Paula Deen has been to hell and back.
In the summer of 2013, the Food Network dropped the celebrity chef after she admitted to using a racial slur a "very long time ago." The TV star subsequently lost a number of endorsement deals. Though Deen apologized on Today, the backlash made it difficult for her to get out of bed. "When I woke up each morning, it was like my world was crashing down again," the Georgia native, 67, recalls.
"Some people said I never apologized. If anyone did not hear me, I want to apologize," an apologetic Deen tells People in its Feb. 28 cover story. "I would never ever hurt anyone intentionally. Never!"
The restaurateur became "obsessed with the person America had confused me with—after I had live my life so clean and open." For every bad comment she read online, there was a good one to lift her spirits. "I could not get off the computer except to go to the bathroom and eat. It was so reassuring."
Two other TV stars—Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson and The Taste's Nigella Lawson—endured high-profile controversies and came out seemingly unscathed in the fall of 2013. "It's amazing that some people are given passes and some people are crucified," Deen says. "I have new empathy for these situations, though. My dad always told me, 'Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.'"
Deen is back in the spotlight after signing a $75 million to $100 million deal with private investment firm Najafi Companies. "I'm fighting to get my name back," the Southerner says of her latest business venture.
The cookbook author knows it will take time to earn the public's forgiveness. "I feel like 'embattled' or 'disgraced' will always follow my name. It's like that black football player who recently came out," she tells People, referring to NFL prospect Michael Sam. "He said, 'I just want to be known as a football player. I don't want to be known as a gay football player.' I know exactly what he's saying."