published Monday, July 13th, 2009

Young reporter meets famed queen of Southern fare

I’ve got to admit, I was no Paula Deen fan before going into today’s interview. Something about Paula Deen, easily the most widely known person I’ve ever interviewed, just didn’t sit well with me.

I’m not a fan of the Food Network. I don’t care for ham hocks or collard greens. I don't see how bacon grease makes everything taste better. I can't stand colloquialisms like “y’all” and “ain’t.”

And “Miss Paula’s” Southern twang — give me a break.

Not to mention the event Paula was appearing at was called She: An Expo for Women. I couldn’t help but wonder why a male reporter was sent to cover such an event.

But this was my assignment. Although I wasn’t exactly thrilled, I knew it would be a great opportunity.

Despite my reservations, I tried to enter the meeting with an open mind. My biggest worry was that I wasn’t worried or nervous at all. I was extremely confident that the talkative Paula Deen would give me as much content and as many sound bytes as I could need. And, from what little I’ve seen of her on TV, I surmised that she was an embracing, warm, person.

When it was time to start the interview, I told her handlers that we would be starting and I shut the door.

“In other words shut up!” she yelled at them.

That’s about the time my perception of Paula — that’s what she asked to be called — started to change.

Throughout the interview, I started to realize that this television persona is actually a real person. Behind the stylist, the bright lights and the pork fat is a genuine, living human being.

She pointed to the green plaid shirt she was wearing, touting how she found it at the Goodwill.

“You know, if somebody else has had it, then I know it was worth havin’,” she said in a seemingly sincere voice.

Paula said she has struggled with an eye problem for five months. She had to stop to dab her watery eyes, a problem she attributed to pollen.

Upon the completion of the interview, Paula immediately asked where she could go to smoke a cigarette, something I found oddly fascinating.

Paula discusses her smoking habit in the foreword of her book “Paula Deen: It ain’t all about the cookin’”:

“I’m a smoker. There, I said it. Hardly anyone outside my family knows that, and it embarrasses me because it’s an addiction I can’t be quit of, though I try every day. They say Jackie Kennedy was a chain smoker, but she would never allow herself to be photographed with a cigarette — and I get that real well because I also try my damndest to see that no one takes my picture with one. I love my fans so much and I hate to disappoint them; to see me with such a weakness will surely upset them.”

Bargain hunting, medical nuisances and hard-to-kick habits — these are things that many people can relate to. These are things that make us human.

I’ve realized, she's one of us. No better, no worse. She, like us, deals with the minutia of everyday life. (Even though she does have a sizable staff to help her).

Although not glamorous or necessarily attractive, these things made me like Paula in a way I never could have from just watching her make cornbread or pork chops.

Sure, she lays it on thick. Yes, she does seem to milk her Southern background for all its worth. Of course that accent can be annoying to us not used to it. But hey, it's worked out well for her. And that accent, southern hospitality and bacon grease seems to be worth a lot of money, too.

So I guess she's really just smart and business savvy — something she deserves respect for.

So, as much as I hate to admit it, I think I kind of might like Paula Deen.

Although, I think I’ve heard enough “y’all” for now.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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