anything. Not even when Severson asked her, "Romney or Obama? Quick. Go."
But Deen did reveal what she'd like to do if she were the president.
"Everyone would have health insurance. Everyone would have a job. Maybe a little land. And they could have as big a soda as they wanted," she said, to belly-laughs from the entire audience.