By Julia Carpenter
(CNN) — Some die-hard fans are getting all wrapped up in a campaign to defend Paula Deen.
They’re sending cleaned and origami-folded butter wrappers to Food Network and other companies that dropped the popular chef and cookbook author in the wake of allegations of racism and sexual harassment. Deen later admitted to “of course” using the n-word. The wrappers are intended as signs of protest — physical declarations of “we’re sticking with Paula.”
John Schmitt, a hotel night auditor in Indianapolis and the man behind the campaign, says he couldn’t abide by the “betrayal” of Food Network, QVC and others. He felt he had to do something to express his disgust at the situation.
“She made a mistake 20 years ago,” he says. “We all make mistakes. I’ve said things I regret.”
First, he thought about mailing actual sticks of butter. Then he considered two things: the waste of butter (something true Deen fans could never forgive), and the physical ickiness of envelopes steeped in melted butter.
He opted for an empty wrapper on which he wrote in black block letters: “Where is Paula?” and began cooking up a plan.
Wrapping things up
Schmitt created the Facebook page, “We Support Paula Deen,” on June 21 and announced the butter wrapper campaign the following week after Deen’s now-famous interview with “Today” anchor Matt Lauer.
“People on the page are a lot like me,” he says. “They support Paula and who she is as a person.”
Schmitt and many others say they have sent wrappers to Food Network, the QVC, Wal-Mart, Ballantine Books and other companies that have dropped Deen. Food Network, QVC and Smithfield Foods declined to comment, while Wal-Mart reissued the following statement: “We are ending our relationship with Paula Deen Enterprises and we will not place new orders beyond those already committed.”
The idea for the butter wrapper campaign arose from Schmitt’s desire to do something “tangible” as a show of support for Paula, something beyond Facebook posts.
Talking with iReporter Chris Ford inspired him to try something different.
“That’s when I said, ‘You know, this is actually perfect,'” Ford remembers. “‘The butter itself is Paula, and these wrappers are void of butter just like these companies are void of Paula.’ And [Schmitt] said, ‘My God, that’s it. That’s our slogan.'”
The slogan that came out of it — “A corporation without Paula Deen is like a butter wrapper without butter” — inspired countless posters to pledge their own wrappers for Paula’s benefit.
Soon the page was smothered in posts and comments from users, gushing over the cleverness of the campaign and pledging to send their own wrappers to the list of companies Schmitt had posted on the site.
“Perhaps somebody somewhere in mail rooms is keeping track,” Schmitt says. “I would’ve loved to see their face for the first one. Like, ‘Ew, is this butter?'”
Schmitt sent his in the first week of the campaign, but he hasn’t received a formal response yet, just “canned answers” from Sears and Wal-Mart. He wasn’t necessarily expecting one; the campaign, he says, is more intended for self-expression than for results.
Many, like Schmitt, say they weren’t expecting personalized responses from Food Network, Smithfield’s or any Deen-dropping company.
“I sent a butter wrapper knowing that the chuck-a-lucks down at the Food Network probably wouldn’t even open it,” wrote Liz Vannah, a supporter from Connecticut, in a Facebook message. “But I felt compelled to do something to show that this kind of railroading, for whatever hidden-agenda-ed reason it happened, is not looked kindly upon by the consuming public.”
Schmitt says he’s been a Paula Deen fan for years, mainly because it was something he shared with his late mother, Laura Schmitt. They both enjoyed watching the show and shared a deep belief in Deen’s “goodness” — a belief that has not been shaken, even following news of Deen’s alleged racism.
“In a lot of ways, she reminds me of my mom — this funny, gracious lady from a different era,” he says. “My mom probably used that word and she wasn’t a racist.”
He points to Deen’s work with the charitable Bag Lady Foundation and the sweet stories people have shared on the page as intrinsic signs of this goodness.
Joyce Dixon, a Deen fan from Claxton, Georgia, says Schmitt’s page caught her eye because of its emphasis on personal stories. She joined as fan No. 102 and later became the volunteer manager of the site.
Dixon says she believes the page grew in popularity so quickly because people were attracted to the “lovey-doviness” of the stories, videos and photos shared by fans. Now, the page holds regular “Love-Fest” nights for followers to share their Deen stories.
Dixon has been a fan of Paula Deen since 1997, when she first visited Deen’s Lady & Sons restaurant in Savannah, and there met Deen personally.
“She just had black hair with a bit of salt and pepper in it,” Dixon remembers. “She wasn’t a big personality or nothing. She was very involved with the customers.”
Dixon recalls how at the end of the meal, Deen took the time to sit down at their table to ask how Dixon and her friends had enjoyed themselves, even asking if there were any items they’d like to see on the menu.
“That’s when she won me over: the one-on-one, the face time,” Dixon says. “It’s Business 101, and she’s got it down.”
Since then, Dixon says the characterization of Deen in the media is “so wrong.”
“You know what? They’re the ones that did this,” Schmitt says, referring to the companies that dropped Deen. “People [visiting those pages] were angry and upset and saw something they could get behind.”
Sticking with Paula
Deen supporters from the page argue this “punishment” has gone too far. They say Deen has become a scapegoat for media attention — and Dixon says that is why she dedicates so many hours to a mere Facebook page. She wants to correct the public’s perception of the former Food Network star.
“It wasn’t about the n-word; it was about the extortion thing, about this one crazy employee,” Dixon says. “My interest is in Paula’s business. To me, it’s about a self-made woman. You have to ask yourself, ‘If she was a man, would this happen? If she was from the North would this happen?’ And you know, I don’t think it would.”
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