Why everyone is so angry at Paula Deen

Celebrity chef Paula Deen announced a few weeks ago that she had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes - three years ago. (Carlo Allegri / AP)

Today’s post is by Leah Roman, a guest blogger for The Public’s Health. Roman, a project manager for the Firefighter Injury Research & Safety Trends (FIRST) project at Drexel University School of Public Health, blogs regularly about the intersection of public health and pop culture at “Pop Health.” She can be contacted at lar92@drexel.edu.   

By Leah Roman

Last Tuesday, Paula Deen appeared on the Today Show to announce that she had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes - three years ago.  Almost instantly, the highly successful Food Network chef was portrayed as a money hungry enemy of the public’s health.  Paula Deen is not the first celebrity to conceal a health issue.  Michael J. Fox, for example, waited more than five years to share his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, yet he was instantly embraced as an advocate.

So why is everyone so angry at Paula Deen? 

In order for celebrities to become valuable public health spokesmen or advocates, they do not have to be perfect.  However, they must appear trustworthy, relatable and armed with accurate information about their condition. The reason that Deen has been rejected from these roles is that the public feels deceived.

The deception stems from two key issues:

  • First, the health issue on the table is Type 2 diabetes. Given that being overweight is a primary risk factor for the condition, people find it hypocritical that she continued to sell them on fatty, unhealthy recipes. In fact, when directly asked on the Today Show about the contribution of her diet to her diagnosis, she downplayed it completely. Instead, she made a point of highlighting other risk factors like age and genetics. In addition, she has continued to serve as a spokeswoman for high-fat foods such as Smithfield Pork Products and Philadelphia Cream Cheese despite her diagnosis.
  • Second, Deen waited to announce the diagnosis until she had signed an endorsement deal with Novo Nordisk (the pharmaceutical company that supplies her diabetes drug).  Although she claims that her partnership with the company stemmed from her desire to “bring something to the table when I came forward,” the public isn’t buying it.  In addition to appearing motivated by monetary gain, her primary focus on medication is an ineffective public health strategy. This medication – a daily injection marketed as Victoza – does not actually prevent Type 2 diabetes.  It simply offers a treatment to those who are already diagnosed.

A thoughtful opinion piece in the Washington Post highlights the “teachable moment” that Deen missed by alienating her audience. Teachable moments are important in public health. They let us identify a time when our audiences will be more open to prevention, education, and intervention because they see its relevance to their lives. Often the identification and sustainability of teachable moments are supported by media reports on the health and lives of celebrities. 

Our opinion of Paula Deen aside, we must admit that this celebrity has a strong influence on the public’s health.  With multiple Food Network shows and more than 10 cookbooks, she has a large audience that is watching and listening.  So she could still be embraced as a spokeswoman and advocate!  In order to win back our trust, she must make us believe that her motivation is to help others, not make money. We must believe that she acknowledges the role her cooking has had on her diagnosis.  Finally, in order to actually improve the public’s health, she must advocate for a change in modifiable behaviors that will actually prevent the onset of Type 2 diabetes – diet and exercise. 

What do you think: Do celebrities have the right to talk about their health information whenever and however they feel comfortable? Or do they have a social responsibility to disclose as early as possible – and to discuss it in a way that is most likely to improve the public’s health?

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