Paula Deen – From the frying pan to the firestorm
March 10th, 2012
12:00 PM ET
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[Editor's note: This profile of Paula Deen originally ran in March, 2012.]

The cockroaches came swarming from under the bed, and Paula Deen decided she'd had enough.

At 44, the newly minted restaurateur had been through a lot: She'd grown up without a real bathroom, living in the back of her family's souvenir shop and gas station, lost her father when he was only 40 and her mother just four years after that, weathered a difficult marriage to her hard-drinking high school sweetheart and begun to wrest herself from the grip of a crippling panic disorder.

But a roiling mass of bugs in her increasingly unkempt home - that, she recounted in her 2007 memoir "It Ain't All About the Cookin'," was her lowest moment yet.

Official: Food Network will not renew Paula Deen's contract

With nowhere else to go that night, Deen crawled back under the covers, sobbed herself to sleep and upon waking, threw the mattress outside in the garbage. As a team of men hauled the rest of her furniture to a Ryder truck so the house could be fumigated, the newly divorced Deen vowed to herself and to God that she would never allow herself to live like that again.

Now 65, Paula Deen is one of the best-known, highest paid, and arguably most beloved food personalities in the world. She is also one of the most polarizing. While legions of fans cheer on her homey, hammy, butter-glutted spin on Southern comfort food, an increasingly vocal number are eager to see Deen twist in the wind for what they see as her crimes against health, animal welfare, the environment and possibly even her own employees.

She was skewered recently after announcing she was diagnosed with diabetes three years ago and is a paid spokesperson for Novo Nordisk, the company that makes the diabetes drug Victoza. But on air and in her cookbooks, her recipes have never varied from their sugar, salt and fat-laden norm.

This week, she and her brother, Earl "Bubba" Hiers, were targets of a lawsuit by a former employee of a restaurant they co-own. Lisa T. Jackson alleges that during the five years she worked there, she witnessed numerous acts of violence, discrimination and racism. The siblings' lawyers issued a statement denying the claims: "We will hold Ms. Jackson [the plaintiff] and her lawyer accountable for these false allegations. We look forward to our day in court."

So how did a sweet, spunky, salty little cheerleader from Albany, Georgia, become one of the most controversial figures in the food world?

Rags to riches to controversy

Deen declined to be interviewed this week, but much of her life story has been laid out in her memoir, co-written by Sherry Suib Cohen, in on-camera conversations with Larry King and Oprah Winfrey, and in earlier interviews with other journalists, including this writer.

Paula Hiers grew up pretty, popular and poor, coming of age in a town at the center of the civil rights movement, according to her memoir. While her parents, Earl and Corrie, didn't always have much in the way of material goods, young Paula got three square meals a day and some artful cooking instruction from her maternal grandmother.

At Grandmother Paul's side, she learned the fundamentals of cooking that would come to define her: fatback seasoned greens, crunchy fried chicken, peach pies, country steaks, creamed potatoes and, yes, all the butter and sugar she could possibly get her hands on. Good food, young Paula learned, was conducive to love and being loved.

As a teenager, she began to explore other appetites. She smoked her first cigarette at 15, she said in a recent interview, and sneaked out of the house with her girlfriends to dance, flirt and otherwise canoodle with boys. At 17, she caught her first glimpse of Jimmy Deen, the most beautiful boy she'd ever seen. At 18, she went out on her first date with him, and by 19, much to her parents' chagrin (they had wanted her to go to school for dental hygiene to ensure herself some financial stability), she became Mrs. Paula Deen.

The marriage was tumultuous from the get-go, churned by their mutual immaturity and Jimmy's drinking, but the worst was yet to come. Just a few months after the wedding, Paula's father had a car wreck and died a couple of days later. Paula's world cracked apart. When her mother died from bone cancer just a few years later, Paula, then just 23, crumbled. She wouldn't recover for nearly two decades.

This was in the days before Internet message boards and online support groups. So Paula had no idea there was a name for the condition that kept her imprisoned in her own home, afraid of public places: agoraphobia. She just knew that every moment of every day she believed from the bottom of her heart that she or someone she loved would draw their last breath. The world outside was terrifying, so she stopped participating in it and stopped going outside.

Broke, panicked, ashamed and shuffled from house to house to house (nearly 20 in 20 years) by a husband who lacked a steady job, Deen sought refuge in the one place she felt safe and in control: the kitchen. With two boys to feed by then, cooking offered some sort of normalcy and nostalgia, nurturing and purpose – that is, if the family could afford groceries.

By her own account in her memoir, she also got awfully good at faking perky. For many who suffer with extreme emotional ailments, feelings of depression and anxiety are compounded by fear of someone finding out they're not quite normal. If there was one thing (other than cooking) that the ex-cheerleader could manage, it was a toothy grin and a peppy "Hey, y'all!" Bundle that with tasty casseroles and irresistible sweets, and not a soul on Earth would suspect that anything was amiss, or turn down the top-notch hostess.

That is, unless they had been through it themselves. At long last, a neighbor who also suffered from panic attacks caught on to Deen's patterns. Her burden wasn't lifted, but suddenly it was shared, and she began to find it all a little less shameful to talk about.

Then one day the neighbor called and crowed: "Turn on Phil Donahue!" The talk show host devoted the hour to people who couldn't face the fears lurking just outside their front doors. Finally, Deen had a name for her darkness.

Recalling that moment when she learned she was agoraphobic, Deen said she sat on the bed and cried with relief. "I'm not crazy. I'm not crazy..."

Bolstered by a reasonable if unofficial diagnosis (in her only previous attempt at counseling, she says, a minister told her she was being a spoiled brat and that her husband's daily beer drinking did not constitute a problem), she began to push her boundaries in an attempt to become a "functioning agoraphobic."

Her self-administered therapy included trekking to the Albany mall and, depending who she was with, venturing farther and farther inside. The effort continued apace, bolstering her to the point that she was able to hold down a job as a bank teller. Then misfortune struck again. The bank was robbed by a masked man with a gun, and she relapsed.

Jimmy eventually moved the family to Savannah and at 40, Paula realized: She wasn't dead yet. And when you're not dead, you might as well try to make a living.

She was working in billing at a hospital when a friend suggested she sell her delicious sandwiches door to door at local businesses. Armed with a scheme and a cute name, "The Bag Lady," she asked Jimmy for $200 from her tax return. A career was born.

Her son Jamie was a reluctant recruit to the business. Deen pressed him into service as a delivery boy. She was driven by the fear that she might not be able to provide for her family, a worry that remains to this day. On a recent "Oprah's Next Chapter," she described a recurring dream of not being able to find two nickels in her pocket.

"When you've been on the other side," Deen said, "you never forget."

The business thrived, and Deen brought on staff, eventually turning the business into a full-fledged restaurant called "The Lady." After 27 years, she asked her husband for a divorce, she wrote in the memoir, after learning he'd lied about making their son's truck payments. Paula paid off the debt and got the truck back. Though she and Jimmy remain on good terms and she frequently asserts in interviews that he is an excellent father, he'd lost her heart forever.

Alone for the first time since age 19, Deen threw herself into her work and the care of new pet birds, neglecting her own well-being and housekeeping until that fateful night when the cockroaches emerged from under the bed. It was time to exterminate the past.

Larger than life – and a target

In public, Deen is unmistakably a celebrity and larger than life. Her physical presence is almost shocking; the hue of her hair and teeth and those Disney blue eyes seem cranked up just a notch or two beyond the normal human range.

She is also bawdy as all get-out, never missing an opportunity to make a side-splitting sexual innuendo. Her fans - the millions who tune in to her Food Network series, line up at her in-person events, use her cookbooks and branded edibles and kitchenware, read her magazines, eat at her restaurants and buy her line of home furnishings - love her for it. Deen reminds them of their sassy Southern aunt, or at least the one they wish they'd had.

She's got an entourage that flanks and protects her, perhaps a vestige of the coping strategies she once employed to overcome her agoraphobia. The people surrounding her are often kin by blood or marriage, or have been on Team Paula for a very long time.

There's one notable absence now: She and her longtime spokesperson and marketer Nancy Assuncao parted ways earlier this year, telling the New York Daily News she just couldn't support her client's decision to align herself with the diabetes drug Victoza.

Criticism of that decision was swift and pointed. Author and "No Reservations" host Anthony Bourdain, who in a previous TV Guide interview referred to Deen as the "worst, most dangerous person in America" for her unhealthy food, tweeted: "Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business so I can profitably sell crutches later."

Southern chef John Currence tweeted: "Dear Paula Deen – A big thank you for making us look dumber again. Please shut the [expletive] up. Love, those of us trying to make a difference."

Publications like The Atlantic gleefully tallied up the nutritional damage of some of Deen's most notorious dishes, like the Fat Darrell sandwich, deep-fried lasagna and the Krispy Kreme doughnut-swaddled The Lady's Brunch Burger. SF Gate columnist Paolo Lucchesi bemoaned that, "There was not one modicum of regret or culpability for her entire persona and recipe encyclopedia, which is pretty much a butter-lubed bobsled ride to Diabetesville."

The overwhelming sentiment: Take responsibility for your actions, Paula, and don't profit off unhealthy fare.

Except for a reported pledge to share some of her Novo Nordisk money with the American Diabetes Association, Deen didn't blink, and for the most part, neither did many of her deeply devoted fans.

This is not the first time Deen has been perceived as using an act of charity to balance out a controversial deal. She has been taken to task by critics like New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman who see her as profiting off unethical treatment of animals with her endorsement of Smithfield ham, and Deen has countered with highly publicized public distribution of pork products to food banks.

"I have been a fan of Paula Deen for a long time but I never really thought twice about the dangers of her cooking, because I have a choice to cook those recipes or not," said Tamira Williams, a criminal justice student who, like Paula, grew up in the south. "I am a little tired of hearing people blame Paula Deen because they are obese. She didn't make you eat anything, she didn't make you fry it, she didn't make you drown it in gravy and/or butter and she didn't bring a single bag of sugar to your home."

Williams continued, "She didn't really have to tell anyone about her personal health condition and, as far as the money she is making, I can assure you that she is not the only one getting kickbacks. She is just the only one who actually spoke out about it."

Jennifer Turner, a 36-year-old freelance writer from Manheim, Pennsylvania, remains firm in her fandom as well.

"She admits that she's a cook and not a doctor, yet she is a highly visible public figure and a role model for many people. I am glad she agreed to confess her medical condition, but I also think we judge celebrities harshly. I don't harass my family members or friends because they overeat or cook with butter and sugar while being obese. So why should I discontinue being her fan?"

Turner and her family also find inspiration in Deen's rags-to-riches story. "Just yesterday, I reminded my children of how Paula sent her sons to peddle sandwiches around town in the beginning of her career. My kids sometimes complain about their household chore assignments or sacrifices. I remind them that families stick together, just like Paula Deen and her boys."

The lawsuit Deen faces is a family affair. Named alongside her brother, who came to live with Paula and Jimmy when he was orphaned at 16, Deen was slapped with allegations from a former general manager of Bubba's Seafood and Oyster House, including one saying she had used racial epithets when referring to African-Americans who worked for Paula Deen Enterprises. Her brother has also been accused of openly watching pornography in the restaurant's kitchen.

The statement by the siblings' lawyer says all charges were investigated and found to be false. It goes on to cast aspersions on the plaintiff's true motives. "She has made baseless, inflammatory allegations, threatening to go to the press and ruin Paula Deen's reputation and the reputation of her businesses unless we paid her a large sum of money. We refused to bow to that kind of pressure and refused to pay money to address false claims."

On Friday, CNN's sister network, HLN, obtained a letter to Deen written by Jackson, the plaintiff, three months before she quit her job at the restaurant. It read, in part, "When I came to work for this company, I felt hopeless. I needed something, some opportunity that could provide me hope as an individual, as a woman, to make it on my own. At 15, homeless, without parents and with a young child, my life was headed in a direction no one could ever assume positive. ... Since then I have become the independent woman I have always wanted to be. I have been given opportunities that I never thought possible, all because of you and Bubba."

And as Jackson herself pointed out in the letter, Deen's fan base remains strong, no matter what. "People appreciate you and respect you as a person and the personal struggles and stories you have to tell. People want to KNOW you and what you have had to go through to get where you are."

Even if it's a bed full of cockroaches.


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The cook who picks cotton: reclaiming my roots
How far has Southern food traveled since segregation?
Old world ingredients you should know and use from the South
Why it's different in the South
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Why eating grits doesn't automatically make you a Southerner
5@5 – Overlooked Southern ingredients
Mehepyewpleez? A love letter to K&W Cafeteria
Boiled peanuts
She-crab soup, shrimp and grits, benne seed wafers and the lowdown on Lowcountry cuisine
5@5 – Virginia Willis – Southern is a state of mind
Talk with your mouth full – what is Southern food?
Reclaiming the soul of Southern food
Southern food: more voices from the field

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    December 30, 2013 at 7:19 am |
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    December 10, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  5. Lisa Swain

    When Paula Dean first arrived on FoodNetwork, I found her highly entertaining and some of her ideas to be deliciously decadent. As I've gotten older, her recipes and cooking approaches no longer work for me. Her excesses do not represent the gorgeous "farm to table" and sustainably grown food that is being more predominant in Southern cuisine. I don't particularly miss her from FoodNetwork. I DO think that her charm added something to her son Bobby's show "Not My Momma's Meals" and perhaps she has a place there as a less obvious TV personality.

    The issues of her racism have not yet been proven. As such, I'd rather not stoop to any judgmental remarks about her or any regions of the country.

    September 15, 2013 at 8:31 pm |
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