Sandra Lee's Tragic Real-Life Story

Sandra Lee has made it both her business and her brand to make daily life just a little bit better for the masses, especially when it comes to the kitchen. Lee is a self-made home furnishings magnate who parlayed that role into a gig as what may have become one of the most prominent on-air personalities in the history of the Food Network. As the host of "Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee," Lee showed fellow cost-conscious and curious home cooks how to turn inexpensive and readily available pantry and refrigerator staples into a wide array of tasty meals. Also the author of multiple cookbooks, a talk show stalwart, humanitarian, and even a sort of political figure, Sandra Lee has seemingly done a little bit of everything — and in the public eye no less — over the last two-plus decades. 

But Lee's life hasn't always been so glamorous and sunny. Her story, both before and after her ascent, is fraught with hardship, peril, illness, and very real scarcity. Here's a look into some of the toughest, most agonizing, and downright tragic moments in the life of Sandra Lee.

Her parents abandoned her

It's safe to say that Sandra Lee experienced a very disjointed home life as a child. Lee's biological parents, Vicky Svitak and Wayne Waldroop, had been a couple in high school and, after welcoming daughters Sandra and Cindy in the 1960s, decided to get married. By the time she was two years old, however, Sandra Lee's parents divorced and her father soon left the family. That's about when Svitak surrendered her two daughters to the care of Wayne's mother, Lorraine Waldroop. "I started calling Grandma Lorraine 'Mommy,' and Vicky became a distant memory," Lee said in her memoir "Made from Scratch" (via New York). A relatively idyllic period would follow. "Some of my fondest memories are of baking with her," Lee said of her grandmother in "Made from Scratch" (via ABC).

Then, shortly after she turned six, Lee witnessed the return of her mother along with her mother's new husband, Richard Christiansen. Lee went to live with them in what became a traumatic shift that was difficult for a young Lee to understand. "Vicky and Richard tried to explain that they were our mom and dad, but I wondered why these strangers wanted to take us away," she wrote. Even worse, though they moved not far from Grandma Lorraine, Lee says that "Vicky and Richard stopped allowing us to see her."

Her childhood was characterized by addiction, stress, and poverty

In the first few years after Sandra Lee was reunited with her mother, the family grew with the addition of three half-siblings: Jimmy, Richie, and Johnny. Richard Christiansen worked as a computer programmer, and his job transfer from California to Washington state presaged a mental health struggle for Lee's mother. "Vicky's mood was becoming unpredictable and more volatile," Lee wrote in her memoir "Made from Scratch" (via ABC).

Three years after the move, Christiansen left his wife, three biological children, and two stepchildren. Yet Lee's mother didn't step in to head up the household. "Vicky spent her days lying on the couch, taking pills and screaming at us," Lee wrote. The family received government assistance from welfare and food stamps programs. 

At 11 years old, Lee became a parental figure to her four younger siblings and became responsible for all of the housework, cooking, and household finances, stretching what little money her family had with lessons she learned from her grandmother. "I was so glad Grandma had taught me how to cook and be frugal, because there was no other way for us to make it through," Lee wrote in "Made from Scratch."

Her mother and stepfather were abusive

Left to feed and take care of a large household, a pre-teenage Sandra Lee learned how to make money go further with skills she'd later share in her many books and cooking shows. To supplement welfare payments and food assistance funds, she earned extra money by raking leaves, collecting berries, and selling homemade pot holders. She'd also eat only part of her school lunch to take the rest home to share with her siblings. "If we had extra expenses, or even if we were $5 short, that meant we wouldn't be eating for the last few days of the month," Lee wrote in her memoir "Made from Scratch" (via New York).

Her mother was unable to help, consumed by a drug addiction that also made her violent. One night, Lee called 911, fearing that her mother had overdosed. On another occasion, Vicky grew so angry that she attacked Lee, leaving the girl bruised and bloody. "My eyes were swollen, and my body was covered in welts," Lee wrote. 

Not long after those events, stepfather Richard returned to the family. However, it didn't get better, as Lee reports that he made sexual advances toward her.

She witnessed a horrific crime

Escaping an unsafe and unhappy home life, 15-year-old Sandra Lee was sent to live with her biological father, Wayne Waldroop, in 1982. But she soon felt homesick and fell into a serious depression. "It was the only time I ever considered taking my own life," Lee wrote (via New York). While she was under the care of her father, police arrested Waldroop on rape charges. Sandra Lee reportedly witnessed the crime and had to testify. Although she was a minor, a reporter still revealed Lee's name in multiple news reports, so Lee took the writer to task at the La Crosse Tribune offices. Waldroop was convicted of sexual assault in the second degree and served a one-year prison sentence.

This meant that Lee was left without an immediate parental figure or guardian. Thankfully, her aunt and uncle, Bill and Peggy Singlehurst, informally adopted her. "There was a lot of drama and trauma going on in my family home that was above me," Lee told People. "He was a Father to me, my only real Dad," Lee later wrote of Singlehurst on Instagram

Her marriage to a convicted criminal fizzled

Sandra Lee dropped out of college in the 1980s and found work in California demonstrating home security and self-defense gear at trade shows. Then, in 1993, Lee created Kurtain Kraft, a series of easy-install curtain kits. After her invention was featured on television, Lee became a multimillionaire. She weathered patent-infringement lawsuits and then accepted a position in 1999 as the spokesperson for manufactured house company KB Home. Shortly thereafter, Lee entered into a relationship with KB Home's CEO, Bruce Karatz. Decades older than Lee, Karatz divorced his first wife, cashing out on $30 million in stock options to dissolve the marriage in 2001. A few months later, he married Lee.

The relationship would end relatively quickly and amidst major scandal. In May 2005, Lee, by then a star of "Semi-Homemade Cooking" on Food Network, filed for divorce from Karatz. The official cause, according to Lee, was irreconcilable differences. Lee's divorce was finalized in January 2006. Months later, Karatz resigned from KB Home after it emerged that he'd illegally manipulated stock options for personal financial gain. For his crimes, a federal court sentenced Karatz to a $1 million fine, 2,000 hours of community service, and eight months of house arrest.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer

In March 2015, Sandra Lee received a phone call from her doctor. The results from a mammogram and biopsy had come in, and Lee was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, a type of early-onset breast cancer. "That's how fast life turns," Lee told Good Housekeeping. "I started to understand how aggressive cancer is, and I decided to fight back just as aggressively." Lee documented every step of the cancer treatment and recovery process for the HBO documentary "Rx Early Detection: A Cancer Journey with Sandra Lee."

Telling no one about the illness but her partner and closest relatives, Lee endured weeks of doctor's appointments and tests, eventually deciding to undergo a preventative double mastectomy. The cancer was initially present in three areas, and as treatment was a must, Lee opted for surgery to slow or stop the potential spread of the disease.

Yet the mastectomy resulted in an infection, which required several days of hospitalization. But four months after the procedure, Lee received word that she was in full remission. Lee utilized her experience to urge the state of New York to pass a law that would make cancer centers stay open later into the evening and allow better access to those facilities.

Cancer is prevalent in Sandra Lee's family

One factor in Sandra Lee's decision to treat her cancer with a mastectomy was her extensive and foreboding family history with the disease. When Lee was a child, her grandmother was diagnosed with a virulent form of stomach cancer that was detected when it was already in an advanced stage. "For me, that really laid the groundwork for being extremely aggressive about dealing with the onset of cancer," Lee said in a 2017 speech at the Miami Breast Cancer Conference (via OncLive). Radiation treatments sent her grandmother's cancer into remission, although it returned when the older woman was 79.

In 2020, Lee arranged a vow renewal and wedding re-creation ceremony for Peggy and Bill Singlehurst, the aunt and uncle who helped to raise her. It was something of a last request for her uncle, who was coping with both heart disease and a cancer diagnosis of his own. The couple died within five months of each other in 2023.

She struggled mentally over weight issues

The stress of dealing with cancer, as well as enduring cancer treatments, can take a tremendous physical toll on a patient. This was certainly Sandra Lee's experience, following her 2015 diagnosis and subsequent treatments, surgical procedures, and complications. While recovering from a double mastectomy, Lee lost a significant amount of weight. Then, she set out to regain what she'd lost. "I actually worked at it with my doctor as I was borderline underweight," Lee told TODAY. "I was so stressed after the double mastectomy that I was underweight."

During the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020, Lee added another 30 pounds to her frame. Not long after suffering from stress over cancer, Lee dealt with the negative psychological ramifications of her subsequent weight gain. "I weighed in at 170 two days before Christmas," she wrote on Instagram in January 2021. "None of my clothes fit and worse I feel terrible." After eliminating alcohol, red meat, and most carbohydrates from her diet, Lee shed 10 pounds in less than two weeks.

She faced post-cancer health problems

In 2015, Sandra Lee endured a harrowing sequence of health issues. She learned she had breast cancer, treated the disease with a double mastectomy, and suffered a post-surgical infection. By the end of the year, she'd announced that she was in remission. But that wouldn't mark the end Lee's medical woes.

Several years after her initial diagnosis, Lee was set for another surgical procedure. "It was a follow up to my breast cancer surgery, but I had repeatedly put it off and then COVID hit," Lee said on Instagram. Yet, during a gynecological check-up around 2022, a doctor noticed an alarming transformation in Lee's cells. After consulting with other doctors, Lee quickly scheduled the surgery she'd put off. Seeking to stop any cancer from returning, Lee underwent a full hysterectomy in March 2022.

Lee suffered multiple complications from the procedure. After she was discharged, she experienced symptoms like vomiting that became so severe she visited an emergency room. There, doctors diagnosed an infection and noted that severe dehydration had dropped her kidney function down to a seriously low 30%, as she reported on Instagram.

She's endured vicious criticism

Premiering on Food Network in 2003 and running for 15 seasons, "Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee" showed home cooks how to make family-friendly meals with little time and money by utilizing packaged, frozen, and canned ingredients. Though it proved relatable and useful for many viewers, it upset food purists and chefs, particularly Anthony Bourdain. "This frightening Hell Spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker seems on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time," Bourdain wrote of Lee on food writer Michael Ruhlman's website. In 2009, he took another swipe at Lee's methods. "All you have to do is waddle into the kitchen, open a can of c*** and spread it on some other c*** that you bought at the supermarket," Bourdain said (via People).

Then, there was the Kwanzaa Cake. On a 2010 episode of "Semi-Homemade Cooking," Lee baked the now-infamous pastry, which incorporated the colors and candles associated with the holiday that celebrates Black history and culture. Lee's messy preparation, along with allegations of cultural appropriation, plunged the Kwanzaa Cake into viral territory. It got so bad that Denise Vivaldo, who created the recipe for Lee, publicly apologized. "The candles were her idea," Vivaldo wrote in HuffPost.

Lee doesn't seem too bothered, however. "It's shtick. That's how some people get their press. There are 17 million children in this country going hungry every day, and we're worried about my Kwanzaa cake?" she told The New York Times.

Her relationship with Andrew Cuomo ended badly

In the wake of the dissolution of her first marriage in 2005, Sandra Lee started a new romantic relationship. That was the year that Lee attended a party in New York's exclusive Hamptons, where her friend, political advisor Alexandra Stanton, connected her with Andrew Cuomo, then a political hopeful working at a real estate firm. Lee and Cuomo soon began dating. 

The son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo and once the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Cuomo was elected governor of New York in 2010. The move made Lee the state's de facto First Lady. Cuomo would eventually win three terms as governor, and he and Lee remained a couple until they separated in 2019.

After the split, Lee moved to Malibu. Then, in 2021, 11 women, many of whom were former or current New York state employees, accused Cuomo of sexual harassment and misconduct. Lee refused to comment on the situation. Insiders told the New York Post that, while Lee was out of state attending to elderly relatives' health needs, the governor likely carried on extramarital affairs. "Andrew was sleeping with at least one other woman who wasn't Sandra," a former Cuomo employee said. Due to the controversy and facing impeachment, Cuomo resigned as governor of the state of New York in August 2021. 

She was the victim of multiple robbery attempts

In early 2021, Sandra Lee experienced two robbery attempts at separate properties and in rapid succession. In February 2021, unidentified thieves gained entry into Lee's storage unit and made off with several pricey possessions belonging to the TV host, including many of the expensive and elaborate costumes she wore on her Food Network series, as well as outfits worn by Cher and the cast of a New York production of "Cinderella." The thieves also took unspecified pieces of furniture from the unit.

"I'd rather have given them away to a charity so they could've auction them off and raise money for a good cause," Lee wrote on Instagram. "Clearly whoever stole them needs them more than me."

Mere days later, in the early morning hours of February 11, a masked man was spotted on surveillance cameras attempting to gain entry into Lee's Malibu home via a lockbox. The suspect tried to enter twice, but was unsuccessful on both occasions. Lee installed extra security measures on her property and hired guards to protect herself following the attempt.