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Deen has backers, detractors at Joliet restaurant

PaulDeen center greets Wendee Wiles left AndreWeitzberg right  while meeting people Boathouse Room her restaurant Harrah's Casino Joliet IL

Paula Deen, center greets Wendee Wiles, left, and Andrea Weitzberg, right, while meeting people at the Boathouse Room of her restaurant at the Harrah's Casino, in Joliet, IL on Friday April 26, 2013. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 23, 2013 6:21AM

Having admitted to using racial slurs in the past, celebrity cook Paula Deen on Friday begged for forgiveness from fans and critics in two videotaped apologies she posted online.

While the Food Network said Friday it’s dumping Deen in light of the controversy, some diners at Paula Deen’s Kitchen at Harrah’s Joliet casino — but not all — seemed willing to accept the apology and said Food Network overreacted.

“In the world today, I didn’t think it was such a big deal,” said Nathaniel Harrell, 54, of Chicago. “It’s not like she did it with malice or forethought ... you get angry, you say stuff, everybody does, you regret it, but once it leaves your mouth, you can’t do anything about it.

“I thought they should have gave her a chance. ... but I also know if I say things, I can’t take it back, either.”

Deen, the 66-year-old Savannah, Ga., kitchen celebrity, has been swamped in controversy since court documents filed this week revealed she told an attorney questioning her under oath in a deposition last month for a discrimination lawsuit by a former employee that she has used the N-word.

“Yes, of course,” Deen said, though she added, “It’s been a very long time.”

In those remarks, Deen admitted to using racial slurs — though not in her businesses — and told racist jokes.

Earlier Friday, Deen was supposed to appear on the “Today” show for what was being called an exclusive interview with host Matt Lauer, but at the last minute she canceled. Later in the day, Deen released two online videos in which she apologized to Lauer and her fans.

Deen is the head of a culinary empire. Besides her Food Network show, she is the author of a number of cookbooks, has her own magazine, a line of cooking utensils and a host of restaurants.

Her critics at the Joliet restaurant included Laura Pahr, 51, of Steger.

“She should have never used [racial slurs]. Customers from all ethnic groups use her products, frequent her stores and buy her products,” Pahr said. “She should be concerned with everybody’s feelings and needs. This is kind of unforgivable, because of the racial slur. I teach children of all ethnic groups and I believe people shouldn’t slam one ethnic group or race.”

“I think [the firing is] very appropriate,” said Louise Nickson, 54, of Markham. “I did not know she had any type of racial feelings within. I have always liked Paula Deen and I am very disappointed that she feels that it’s OK to use the N-word at any given point in time. And I think dropping her from the Food Network was the right thing to do.

“I’m really only eating at her restaurant because I have a coupon. When I don’t have coupons, I won’t be coming back. I will not patronize Paula Deen’s restaurants or anything else that has to do with Paula Deen. I’m done.”

Deen’s defenders included Janet Sanders, 66, of Channahon.

“I don’t think they should have done that. It had nothing to do with her being on television,” Sanders said. “What she said is what she said. A lot of people say it.”

A man who identified himself only as Marcin, 29, of Palos Hills, said, “I think [the Food Network] overreacted so quick without hearing her side of what context she was talking about. If she meant it in a harsh way, then I’m offended by it, but if she was talking to her husband [behind] closed doors, I would understand. But if she was out in the public eyes talking about this, that’s just not right.”

“Whatever you say gets leaked now,” said Bel Mateo, 51, of Minooka. “There is no such thing as privacy anymore, especially someone like her. It’s terrible that she said that.”

Food Network, which made Deen a star, weighed in with a terse statement.

“Food Network will not renew Paula Deen’s contract when it expires at the end of this month,” the statement said. Network representatives declined further comment.

A representative for Deen did not immediately return phone and email messages seeking comment on the decision.

Deen opted over the “Today” show for a direct appeal via online video — one that allowed her and her staff complete control of what she said and how she said it.

“Inappropriate, hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable,” Deen said in the first 45-second video posted on YouTube. “I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, but I beg you, my children, my team, my fans, my partners — I beg for your forgiveness.”

Deen adopted a solemn tone as she looked straight into the camera. Still, her recorded apology featured three obvious edits — with the picture quickly fading out between splices — during a statement just five sentences long.

It was soon scrapped and replaced with a second video of Deen talking unedited for nearly two minutes as she insists: “Your color of your skin, your religion, your sexual preference does not matter to me. ...

”I want people to understand that my family and I are not the kind of people that the press is wanting to say we are,” Deen said later in the video. “The pain has been tremendous that I have caused to myself and to others.”

Deen never mentions Food Network or its decision to drop her in either of her online videos.

Court records show Deen sat down for a deposition May 17 in a discrimination lawsuit filed last year by a former employee who managed Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, a Savannah restaurant owned by Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers.

The ex-employee, Lisa Jackson, says she was sexually harassed and worked in a hostile environment rife with innuendo and racial slurs.

During the deposition, Deen was peppered with questions about her racial attitudes. At one point she is asked if she thinks jokes using the N-word are “mean.” Deen said jokes often target minority groups and “I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.”

Deen also acknowledged she briefly considered hiring all black waiters for her brother’s 2007 wedding, an idea inspired by the staff at a restaurant she had visited with her husband. She insisted she quickly dismissed the idea.

But she also insisted she and her brother have no tolerance for bigotry.

“Bubba and I, neither one of us, care what the color of your skin is” or what gender a person is, Deen said. “It’s what’s in your heart and in your head that matters to us.”

Contributing: AP, Sun-Times Media

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