The Evil Marketing Genius of Paula Deen, the New Face of Diabetes

The television personality and southern food mogul waited three years before telling anyone she had developed type 2 diabetes. Why?


Yesterday, television personality and southern food mogul Paula Deen stopped by NBC's Today show and revealed to Al Roker -- and the rest of the world -- that she has been living with type 2 diabetes for several years. The carefully staged appearance -- and the rumors circulating about it for days before -- is one of the first steps in Deen's quest to rebrand herself as the new patron saint of healthy foods. But her approach to the issue has angered her critics, new and old, who feel she's deliberately avoiding any tangible connection between the butter-heavy diet she's spent years promoting on various Food Network programs and the onset of her disease.

Among the many strange health-related proclamations made during the Today show segment ("No, people are not gonna quit eating. We quit eating, we're all outta here" -- there apparently being no middle ground between abject gluttony and starving yourself), Deen painted diabetes as a game of chance, the result of "genetics," "stress," and, last but not least, "age." Her food, she claimed, was tangentially related at best. "Certainly Al," she said when asked about the effects of her cooking on her health, "that is part of the puzzle, but there's many other things that can lead to diabetes."

Deen also claims that she has always promoted moderation when it comes to her style of cooking and should not be held responsible as an entertainer for the lifestyles of others. "I'm your cook, not your doctor," she said. Except now she kind of is.

In conjunction with her "coming out," Deen has announced her new position as spokesperson for the Danish pharmaceutical giant, Novo Nordisk. The company manufactures Victoza, a non-insulin injectable diabetes medication which Deen is slinging from her new website, Diabetes in a New Light. Roker tried to approach the issue with Deen -- "We should mention you're a paid spokesman for Novo Nordisk," he said -- but was quickly rebuffed. "Absolutely, I have been compensated just as you are for your work. Yes," Deen responded. Moving on.

And that's the part, even if we know little about the specifics, that makes us feel uncomfortable. That's the part of this picture that's a little off. The "entertainer vs. educator" debate exists in a gray area that we know all too well. You might put it next to the same murky conversation -- ongoing argument? -- about violence in videogames, school shootings, and heavy metal music. Or every other "Is culture us or are we culture" quandary. Can you have one without the other? Must there be a relationship?

What's really unsettling here is Deen's role as an apparatus for an industry that sees more money in perfecting the expensive (for the patients) management of a disease instead of working harder to find a cure or to promote prevention, in which there is no viable financial market. Diabetes, a widespread, little-understood, but completely manageable disease, is a potentially evergreen market.

Deen's new lifestyle plan, as expressed on both Roker's couch and her new website, isn't about preventing diabetes or educating people about what factors -- dietary or otherwise -- might increase or reduce their risk of developing the disease, but learning to live with it after its apparently inevitable onset. "I'm here today to let the world know that it is not a death sentence," Deen says. "I'm gonna be there for you and help you manage every day of your life with this, because it can be done."

The level of ruthless business acumen on display here is deeply disturbing. Deen has known about her diabetes for years now -- years that she spent promoting the deep-fried, chocolate- and sugar-covered, on-a-stick diet that got her into this position in the first place. She didn't wait to announce the news because, as she put it, she "had nothing to give to my fellow friends out there." She could have given them new recipes, advice for living a healthier lifestyle, and some warnings about the causes of type 2 diabetes. Instead, she waited until she could corner the market on the (very likely) next phase of her constituents' lifestyle: a $500 per month Victoza prescription.

Image: David Kotinsky/Getty Images.