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Paula Deen kicks off $75 million comeback campaign

    Celebrity cook Paula Deen posed for a portrait in New York in Jan. 2012.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. >> Do we have to butter you up for this news? Paula Deen is back, y’all, and she loves her some Charlotte.

More than 2,000 people attended Deen’s show at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night, including one couple who drove in from Chicago, nine hours split over two days, just for the occasion.

Deen, the fallen matriarch of Southern cooking, turned the Charlotte stop of her show "Paula Deen Live!" into a launch for the Paula Deen Network, an online site of old and new videos, recipes and merchandise that’s part of a $75 million comeback campaign. While some content is free, most of the site will cost $8 to $10 a month.

Although Deen told the audience that her team chose Charlotte for the network launch, a Deen spokesman had said earlier that it was just a matter of timing — the show had been scheduled before they knew the site would be ready. The Observer had been scheduled for a brief interview with Deen, but it was canceled because her team said she was too tired.

It’s been more than a year since two incidents drove Deen from the public eye. First, she irked critics of her fried-in-butter diet by concealing that she has diabetes until after she had signed a contract to endorse a diabetes medication. Then, in court records related to a discrimination case by an employee, she admitted to using racial slurs and imagery.

The fallout was costly: The Food Network canceled her shows, and several companies, including Novo Nordisk, Target, Smithfield and Home Depot, ended their association with her.

While Deen never said anything during her Charlotte stop that sounded like an apology, many fans made it clear they don’t think there is any reason to apologize.

DeDe Neelands and Catherine Bennett of Rock Hill, N.C., were first in line for a $225 VIP meet-and-greet before the show that drew 200 people. Both blamed the media, not Deen, for her problems.

"Why do we need to know that?" Bennett said of Deen’s diabetes diagnosis. "I don’t tell you my health."

"What happened to Paula Deen is a travesty," Mike Duffin of Chicago declared loudly while waiting to have his picture taken with Deen. Duffin and his wife, Joanne Dwyer, decided to drive to Charlotte as soon as they heard she would launch the new website from here.

"We want to support her," said Dwyer.

Hannah Craig of Vale, N.C., arrived with a gift-wrapped copy of her church cookbook to give to Deen.

"I’ve watched her since I was little," Craig said. "Some people have sports heroes. I have Paula Deen."

Inside Belk Theater, the crowd was heavily female, with an accent on Southernness. Musician Cooper Boone, who opened the show, introduced Deen and husband, Michael Groover, as "the sweetest love story since ‘Gone With the Wind.’" (Deen’s fellow Georgian, author Margaret Mitchell, might be surprised to hear her tragic story of unrequited love called sweet.)

Deen’s show pushed repeatedly at themes of reconciliation and family, with husband Groover and sons Jamie and Bobby Deen in constant attendance on stage.

It was also hard to miss images used throughout the show of Deen with African-American celebrities, from Oprah Winfrey and first lady Michelle Obama to Chicago personality Steve Harvey.

Patricia James and Gerry Wallace of Charlotte were two of a small number of African-American fans in the audience.

"When the controversy arose, I was disappointed," James admitted. But she came, she said, because "I want to give Paula another chance."

The biggest theme of the night, though, was patriotism. Deen announced a $10,000 donation to the group to help build four houses in Charlotte for wounded veterans.

To make the announcement, Deen brought out country singer Lee Greenwood, who performed his hit "God Bless the U.S.A." The audience rose to its feet, singing and swaying, while the video monitor over the stage displayed a rippling American flag superimposed over an image of the weeping Deen.

At the end of the night, a goofy light-up gadget dubbed the Network Activator was rolled onstage so Deen could pull a handle topped with a fried chicken wing to launch her website, joining celebrities like Sarah Palin who’ve taken their messages to online channels.

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