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Nigella Lawson: A brand blemished but unbowed

Monday - 12/9/2013, 12:14am  ET

FILE - This combination of 2013 file photos shows chefs, Nigella Lawson as she arrives at Isleworth Crown Court in London, left, and Paula Deen crying on NBC News' "Today" show in New York. In 2013, both made unsavory admissions about their pasts after being accused of unsavory acts. Both found themselves at the center of a whirlwind of negative publicity and lawsuits. But while Deen's empire crumbled, Lawson has remained mostly unscathed. And the difference tells us much about the power of personal brand in 2013. (AP Photo/Sang Tan, NBC, Peter Kramer)

J.M. HIRSCH
AP Food Editor

When celebrity chefs cut themselves, how much they bleed is a matter of brand.

Case in point: this year's messy public eruptions around two of the food world's most powerful women, Paula Deen and Nigella Lawson. Both made unsavory admissions about their pasts after being accused of unsavory acts. Both found themselves at the center of a whirlwind of negative publicity and lawsuits. And both had two big things to lose -- fortunes and reputations.

But while Deen seemed helpless and shocked as her empire crumbled in June, Lawson has remained stoic and mostly unscathed after revelations this past week, and her image among loyal fans could even be buoyed in the longer term. And the difference tells us much about the power of personal brand in 2013.

Fact is, we love the spectacle of off-screen chaos in stars' lives -- the sex tapes, the arrests, the divorces, the boozing, the affairs. They become a value-added layer to the personalities we love to watch. But while some might be appalled by Kim Kardashian's carnal video, it's more awkward sideshow than personal affront. Stars are there to entertain us, even when they don't intend to.

Food celebrities are a bit different. They seem more accessible and, however falsely, we bond with them. Their books, shows and tweets purport to bring us into their kitchens and connect us to their traditions in service of that most intimate of activities -- sharing food. And we bring them into our kitchens, too, turning to them to help feed our families. So when they step out of line, how they've sold themselves to us matters, probably far more than they anticipated.

Deen was on the losing end of that lesson. This is a woman who urged fat-conscious America to embrace butter and all things fried. And she led us to the trough with a sassy grandmotherly vibe, a hard knocks coming-up story and tales of an amiable, genteel South. It was enough -- barely -- to insulate her in 2012 when she revealed she had both diabetes and a lucrative endorsement deal for a drug to treat the condition she'd until then hidden.

It smacked of opportunism and dishonesty, but it wasn't completely at odds with her public persona. People moved on.

Then the Food Network star became embroiled in a legal dispute with a former employee who accused her of racial discrimination and sexual harassment. The case, which ultimately was dismissed, got little attention until this summer when depositions were released in which Deen acknowledged using racial slurs in the past. It was an admission glaringly contrary to her homespun brand of Southern charm.

Coupled with a clunker of an apology, that admission upended her brand. Endorsement deals fell apart. The Food Network canceled her. Appearances dried up. Folks didn't want that sort of language in their kitchens.

It's a few months later and now Lawson, a culinary import from England, is going through a wringer nearly as rough.

It started this summer with tabloid-worthy photos of her husband appearing to choke her. Then two former employees accused of using the couple's credit cards for more than $1 million in fraudulent charges claimed Lawson had sanctioned their spending to hush them up about her heavy drug use.

Lawson's now ex-husband, Charles Saatchi, piled on, saying those startling photos of him with his hands around her neck were shot as the couple argued about her drug use.

In a London court for the employees' fraud trial last week, Lawson recounted it differently. She said Saatchi lunged at her after she mentioned looking forward to having grandchildren and he said she should be paying attention to him instead. She denied giving the employees permission to spend the money. And she denied having a drug problem. She did acknowledge using cocaine and marijuana a handful of times, but said she wasn't a habitual user.

The damage to Lawson so far? Looks pretty minimal.

While Deen's deals imploded rapidly, Lawson's career remains stable. Her admissions didn't derail this weekend's launch of her Cooking Channel series, "Nigellissima." ABC is going ahead with January's second season of "The Taste," a series in which she stars with Anthony Bourdain. And Britain's Channel 4 is standing by plans for its own version of "The Taste" -- with Lawson and Bourdain -- for next year.

Much credit for that goes to her carefully crafted brand -- a persona built not on Southern comfort and innocence like Deen's, but on a rapturous, even naughty exploration of the sensual side of the kitchen. Lawson revels in her ample curves, gives long, knowing glances at the camera, poses with sweet syrups dripping from her body, and... well, you get the idea.

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