You know who I really dig? The Popeye’s Lady. You know, the sister, the “love that chicken at Pop-eyes!”, spokesperson the chicken chain has used as their corporate face for, what, the past five years or so? Her! I appreciate what she does for the race. No, seriously, think about it: this is a Blackwoman whose job is being the spokesperson for fried chicken-FRIED CHICKEN-and, somehow, she manages to exude dignity and humor and, most importantly, humanity. Fried chicken is like ground zero for Black stereotypes. It’s always followed by, “…and watermelon,” there are decades of ads, and propaganda that focus directly on this imagery, quietly, I ain’t gonna put nobody on the spot…but some of us don’t eat it in front of white folks. You know who you are. Honestly, I’m not sure how she threads this specific racialized needle but it’s amazing watching her do just that, commercial after commercial. This is especially true because, well, Black folks have had some bad luck with chicken commercials.
Please don’t act like you don’t remember MC Hammer and the chicken commercials! Remember Hammer was sellin’ chicken?!?! In one of them, Hammer refuses to hurt ‘em and go on stage until he finishes his KFC popcorn chicken. He pops piece after delicious, unidentifiable (because, seriously, exactly what is popcorn chicken) into his mouth, throwing the final morsel into the air, catching it in his mouth and finishing with a lil’ Hammer move! And in the other commercial-because MC Hammer had two KFC commercials…and let that sink in…the Hammer Tour Bus, (or Hammerbus, if you will), breaks down in a little town and a gaggle of local kids bring Hammer and his crew, (or Hammerlings, if you will), some honey barbecue KFC which results in an impromptu street dance party, with ol’ Hammer himself hammering it up with a drumstick. Yeah. This…this was not a good look and, if you watch Hammer retrospectives, (or Hammerspectives, if you will), Hammer is still bitter about the backlash he received and how it followed him. In the backlash’s defense…he was, literally, dancing for fried chicken. And we all remember it.
(You know what’s really funny though? Remember a few years ago, Mary J. Blige had a chicken commercial for Burger King. It was a sandwich but there were lyrics; “Crispy chicken, fresh lettuce, three cheeses, ranch dressing wrapped up in a tasty, flour tortillaaaa.” It was terrible. Terrible! But you don’t even remember it, do you? We gave her so much of a pass; we collectively forgot it even happened. She reverse Inception-ed us! She Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-ed us! I am fascinated with how much we love Mary J. Blige. She’s Teflon with Black folks. I actually wonder who we love more, Mary or Madea…)
Let’s be honest; in the age of DVRs and Netflix and streaming, the commercial as a concept doesn’t have as much power in its ability to shape images and imagery as it used to. None of the current spokespeople for various brands will ever capture a place in popular culture like “Don’t squeeze the Charmin” or “Where’s the beef?” In fact, arguably, the last great black commercial icon was Calvin the mascot for the amazingly paternalistic and condescending McDonald’s commercials from over two decades ago. You remember Calvin: he started his job at Mickey D’s and the neighborhood, or, y’know, da hood, was so impressed by his can-do spirit and the fact that he had the kind of vision to go get…a job! In a series of ever escalating commercials, Calvin blew off his hooligan friends, drew the attention and respect of the neighborhood-and girls-and, ain’t America great!-got promoted to some type of crew chief! (Won’t He do it?) Apparently, all The Ghetto has ever needed is the loving hands of McDonalds to deliver its fast food opportunities so we could escape poverty. Or, y’know, something like that. Calvin was so eponymous and distinctive that, a decade later, Dave Chappelle spoofed the character.
Since then…I don’t know, you tell me. There have been celebrity faces but I can’t think of another ongoing Black visual serving as a spokesperson. We don’t have a Black “Can you hear me know?” guy or Flo the Insurance Lady. Maybe the Pinesol Lady?
Yet, the Popeye’s Lady has managed to be the face of a fried chicken chain for more than half a decade and, in my opinion, has maintained her dignity and avoided any kind of characterization that could be viewed as caricature or stereotype. She holds a bit of a bemused persona. She’s even toned and slightly sardonic. Really, the whole thing seems to slide right off of her. And it’s not like they downplay the chicken imagery. Hell, in a Popeye’s commercial, right with her, Jerry Rice got in trouble a few years ago. The sight of the Popeye’s Lady sitting next to Rice in a chicken football helmet is actually a perfect encapsulation of what makes her such a great spokesperson. There she is, sitting right next to an image of buffoonery that could have very easily have been her. Poised, good humored and, yes, human.
Because, ultimately, that’s what it’s really all about. Since we first got here, Black people have been engaged in an ongoing battle with American culture to just be seen as human. In the midst of that, we’ve been depicted as bestial, slovenly, childish, etc. etc. And, oftentimes, that imagery has been augmented with the symbol of friend chicken.
The Popeye’s Lady has a name, obviously. Far from the Southern belle that she reflects, the Barbados born Deidrie Henry is well seasoned award winning actress who has appeared in a variety of television shows, including Glee, Criminal Minds, and, to this writer, one of the most underrated series of the last twenty years, Justified. I think it’s fair to say that her role in the Popeye’s commercial is the one that most of us know her from however. And I’m happy for that. In our ongoing battle for our image, and ourselves, she is a dignified symbol in a role that, very easily could have gone off the rails. While, I must admit, I’m not a huge Popeye’s customer (if I’m going to eat some friend chicken, I’m going to get some that somebody I know fried…) I’m proud to say that I love that lady at Popeyes!
— Vincent Williams @MicheauxMission