For 10 years, wielding slabs of cream cheese and mounds of mayonnaise, Paula Deen has become television's self-crowned queen of Southern cuisine and one of the country's most popular chefs, with an empire built on layers of gooey butter cake, fried chicken and sheer force of personality.
On Tuesday, she suddenly unveiled a new career for herself: herald of a healthy lifestyle. In an interview on the "Today" show on NBC, she revealed - as has long been rumored - that she has Type 2 diabetes, a diagnosis she said she received three years ago. In an interview with The New York Times, she said the delay had been part of a necessary personal journey.
"I wanted to wait until I had something to bring to the table," she said.
Now, Deen, 64, has brought to her own table a multiplatform endorsement deal with Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceutical company that makes Victoza, a noninsulin injectable diabetes medication that she began promoting Tuesday morning.
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She and her sons Jamie and Bobby (who do not have diabetes) are all being paid to spearhead the company's upbeat new public-relations campaign, "Diabetes in a New Light," which advocates using the drug along with eating lighter foods and increasing physical activity.
All the same, Deen said she would not change her own lifestyle or cooking style drastically, other than to reduce portion sizes of unhealthful foods.
"I've always preached moderation," she said. "I don't blame myself."
Bobby Deen, who was at his mother's side throughout the day, has a new healthful-cooking show, "Not My Mama's Meals," that began last month. Through a spokeswoman, the Food Network denied that it knew of Deen's illness before last week.
Her revelation also adds a fresh story line to a roiling national debate about obesity.
Thousands of Deen's fans tweeted their support and posted messages of sympathy on her Facebook wall Monday.
But many others questioned her motives in concealing the condition for so long, or spotted hypocrisy in her decision to profit from an illness that they felt she had done much to abet. On Facebook, Dolly Furst of Pennsylvania posted: "Sorry Paula. I think you hid the disease because the network thought people would dump your show."
More than 25 million Americans are believed to have diabetes, most of it Type 2 or "adult onset" diabetes. Like those other cases, Deen's illness was probably caused by any of a number of forces, including excess weight, high blood pressure, lack of exercise and high blood levels of sugar, fat and cholesterol.
Heredity, according to the American Diabetes Association, always plays some part.
"You can't just eat your way to Type 2 diabetes," said Geralyn Spollett, the group's director of education.
But Spollett added, Southern cooking, as often practiced, can be particularly hazardous to those predisposed to the disease.
Deen, who began her career selling bag lunches to office workers in Savannah, Ga., has long been a lightning rod in the food world, criticized not only for using fattening ingredients but also for perpetuating negative stereotypes about Southern cooking, endorsing products from the giant pork producer Smithfield, and using her culinary following to sell an array of items from her husband's coffee brand to bedroom furniture.
Virginia Willis, a food writer in Atlanta, said that criticisms directed at Deen often reflect sexism and stereotyping about the South, in addition to food snobbery.
"No one vilifies Michelin chefs for putting sticks of butter in their food," she said. "But when a Southern woman does it, that's tacky."