[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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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.
What does everyone expect? Of course she deserves to lose out. I am personally offended someone would even use that language in this day and age. If she really respected others, herself, and her brand she would have watched her mouth.
WTH does this have to do w/ the topic ?
Oh lay off her already. I've never seen a single episode, or do I know anything about her except from this, and the diabetes controversy. However, the more she is attacked, the more sympathy I have for her. For chrissake, everyone carries some biases within themselves. Sure, saying the N word is unacceptable, but its also doesn't signal the apocalypse.
I feel bad, because I see, one by one, her business partners abandoning her for something that she has addressed and apologized for. People are simply scapegoating her because it's sport in America to watch celebrities crumble.
As for her diabetes, who cares. That's something she has to deal with, and anyone that blames her for their obiesity should be blaming themselves. She didn't force food down anyone's throat.
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I agree with you Wrathtard. I too have never seen one of her show. I love the look of his products. Wish that I could afford to purchase a set of her pans. I believe that Paula is a good person when it comes down to the brass tacks I agree that she should never had said the N wow=rd, but I'm getting tired of other people calling me cracker, holsum white bread and other phrases a long those lines. they don't want to be called the n word but they need to quit calling themselves that word and they need to quit calling us cracker, white bread and such. then everyone will be happy!!!!
It's clear who the real racists are. Paula Deen said a word and harmed noone. In return she was attacked from every angle and lost tens of millions of dollars. She is the victim here, not the offender.
I hate Paula Deen. From the first moment I saw that crap eating grin, I hated her. And now I'm laughing, because this is hilarious.
HATE is a harsh word; also it is not the opposite of love, but rather is derived from love, which would mean that you love & either angry, disappointed or fighting with her. If you don't her (watching her on TV is not enough), then you cannot have feelings for her (good or bad). You either admire, look up to her, envy, jealous or the opposite – are indifferent to her (the opposite of love of love), Whatever, she has not kill anyone, what she said, she said years ago. With regards to the party she was planning & her comment about the set up; she probably was mentioning possible ideas, & the others who heard her should not have been angry with that idea, as it could be misinterpret & be offensive. She is only human & makes mistakes, speak out of turn & should not be condemn. She said I'm sorry, lets grow up, forgive & go forward. LET WHO EVER IS WITHOUT SIN OR HAS NEVER ERR - THROW THE 1ST STONE; otherwise Peace.
All you have is "what if's" just stop. We don't go around happy scared or angry being racist. That is disgusting, and don't sit there typing up a storm giving definition lessons. If someone feels hate for someone it is very much possible. Mark my words, I hate Hitler. I never looked up to him nor did I admire him in any way but one thing I know is that I DO hate him. Don't try to tell us what love is. Love is indefinite and cannot be defined. Hate can be.
RANDOM HOUSE and BALLENTINE books are Hypocrites!!!! These two publishing firms cancelled the publication of Paula's books YET they Themselves published "The Adventures of Huckelberry-Berry Finn" which included the use of the "N" word. How odd that this iconic book was allowed to be published without public outcry or the public demanding the publisher cancel publications. I smell a double standrd!!!!!
The public ( both pro and con Paula) should have the GUTS to say, Random House and Balentine books host a double standard... What's your vote???
It's not hypocritical. The book is historically correct. The word was in use when it was published in the late 1800's.
Removing the word would deprive the reader of the author's intent of teaching about racism. You can't judge past events w/ present day values. To bastardize this book would destroy one of the greatest pieces of American literature.
FYI: Sadly,there is a newer edition that replaces the word w/ slave.
Wrong, what would make you think everyone says that?
Why on earth are we cutting Paula any slack? Shouldn't we hold Paula to the standard of not making obscenely racist, offensive remarks? Behind that "slip of the tongue" is racism. Where there's smoke, there's fire. And she admits it, trying to justify using that word to condemn a black person who held a gun to her head in the past. Does her Christian heart not have the capacity for forgiveness? There is no excuse. One man's actions are no justification for the promotion of hate speech. Two wrongs don't make a right.
This was a word she used 30 years ago after a traumatic experience and while just coming out of years of struggling with a panic disorder. It does not represent who she is AT ALL.
In regards to your comment: Does her Christian heart not have the capacity for forgiveness? ...no excuse. One man's actions are no justification for the promotion of hate speech. 2 wrongs ... make a right. HAVE YOU EVER HAD A GUN PUT TO YOUR FACE? She may the heart to forgive, but at that specific moment, she probably saw her life flash before her. Started to worry; what would happen to her sons if she should die; what if she was lucky & didn't die but sustained serious injury or permanent trauma, who would take care of her? If as a result of these injuries; she finds herself without a job, lose her health insurance – how will she cope? I don't think she was worry about the robber feeling, she panic & reacted in the only way she felt was available to her – SPEECH; taking out her frustration, hopelessness & fear & USED THE FIRST WORDS THAT POP INTO HER HEAD – she was not politically correct but she lashed out. (PS – what if this robber not only put the gun to her head, said this is a stick up & probably blame her for all that was wrong in this word & his life; could have also used some offensive, degrading & racist words. What if he threaten to do bodily harm to her, even threaten with rape – tell me what would you say &/or react.
This Paula Deen thing is starting to look like bulling or a witch hunt. It feels a lot like someone is trying to take her down. A way over the top feeding frenzy! Does anyone know who it is or what is really going on? Paula Deem today? Who will it be tomorrow?
I wonder where all her liberal friends have gone? Mr. J Carter and company have distanced themselves from her as have many of the African-American folks that have spent many hours on her show and benefitted from the appearance.
I had tired of the questionable jokes and things sometime ago but did enjoy her recipes. Where in the world is her publicist?
Oh, I am so sure, rkpringle, I don't know what you are talking about. You are in some alternate universe. Read the thread discussions here.
I am not a Paula Deen fan. I have exactly ONE recipe of hers in my database. I think she needed a correction, but at this point it is going way way way too far. You would probably consider me a liberal, since I don't harp on liberals (or on conservatives, just on specific issues).
She is a human being. She came up from major adversity, and I wish her well, and that her new book gets published. She made mistakes, and while, as with defying gravity, we have to take errors into account, for some things there should indeed be limits.
Employers are suppose to make their work environments harassment free. The allegations indicate a hostile work environment. If this happened at McDonald's, the CEO would
Matt Lauer the "truth" interviewer? what a joke.
Down in The South, and back in Paula's day, people were racist and they ate food laden with ingredients that lead to a slow, sick, medi-care pricey death.
She's just trying to re-live the good ol' days, but it's more fun now, cause she has loads of money.
She makes me skin crawl. Ever since we got a peak at her "real" life on the reality show that didn't air for very long. The house she lives in is nice, and the scenes they showed were of white people sitting around a table of food, getting drunk, telling inappropriate jokes. THAT was when I quit being a fan, she and her peeps are kinda... low class... I'm always trying to learn new recipes to cook for my loved ones, I use food network all the time to do it. I NEVER SELECT HERS, for fear of two things 1) Giving my most cherished loved ones Diabetes and 2) Having Food Network think I would support such a low class heifer who constantly talks inappropriately about sex and sexual stuff.
Dude, get your own handle.
I think we need ANOTHER article about this woman. Please, CNN. More. I want to know more.
I was sort of thinking this earlier.
List of recent stories:
Paula Deen 'New Testament' cookbook orders soar
USDA approves voluntary GMO-free label
Starbucks to post calorie counts
Sushi restaurant bans tipping, will others follow suit?
Paula Deen's sons say mom's no racist
iReport: 'Leave Paula Deen alone'
Smithfield Foods drops Paula Deen
iReport: Defending Paula Deen
Lifting faraway soldiers' spirits, one bite at a time
Twinkies returning to shelves this summer
Slow news day.
Has anyone ever thought about how many African American's she has employed at her Businesses, I would venture a good guess of about 75% of her staff is Black, so one Black girl is unhappy for not getting more spoiled than the others? Please. Paula no apology necessary. You Go Girl, the same as always
I will note for the record that the woman who filed the lawsuit is white.
Please explain spoiled?
It goes likes this: learn first, comment after.
The lady was white,now what.?
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