Paula Deen On Her Comeback: “I’m Fighting to Get My Name Back”

Paula Deen is speaking out for the first time since the 2013 discrimination lawsuit that brought down her cooking empire.

Speaking with PEOPLE exclusively, the 67-year-old southern chef is ready to rebuild, but knows there are still hurdles to jump.

“I’m fighting to get my name back,” she told the mag.

“I feel like ‘embattled’ or ‘disgraced’ will always follow my name.”

The silver-haired former Food Network star, compares her hopefulness to the inspiring words from NFL pro Michael Sam, who recently announced he’s gay.

“It’s like that black football player who recently came out,” Deen added. “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.”

Despite the overwhelming public scrutiny after Deen admitted in a deposition to using the N-word years ago that led to endorsers like Walmart and Target to sever ties with the “Queen of Butter,” she has compassion for those who have faced the same challenge.

“It’s amazing that some people are given passes and some are crucified. I have a new empathy for these situations, though,” she said. “My dad always told me, believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.”

Deen described the toll the scandal took on her body and psyche: “It was like a death,” Deen said.

“When I woke up each morning, it was like my world was crashing down again.”

In the first days she found familiar ways to cope: “I made eight cakes in six days,” she said of her need to keep busy as her name was splashed through the headlines. “I didn’t eat all those cakes,” added Deen, who before her public downfall had lost 40 pounds, but admits she’s indulging “way too much lately.”

But it was her devoted online fans and celebrity friends like Kathy Griffin, who paid her a surprise visit at her home in Savannah, who kept her sane.

“I could not get off the computer except to go to the bathroom and eat. It was so reassuring,” she said, adding that she’s been in therapy to help deal with her latest professional struggle.

“If it wasn’t for my fans’ love, I’d be home breathing into a paper bag.”

But for now she’s got plenty to be happy about. She just signed a $75 million deal with a new investor to re-launch her brand. And she’s learned valuable lessons and the importance of saying sorry during the painful process.

“I used to have dreams that I lost everything. And when it finally happens you think, ‘I’m still alive,'” she continued in the interview. “[My husband] Michael told me, ‘You’ve learned how badly words can hurt and how powerful they are.’ I have been hurt by them, and I unintentionally hurt others. But I don’t want that to define who I am.

“Some people said I never apologized. If anyone did not hear me, I want to apologize,” she added. “I would never ever hurt anyone intentionally. Never.”