In the wake of the controversy surrounding Paula Deen’s use of the N-word and other remarks about race, one of the more interesting players has remained surprisingly quiet: Hollis Johnson, Deen’s close friend, bodyguard, and sometime intermediary. “He calls himself Paula’s son even though their complexions sure don’t match,” writes Deen’s husband, Michael Groover, in My Delicious Life with Paula Deen. “She calls him the ‘black sheep’ of the family.” She also somewhat infamously called him “black as this board”—gesturing to a dark backdrop—in a video of a talk she gave with the New York Times last fall. TIME reached out to Johnson (who also owns a transportation service in Savannah, Georgia) for his take on recent events, but we haven’t heard back yet. Here’s what we know so far:
1. Deen considers him her “son by another father.” At least, that’s how she referred to Johnson in that Times session, after quipping, “We can’t see you standing against that dark board!” But she soon grabbed his hand and got serious. “I love this young man,” she said. “I would travel to hell with him, and I know I can trust him with my life. And color ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.”
2. Deen’s husband calls him “one o’ my favorite people.” In My Delicious Life with Paula Deen, Groover writes at length about his family’s bond with Johnson: “Hollis is much more than a bodyguard, he’s a friend and loyal companion…He watches that [Deen] doesn’t trip when walkin’ down a flight of stairs and he watches that some overeager fan doesn’t get too close.” Groover also describes how he and Johnson hang during their travels with Deen, riding motorcycles and “tooling around” together.
Paula is hungry and she said Hollis find somewhere to eat so we ended up at Hooters!!! http://t.co/NfXRuFZR
3. He has tweeted publicly about his affection for Deen. In one posted image, she’s kissing him on the cheek in front of a plane. His caption, as seen above: “She loves me and I love her!!!” In another pic, he’s posing with her and Groover in a limousine.
4. He’s not homophobic anymore. As Groover writes, both he and Johnson initially felt uncomfortable around the gay men in Deen’s entourage—namely her personal assistant and design director, Brandon Branch: “I’d never had a gay friend or a gay colleague. Just didn’t know how to talk to them…Hollis Johnson, my friend who acts as Paula’s bodyguard or, as he would put it, Paula’s fourth son, was also homophobic.” After spending more time with Brandon and others, however, Groover writes that the two overcame their prejudice; in Key West, they joined Deen’s hairdresser Jamie and his partner in a gay bar.