"Paula! Paula! Paula!" chanted the crowd at the Metro Cooking and Entertaining Show in Houston, Texas as they awaited the first public appearance of Paula Deen in three months.
Deen's hiatus was brought about by a public relations nightmare surrounding her deposition in a now-dismissed lawsuit, in which she admitted to using racial slurs. The surrounding fallout eventually led to the non-renewal of her Food Network show as well as millions of dollars in lost endorsements.
But no one in the crowd seemed to have anything but love for the Southern chef, many traveling hours to see Deen's first appearance since the scandal. A few even donned pageant-style sashes with words of support for the Deen family, shirts that read "Team Paula Deen," and a homemade sign that read, "Deen brothers: we support your mama."
[Photo: Amber Ambrose]
"I came for Paula Deen," said Dr. Rita Poimbeauf, who traveled two and a half hours from Port Lavaca, Texas for the occasion.
"She's a wonderful TV personality," said Poimbeauf. "There was no reason for that frenzy to cause her such hardships. We support her."
Show attendee Beverly Brock added, "I love Paula. I love her food. I love all the butter. I love her."
Twenty minutes after the scheduled appearance, Deen's sons Bobby and Jamie finally walked on stage. Revving up the already anxious crowd, Bobby introduced "the most caring and loving woman on this earth," right before Paula took to the stage.
Clutching a tissue and dabbing her misty, waterproof mascara-clad eyes, Paula was too overcome with emotion to utter a word as the crowd roared for a full two minutes.
[Photo: Eric Sauseda]
"These are tears of joy, y'all," said Paula, finally speaking. "This is my first time out in three months. The one place I would take my one step back out is Texas, because Texas is full of loving, forgiving folks and y'all's hearts are as big as y'all's state."
Gathering more composure Paula continued, "As y'all know — unless you've been under a rock — I had a little rough patch this Summer, but you know it was an opportunity to learn. I learned a lot about myself. I certainly learned a lot about my business, and I just want to thank y'all from the bottom of my heart. Hi. I'm back."
After bringing her husband Michael Groover up to the stage, as well as a few additional family members, and kissing Bobby, Jamie, and Michael repeatedly, Paula finally settled into the cooking demonstration, but not before making a playful comment about her new daughter-in-law's (Bobby's new wife) peacock-patterned pants.
[Photos: Eric Sauseda]
"We live in such a serious world," said Paula. "Everything is taken so seriously, so it's always been my wish for y'all to come back in and enjoy being with my family and forget about everything that hurts you. I love y'all."
Chicken pot pies, a cucumber-tomato salad, and a peanut butter pie were on the menu, though it took Paula a little time to focus on the task at hand. At times she wandered around the stage, forgetting what task she had just started, chalking it up to how "excited" she was to see everyone in the audience. However, it was so noticeable at one point someone in the audience whispered audibly, "She's a bit loopy, isn't' she?"
Right about that time — 15 minutes after Paula took the stage — show organizers ushered media members out of the theater (though the show was definitely not a sell-out), including several from Houston-based websites and newspapers in addition to all of Houston's major television stations. Though it's not standard procedure to ban media from an event a mere 15 minutes after it's begun, no one else seemed fazed by the abrupt, forced exit.
Luckily, tickets were still on sale for $63, though some had paid as much as $400 for VIP seats to the event.
After missing what a PR representative for the show described as Paula "overwhipping the cream for the peanut butter pie — there's your scandal," Eater came back in as Deen was passing around bowls of food for the guests in the front of the audience to taste, but "no double dippin' y'all!"
"I needed to be here with y'all so bad," said Paula, before directing them to a representative selling tickets to the annual Paula Deen cruise this January.
[Photos: Eric Sauseda/Amber Ambrose]
Filing out alongside attendees of the gun show happening in an adjacent convention hall, Deen fans seemed satisfied with the show. That included Austin resident, Angela Ranney, a loyal follower since 2007.
"I think she looks fantastic. She's lost so much weight," said Ranney after the show. "I'm so proud of her. She reminds me so much of my mom. She's just a hoot and a holler."
Ranney's friend Gary, observed that it "started out a little somber and emotional, but once she got into the swing of it, it was really good."
Only time will tell if a national audience will be as forgiving as the one in Houston.
— Amber Ambrose
Update 9/15: Here's video of the event from Fox 26 in Houston:FOX 26 News | MyFoxHouston