One of the most challenging bits about becoming your own product is that there is no “off-stage.”
When you are playing a role, people don’t expect consistency on and off stage. The cast and crew know that who you are on-set isn’t who you are off-set. You have the support of the rest of the production to really stay hot and bring the energy, because you are all together making this pretend world and all together being yourselves around it.
That’s not really an option for people who have a public role that they have to fulfill, as the story of Paula Deen reminds us. She understood who she had to play in front of the camera, or even in the dining room of her restaurant, but still believed that when she got to the kitchen, or when the doors were locked, she was off stage and that she could be someone else, a private self who was more good old gal than Gordon Elliot and Food Network would ever let her be.
I remember being told how to lie in a Gifted Child Society class when I was a kid, one of those extracurricular things I was taken to in New Jersey. Always make sure, the teacher said, that your lies have weight, that they line up with the facts, like garage receipts, otherwise they will come a cropper. If that was true in 1964, it’s certainly more true in an age of cell phone cameras and tweets.
That’s one big reason I eschewed pretense. I wanted honesty and integration in my life, and that’s what I worked strongly toward.
The problem, though, is in the subject of apparent transformation. We may know that the transgender experience isn’t really transition, but rather emergence of something that was buried, as Arlene Istar Lev reminds us, but that isn’t the way it looks or feels. It looks and feels like becoming new, not just bringing previously hidden facets of our character to the surface and polishing them.
It looks and feels like leaps are required. And a leap into a public persona feels like a tricky one indeed. We have to break old tethers and become new, not just on-stage, but on-stage and off. There really isn’t much place to have a secret and hidden life anymore.
That scares me some. Fake it ’till you make it sure, pretend you are the person you want to be, perform your best and considered self, sure, but for me, that means not being stopped by the pain and blood, by the wounds that taught me my lessons, by the introversion that let me cling onto reasonable and rational like twin masts in a roiling gale.
There is no off stage, but then again, being limited by my history and biology means being stuck beyond transformation, the transformation that I need and need to speak for in the world.
Claiming a potent performance seems key, but that also means leaping, not just scraping everything into some segmented and compartmentalized story.
After the jump, some other thoughts on Deen’s choices.
While most of the Food Network presenters, like Batali, Ray, Flay and DeLaurentis seem to have built their brands for the long term, focusing on the fundamentals, Paula Deen seems to have built her brand focusing on maximizing every opportunity, which is good in the short term. Get while the getting is good seems to be Deen’s strategy, doing everything from licensing her brand to lots of products at Big Lots to cafeterias at casinos.
There may be good reasons for this policy, including her age and her history, but by squeezing as much value out of her brand as possible now, she doesn’t make an investment in future viabilility.
This choice is revealed in the latest imbroglio, where she didn’t feel the need to work to get the fundamentals right with staff, instead indulging in her own entertainment of traditional jokes and ideas. That cost her, as short term thinking will always end up costing you something.
Food Network had to make a choice to stand with her or to cut her loose, and they chose to cut her loose. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this, as they may be seeing diminishing returns with Deen, but in the end, they decided their long term interest in looking respectful is more important than the short term losses that will come with losing Deen.
Paula Deen chose an opportunistic strategy for maximizing the benefits of her fame. That both paid off for her in the short term and cost her in the long term, as we could guess that it would.
I suspect that she will find other opportunities in the future, though less desirable and savoury than an alliance with Food Network, letting the cycle continue.