The untold truth of Paula Deen

Once most known as the queen of Southern cuisine, Paula Deen was that cheery home chef with the perpetually wide baby blue eyes and white bouffant hair that made you feel A-ok about making your family a casserole that included two sticks of butter and a brick of cream cheese. With a slew of cookbooks, television programs, product lines, and endorsement deals for everything from furniture to pharmaceuticals, it seemed there was no stopping the diva with a drawl from taking over not just the South, but the rest of the world too. 

The Deen scandal of 2013 saw that rapid rise to fame deflate quicker than a falling cheesecake. And while you may be familiar with the allegations and admissions that caused the Deen empire to crumble, you may not know everything about what it took to build that empire, who it destroyed in the process, and exactly how many crumbs are left over. 

Paula Deen's early years

Born Paula Ann Hiers, Paula Deen did not officially become a Deen until 1965, when she married her Albany, Georgia, high school sweetheart at the ripe age of 18. Marriage to Jimmy Deen (no, not the sausage guy,) proved to be no picnic however. Jimmy's rampant alcoholism challenged the marriage's foundation, while Paula was kept busy raising their two young sons, Bobby and Jamie. Radar reports that the official legal split of the couple was in 1992. In an excerpt from her book, Paula Deen: It Ain't All About The Cookin, Paula says, "He drank, and he drank way too much to suit me."

Paula's hard times were further expounded by the deaths of both her parents — her father passed away when she was 19, and her mother when she was 23. Paula was plunged into a state of depression and deep anxiety, and suffered from agoraphobia — an anxiety disorder that causes sufferers to avoid stressful situations, often avoiding leaving the home entirely. On Oprah's Next Chapter in 2012, Paula explained to Oprah and Gayle how her agoraphobia stemmed from her deep religious beliefs, and her feeling that her own father's death meant that she was destined to die soon also. "At 19, I woke up every day waiting to die," she explained. "That's heavy." According to Deen, the condition lasted 20 years.

Cooking was Paula Deen's salvation

Deen told Good Housekeeping in 2008 that she hadn't spent much time in the kitchen as a youngster. It was her maternal grandmother, Irene Paul, who had the biggest influence on her kitchen education, and who also helped her to climb out of her lingering depression and crippling anxiety. The two spent time making Southern classics like fried chicken and collard greens, until Deen had summoned the courage and the spare cash to get away from her alcoholic husband and retreat with her boys and younger brother, Bubba, to Savannah, Georgia. Deen did whatever she could do to make ends meet in Savannah, taking on jobs like selling insurance and hanging wallpaper.

Her eureka moment came in 1989 when she decided to sell "lunch-and-love-in-a-bag" to busy Savannah workers. That first company, The Bag Lady, fed the local community Southern favorites like ham salad sandwiches and banana pudding, and paved the way for a Deen family empire to begin to grow.

The birth of Paula Deen's empire

The fast success of The Bag Lady saw the company move out of the Deen house and into the small restaurant of a Savannah Best Western. Eventually, a larger space called The Lady and Sons opened in downtown Savannah. A cookbook followed in 1998, Deen appeared on QVC, and USA Today awarded the restaurant with its coveted "International Meal of the Year" title in 1999.

Deen's talents and down home folksiness caught the eye of famed television host and producer, Gordon Elliott, who, along with power agent Barry Weiner, campaigned for her to join the ranks of Food Network's cadre of chefs and home cooks. Deen was a guest on a couple of Elliott's shows for the network before shooting her first pilot, Afternoon Tea. She got the thumbs up for her first series, 2002's Paula's Home Cooking, followed by Paula's Party in 2006. Bobby and Jamie's own show, Road Tasted, followed later that same year. The next few years saw no end of accomplishments. Deen launched a self-titled magazine, published more cookbooks and a memoir, released multiple product lines, won a 2007 daytime Emmy award for Paula's Home Cooking, and began filming her third Food Network series, Paula's Best Dishes in 2008. What could go wrong, y'all?

Paula Deen's first scandal

Paula Deen and company got their first nibble of what a backlash could taste like when Deen announced her Type 2 diabetes diagnosis in early 2012. Though many fans appreciated her candor, and her promise to shift the focus of her shows to healthier cooking methods, many others were quick to point out that she likely knew about this diagnosis for some time, but had continued to shoot her programs filled with fat- and sugar-laden recipes. Most troubling for some was the coincidence of Deen announcing her diagnosis at the same time that she, along with her two sons, began endorsing the very pricey, Danish diabetes medication, Victoza.

Though Food Network had just started airing Bobby Deen's health-minded cooking show, Not My Mama's Meals, the network claimed to have had no prior knowledge of Deen's diabetes diagnosis. Deen forged on with her transformation to promote a healthier lifestyle, but public sentiment seemed to be turning for many who criticized her many endorsement deals for everything from mattresses to coffee to controversial Smithfield Foods.

9/11 helped Paula Deen's career

When Paula Deen first met her former agent, Barry Weiner, she told him that she wanted to be the "Martha Stewart of the South." Weiner told her that she would be even bigger. And according to the book, From Scratch: Inside the Food Network, Weiner credits 9/11 with helping him make that ascent begin to happen.

Wiener had his work cut out for him. Food Network did not initially jump at the chance to showcase a middle-aged, overweight woman with a Southern drawl, especially with their programming leaning more to coastal, high-end fare. And then 9/11 happened. Weiner pointed out to the network that the nation was looking for comfort, at a time when the "one thing that we've all learned because of 9/11 is we're all going to die... whether we eat fried chicken, or we don't eat fried chicken... " Food Network exec, Judy Girard, later thanked Weiner for proving that the network had "an audience beyond the Hudson River."

In her 2007 memoir, Deen credited Weiner with being, "the closest thing I've had to a father since my real father died." But in 2013, in the midst of her scandal, they parted ways.

Paula Deen's soul sister

Dora Charles worked for Paula Deen for 22 years, coming to her as a cook when Deen was still operating out of the Savannah Best Western. Charles quickly became an integral part of the Deen kitchen, helping to open The Lady and Sons, where she would train staff and develop recipes. The New York Times reports that Deen placed so much faith in Charles' Southern cooking expertise, that Deen once said "you better not put it out unless it passes this woman's tongue." Deen referred to Charles as her "soul-sister."

According to Charles, Deen once said to her, "Stick with me, Dora, and I promise you one day if I get rich you'll get rich." But Charles was still making $10 an hour long after Deen and family were featured prominently on Food Network. Though Charles did enjoy perks, like jobs for friends and family, stints on celebrity cruises (where she worked without pay, but with expenses covered,) and occasional swag and goodies, it was not until the major lawsuit hit that Charles received a salary and bonus. With mixed feelings, Charles spoke out about the racism and ill-treatment she witnessed within the company.

By 2015, Charles had left the Deens' employ, and published her own cookbook, A Real Southern Cook: In Her Savannah Kitchen. In the acknowledgements she writes, "Without Paula, this book wouldn't exist."

Paula Deen's second marriage

Anyone who has enjoyed Paula Deen's programs is no doubt familiar with her charming, Teddy bear-ish, tugboat captain husband, Michael Groover. The two tied the knot in 2004, and their wedding reception at The Lady and Sons was filmed for Food Network, complete with a spread of Southern food classics like shrimp and grits and pickled okra sandwiches. Groover was featured prominently in Deen's programs, and he even penned his own memoir which testified to the couple's "soul mate" bond.

Divorce rumors sparked in 2013 when the tabloid, the Enquirer, published a story claiming that Groover was having a long-time affair. Shortly after that story ran, Deen filed paperwork to transfer the deed on the couple's  $1.3 million home over to Groover as a gift — a move that caused many to speculate that the "gift" was actually a quiet divorce settlement. But in 2015, Deen announced that the deed transfer had been a misunderstanding, and filed to return the house to both their names. In a 2016 blog post on Deen's website, Deen celebrates the couple's 12th anniversary by reminiscing about their wedding day, saying that she and her soul mate are still in the "honeymoon phase" of their marriage.

Paula Deen is making her recipes healthier

Back in 2012, Business Insider reported that Paula Deen was getting some serious hate for continuing to promote her fat- and butter-heavy cooking style (and making around $10 million a year) while concealing the fact that she had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Fast forward a few years, and it appeared that she had taken the criticism to heart. 

When Deen released a new cookbook in 2015, she talked to the Huffington Post about it. Paula Deen Cuts the Fat: 250 Favorite Recipes All Lightened Up included not just a whole bunch of new recipes, but 50 old favorites remastered to include healthier ingredients. She said that her tastes had changed: "... habits form very quickly, and once you start modifying the way you eat, you end up forming a new, healthier habit."

And it seemed she had taken her own advice. By that same year, she had shed an impressive 40 pounds, and had told Doctor Oz (via Good Housekeeping) that even though she hadn't accepted her diagnosis at first, she finally kicked it into high gear. "... I went home to my kitchen and I threw out everything that was white. White bread, white rice, white potatoes, and white pasta." Just a few months later and the weight was gone, and now she preaches something different. "The thing that I'm trying to really focus on, y'all, is moderation, moderation, moderation."

Paula Deen's image has been linked to an undercurrent of racism

When Paula Deen's image became forever associated with racism, people were shocked that this seemingly sweet southern lady could still be holding onto ways best left in the past. But according to journalist Daniel Luzer (via Pacific Standard), everyone should have seen it coming because even nice people can be racist and not all southern traditions are good ones.

Paula Deen is a particular type, Luzer says: the GSL. Consider the good southern lady, the lady who goes on about southern hospitality and home-cooked comfort food. But much of the food Deen cooks comes from a time and a place where not everyone had the means — or the social status — to enjoy a decent meal, like her smothered quail. That's a dish that, once upon a time, would have taken an entire group of slaves — from hunters to cooks to servers — to put on the plantation table. Other Deen recipes — like pork shoulder — is a dish that was originally popular among slaves, who figured out how to take a cheap cut of meat and make it taste good. That's the era Deen affectionately recalls, and Luzer calls it a "nostalgia fetish." 

Is Paula Deen rising from the ashes?

While Paula Deen lost an enormous amount of support after the 2013 scandal, there was still a strong wave of tried and true fans who stood behind the embattled star. In the midst of vanishing endorsement deals, the "Paula Deen Cruise" onboard the "Mariner of the Seas" reportedly added a second cruise in 2014 to accommodate the bevy of fans eager to attend. By late 2014, Deen had a new investor, who helped her to launch The Paula Deen Network, which features not only new programming, but also the "vintage" programs her company purchased from Food Network.

To read Deen's current website, you would barely know there had ever been a scandal, as it's been neatly scrubbed of all mention of her Food Network success. Deen and company have toured the country presenting Paula Deen Live!, and released a mobile game app, along with a podcast and radio show. Deen now has her own line of dog food, released a NY Times bestselling cookbook, and competed on the 21st season of Dancing With the Stars. Deen has also opened four new restaurants in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. Her eighteenth cookbook is on its way.