No one expected redemption, but for Paula Deen, Wednesday was supposed to at least be a day of clarification.
Instead, the beleaguered TV chef's grammatically twisted, biblically allusive, weepy appearance on Today after having admitted she used a racial slur in the past was met with mixed reviews tipping toward the critical.
PR pundits declared it mediocre to miserable. Two more major business partners, Caesars Entertainment and Walmart, severed their relationship with Forbes' fourth-highest-earning celebrity chef in 2012. Caesars announced plans to rebrand its four Deen-themed restaurants, saying in a statement that it is "in the best interest" to part ways.
Walmart, which has carried Deen-branded products since 2011, said it will not place "any new orders beyond what's already committed." Which means her just-launched line of branded butter is toast.
Meanwhile, Deen's team rounded up words of support from nine companies the chef does business with, none a household name. Tasty Blends Foods of Frasiers Bottom, W.Va., said it was "very pleased" with the interview. Sandridge Food Company in Medina, Ohio, said it is "proud to provide unwavering support to Paula Deen."
Boldface-name defenders did emerge, however. Donald Trump tweeted that she "made a big mistake in using a forbidden word but must be given some credit for admitting her mistake. She will be back!" (For the first time, Deen maintained when pressed by Matt Lauer that she has used the slur only once, when a gun was pointed at her head by a bank robber 30 years ago.)
And Jesse Jackson seemed to confirm Deen's claim to Lauer that he had given her "wonderful support." Jackson told the Associated Press that she can be "redeemed" and that even if she has become an emblem of racial intolerance, she shouldn't be a "sacrificial lamb."
"I is what I is," Deen told Lauer in a widely circulated moment. "And I'm not changing." Clutching a Kleenex, she also dug into the Bible, exhorting those who are sinless to "please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me."
Reaction also was split online. As of 6 p.m. ET, a poll of USA TODAY readers found that 3,103 said that "she should be forgiven," and 2,953 said "I can't support her."
Whatever the opinion of her highly anticipated sit-down, one conclusion is clear: The flame hasn't been dialed down on this stew of a scandal.
Indeed, at least one expert says it reached a boiling point. Deen "totally bombed" on Today, says David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, a public relations and branding agency based in Suwanee, Ga., who calls it "the worst celebrity apology in history."
By referring to "hurtful lies" and "someone evil" out to get her, as Deen did, "it's obvious she thinks she's the victim of this entire situation. This is a bigger issue than just her," he says. "Instead, there were crocodile tears. That's all I could think of: Tammy Faye Bakker."
Others squirmed, if not cringed. "It was really by far the most uncomfortable celebrity interview I have watched in a very long time," says Mark Pasetsky, CEO of public relations and marketing content firm Mark Allen & Co. "She really needed to take full responsibility for what she said, and it appeared to me that the strategy for this interview was to be pointing the fingers rather than to take responsibility."
Other image experts saw a completely different "performance," rating it from a "B" to "good." "You couldn't watch this interview and not feel her pain," says Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com.
"She seemed to be well-coached," says Allen Adamson, managing director of branding agency Landor Associates. "She did a pretty credible job of delivering her message."
Contributing: Lorena Blas, Cindy Clark, Ann Oldenburg, Arienne Thompson, the Associated Press
Olivia Barker, USA TODAY