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Judging Paula Deen’s Debut on ‘Dancing With the Stars’

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As the celebrity chef makes her DWTS debut, Eater tapped pop culture writer/self-proclaimed "former aspiring dancer for Janet Jackson" Alexander Hardy to weigh in.

Adam Taylor/ABC via Getty Images

Last night, America witnessed Act 41 of The Descandalization of Paula Deen, celebrity chef and butter-loving chortler extraordinaire, as she returned to network television during the season 21 premiere of ABC's Dancing With The Stars.

For the uninitiated, the show matches a celebrity (or "celebrity") with a professional dancer to compete for a trophy and bragging rights. Each week, the couples are given a ballroom dance style and must perform a routine to be evaluated by three judges and voting viewers at home. Each week, the couple with the lowest combined score is packed into a rocket and launched into space. After much drama and countless pointed feet, the last remaining couple wins and may experience a brief professional boost, which brings us back to Paula Deen.

The disgraced calorie enthusiast is vying for the mirror ball trophy and public forgiveness alongside the show's usual mixed bag of contestants, rebuilding her audience with every toothy howl. Fellow cast members include singer and reality star Tamar Braxton, actor Gary Busey, the Chaka Khan, Bindi Irwin (offspring of the late Steve Irwin, Crocodile Hunter), some lanky kid from Vine, and 41 thousand pounds of sequins and tassels.

There’s something endearing about watching people be vulnerable, lovable, and abysmal while battling self-confidence, injury, and choreography.

Deen is two years removed from the career-imploding racism-flavored shitshow that brought the Food Network gravy train to a halt and sent sponsors fleeing. After that damning deposition dropped and the good times ended, Deen went to work convincing the world that she's seen the racial prejudice-erasing light and is still worthy of your love and money. Soon after: a documentary telling her side of the story, new restaurants, tears of embarrassment, and more cooking shows via her own network.

But will this televised voyage on the Self-Deprecation Express melt hearts and open wallets? Similar stints on DWTS have revived careers and made stars out of relative unknowns. There's something endearing about watching athletes, vintage pop acts, internet personalities, and former child stars of varying degrees of talent, potential, and fame be vulnerable, lovable, and abysmal while battling self-confidence, aging, injury, and tricky choreography, on television.

It's a brilliant way for a societal castaway make themselves appear more likable.
And in last night's season premiere, the show's glitzy, over-the-top opening number — a big, sprawling street dance situation introducing the season's line-up of contestants —foretold the drama to come: awkward pairings, big hair, spray tans, and muchos polyester blends. And halfway through the mini circus, after I'd asked "Who?!?" a few times during the credits, there she was: Madame Deep Fryer herself, apronless and gussied up for primetime.

Before her first dance rehearsal with partner Louis van Amstel (a 10-year veteran of the ABC show), she warned him: "It's been 50 years since I've done any organized steps."

Good to know. Way to temper America's expectations.

First, the positive: Deen looked as joyous as Donald Trump at his weekly Vile Vampires meetup and her purple gown and purple-hued hair nicely complemented her tan.

Photo: Adam Taylor/ABC via Getty Images

The duo chose the quickstep for their debut, which is no easy challenge, especially for an untrained dancer. But aside from her impressive port de bras (the graceful, sweeping carriage of the arm from one position to another) and grandmotherly charm, the rest was as expected: She hopped, galloped, scooted and lip-synced her way through the performance, clinging to van Amstel all the while. The latter did not escape the judges.

Because it's the season premiere, the night's performances are all marinated in terror and terribleness. As nerves relax, posture improves, and flexibility increases, that terribleness typically — hopefully — subsides as the contestant's personality and strengths become more evident in their movement (unless your name is Bill Nye or Metta World Peace, then that part never happens). Until then, though, you can expect to see confusion, wooden limbs, and unpointed feet aplenty.

"What I really that bad?" she asked. Yes, Paula. You were.
But most of the performances were.

"Was I really that bad?" she asked when given five points apiece (out of 10) by each judge. Yes, Paula. You were. But most of the performances were. Nobody is surprised, because it's the first show and your name is Paula Deen. Graciously, the judges swooned over Lady Lard and reassured her of her great potential.

And then this, when debriefing post-performance: "I was scared! I had on white underwear when I started, but they probably ain't white no more! That's all I got to say." Groans from the audience. Host Tom Bergeron jokingly pulls away from her. No mention of a fall from grace, though.

Two things work in her favor. First, we get to take her word about the soiled undies (thankfully, there's no visual evidence). Second, follow contestant Kim Zolciak makes Deen looks like 1993 Janet Jackson, so there is still some hope.

Deen isn't the first to attempt to shimmy and two-step around bad publicity. Weeks ago, public nuisance Justin Bieber attempted to backflip into the world's good graces by dancing, singing, and sobbing at the MTV VMAs. Public nuisance Chris Brown attempted to moonwalk out of goonhood by dancing, singing, and sobbing at the 2010 BET Awards a year after attacking Rihanna. Even Kim Kardashian, then known mainly for her sextape with Brandy's brother, sought the very same mirror ball trophy, to no avail, in 2008.

And now, it's Deen's turn to put those silly plantation wedding fantasies behind her, once and for all, one jazz hand at a time.

Beyond their obnoxiousness and gif-friendliness, these charm offensives are fairly harmless. It is safer for Madame Deep Fryer to set down the muffin pans and stiffly twirl to and fro on television than to repent for her allegedly part-time racism by mentoring black youth at Steve Harvey's camp for future zoot suit connoisseurs. That silver lining makes the whole ordeal more bearable.

My only issue with Deen's participation is that some ambitious executive didn't clear her throat in a production meeting and offer, "What if we paired Paula Deen with, say, Keo Motsepe?" Watching Deen chortle and cha-cha her way through the awkwardness? Now that would have been must-see television.

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