The tragic real-life story of Paula Deen

Celebrity chef Paula Deen was born Paula Hiers in Albany, Georgia, in 1947, according to Biography. When a family tragedy left her suffering panic attacks and agoraphobia, Deen quelled her anxiety by cooking. As her skills improved, her hobby became her business when she launched The Bag Lady, a modest catering business, with her sons delivering the lunches she would prepare for customers. As the business grew increasingly successful, Deen branched out by opening her own restaurant, The Lady and Sons, in Savannah, Georgia. The restaurant was a hit, spurring Deen to share her recipes in a cookbook that she promoted on home-shopping channel QVC.

More television appearances followed, ultimately leading to the premiere of her first Food Network series, Paula's Home Cooking. The show was an instant hit, leading to a second show, Paula's Party, which launched in 2006. Meanwhile, Deen's sons Bobby and Jamie landed their own Food Network series in 2006, Road Tested. Success just kept coming, with Deen launching her own lifestyle magazine, Cooking with Paula Deen, just the year before, followed by more cookbooks, including her 2007 memoir It Ain't All About the Cooking and yet another Food Network series, Paula's Best Dishes, which premiered in 2008. 

By 2013, Paula Deen sat atop an epicure empire built on high-calorie Southern dishes and her own outsized personality — until an unforeseen scandal brought her world crashing down around her.

Paula Deen's first marriage crumbled due to her husband's drinking

By the early 1990s, Paula Deen's marriage was coming apart at the seams. The problem, she wrote in her memoir It Ain't All About the Cookin', was alcohol. "He drank, and he drank way too much to suit me," Deen wrote of first husband Jimmy Deen, noting that when he imbibed he "became dumb as a rock and I couldn't depend on him."

The final straw, Deen wrote in her memoir, came when son Bobby's truck was repossessed — after he regularly made the payments to his dad, who was supposed to deposit the money in his checking account and make the payments. When Deen discovered her husband had been keeping the money, the marriage was done. "I told Jimmy I wanted out," she wrote, realizing she could stomach his bad behavior toward her, but once it affected their children, the line had been crossed. "All my feelings for Jimmy Deen died at that moment; anything that had been left was gone," she wrote. 

RadarOnline obtained court documents relating to the Deens' divorce, declaring their marriage to be "irretrievably broken," with "no chance of reconciliation."

Paula Deen became agoraphobic after the death of her parents

Married to Jimmy Deen at just 18, Paula Deen suffered a horrific tragedy when she was still a young bride. In a 2012 chat with Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King for Oprah's Next Chapter, Deen discussed how the deaths of both parents within a few years of each other deeply affected her. As Deen recalled, she was just 19 when her father, Earl Wayne Hiers Sr., died after undergoing heart surgery. Her father's death, she admitted, made her morbidly focus on her own mortality. "So at 19, I woke up every day waiting to die," she said. "That's heavy."

Further sadness followed four years later with the death of her mother when Deen was 23. All this death took a toll on Deen's mental health, the trauma pushing her into a 20-year battle with agoraphobia. "Agoraphobia struck me very, very quickly," Deen admitted. "It was hell. It was pure, unadulterated hell."

As she wrote in her memoir, as excerpted by The New York Times, only her husband knew how bad her problems were. "Some days I could get to the supermarket, but I could never go too far inside," she wrote. "I learned to cook with the ingredients they kept close to the door."

Paula Deen faced backlash for hiding her diabetes diagnosis

Paula Deen's food was not known for being health-conscious — Complex once put together a list of her "10 Deadliest Recipes," including such high-calorie creations as fried butter balls — literally globs of butter and cream cheese coated in bread crumbs and deep-fried.

This led to a certain degree of schadenfreude when Deen appeared on Today in 2012 to reveal she had Type 2 diabetes. Controversy erupted when she also revealed she'd kept that diagnosis a secret for three years while continuing to peddle her lard-laden dishes on television. According to a report in Reuters, the same day she confirmed she had diabetes, she began promoting the company that made the diabetes medication Victoza. Explaining why she hid her diagnosis for so long, she told The New York Times that "I wanted to wait until I had something to bring to the table."

While the American Diabetes Association listed many factors that contribute to developing Type 2 diabetes, the organization's director of education, Geralyn Spollett, told the Times, "You can't just eat your way to Type 2 diabetes." She did concede, however, that "Paula's food has a lot of what we call the deadly triangle: fat, sugar, and salt."

Anthony Bourdain called Paula Deen "the worst person in America"

Paula Deen's artery-clogging cuisine led to a war of words with fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who passed away in 2018. In a scorched-earth 2011 interview with TV Guide, Bourdain was asked to share his opinion on various celebrity chefs, and he did not hold back. "The worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen. She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she's proud of the fact that her food is f—ing bad for you," snarked Bourdain. "I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it's OK to eat food that is killing us. Plus, her food sucks."

Deen fired back, telling Page Six that "Anthony Bourdain needs to get a life," adding, "You know, not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills."

Deen's subsequent diabetes revelation and sponsorship deal with the manufacturer of a diabetes drug gave Bourdain further fodder. "Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later," he tweeted.

A former Paula Deen employee's lawsuit unleashed scandal

Paula Deen spent decades carefully constructing her own Southern-fried empire, but a lawsuit from a former employee at her Savannah restaurant would become the first domino to fall, kicking off an extraordinary chain reaction of self-destruction. It all began, the Daily Mail reported, when Lisa Jackson sued Deen and her brother, Earl "Bubba" Hiers, over allegations of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. In addition to the salacious allegations that Hiers would often watch porn on his office computer and pass around photos of women engaged in sex acts during meetings, Jackson — former general manager of The Lady and Sons — also claimed that both Deen and Hiers were regular users of the n-word. Jackson was seeking a whopping $1.2 million.

While the judge ultimately threw out Jackson's claims of racial discrimination, the case ultimately concluded in a settlement. The real damage, however, came when the National Enquirer published the transcript of a deposition that Deen gave in the case. The transcript contains a number of shocking admissions, including confirmation of her brother's porn-viewing and the revelation he had been to rehab to deal with a cocaine problem.

However, it was Deen's response to Jackson's claims of racist language that would cause the most damage.

Paula Deen's shocking admission of racist language

In the National Enquirer's transcript of Paula Deen's videotaped deposition, she was asked if she had ever used the n-word. "Yes, of course," she responded. Asked to give some examples of how and why she would have used that offensive racist slur, she recalled working as a bank teller when "a Black man burst into the bank I was working in and put a gun to my head." She also admitted using the world while discussing "a conversa­tion between Blacks." Deen was also asked to express her thoughts on racial jokes. "It's just what they are — they're jokes ... most jokes are about Jewish peo­ple, rednecks, Black folks ... I can't, myself, determine what of­fends another person," she said. 

The social media backlash was immediate and hilarious as Twitter users caused the hashtag #PaulasBestDishes to trend by suggesting such ultra-racist dishes as "burning cross buns" and "lynchables." Meanwhile, others on Twitter simply demanded the Food Network yank her shows from the air. "I can't stomach the racist dish @pauladeen is serving and I won't watch your channel until she's toast," wrote one user.

Paula Deen defended her idea to have Black employees costumed as slaves

Paula Deen's admission of using the n-word wasn't the only shocking detail to emerge from her deposition. According to the transcript published in the National Enquirer, plaintiff Lisa Jackson's lawsuit alleged that Deen, when planning the wedding of her brother, instructed that there be "a bunch of lit­tle ******s" (using the n-word) who would be dressed up in "long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties ... you know, in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around."

Asked to confirm Jackson's claim, Deen admitted that she cooked up the idea for the "plantation wedding" after dining in a particular Southern restaurant. "The whole entire waiter staff was middle-aged Black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie," she said, explaining that particular eatery "represented a certain era in America ... after the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War ... It was not only Black men, it was Black women ..."

Asked to get a little more specific, Deen spelled it out. "I would say they were slaves," she said.

Paula Deen's apology videos only made things worse

After Paula Deen's deposition was made public, it was clear that damage control was necessary. Deen was booked on Today for an interview with then-anchor Matt Lauer (who would be at the center of his own scandal a few years later) but wound up cancelling at the last minute. Instead, she released a brief video in which she apologizes "for the wrong that I've done. I want to learn and grow from this ... inappropriate and hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable. I've made plenty of mistakes along the way, but I beg you, my children, my team, my fans, my partners, I beg for your forgiveness. Please forgive me for the mistakes that I've made."

That video was taken down shortly after it went up, replaced by a longer unedited version that saw Deen insist that "my family and I are not the kind of people that the press is wanting to say we are ... I offer my sincere apology to those that I have hurt and I hope that you forgive me, because this comes from the deepest part of my heart ..." 

Unfortunately for Deen, neither video had the desired effect. If anything, her apologies only caused the controversy to gain steam.

Paula Deen was cancelled by Food Network

The sordid details unveiled in Paula Deen's revealing deposition did not go unnoticed by the Food Network. Shortly after her admission of using the n-word was made public, the network issued a statement via the Los Angeles Times. "Food Network does not tolerate any form of discrimination and is a strong proponent of diversity and inclusion," the statement declared. "We will continue to monitor the situation."

Hours after Deen's two apology videos hit the internet, Food Network had apparently done enough monitoring and announced that a decision had been made. "Food Network will not renew Paula Deen's contract when it expires at the end of this month," a spokesperson declared in a statement obtained by TV GuideClearly, Deen's damage-control strategy was a big flop. In the eyes of the public, the Southern chef was now as toxic as it gets. Further efforts were necessary if she ever hoped to win back the public.

With that in mind, Deen was rebooked on the Today show after bailing from her previously scheduled appearance in a last-ditch effort to convince all those people who turned on her that she really wasn't a racist. 

A damage-control interview on Today was a disaster for Paula Deen

Paula Deen finally showed up in Today's Rockefeller Center studios to make her case. During an unhinged, tear-filled interview with Matt Lauer, she insisted she wasn't a racist. Deen also claimed that what she said during her deposition shouldn't have resulted in her Food Network firing. "Would I have fired me? Knowing me? No," she declared. 

While Deen stated in her sworn deposition that "of course" she'd used the n-word, she told a somewhat different story on Today. According to this new account, she had used the word just one time in her life, after she'd been held up at gunpoint by a Black man in 1986. "The day I used that word it was a world ago — it was 30 years ago — I had had a gun put to my head," she told Lauer, who pointed out the inconsistencies between what she'd said earlier and what she was saying now. However, she held firm and continued to claim that one occurrence in the 1980s was the only time "in my 66 years on Earth [I had] ever used it."

Deen ended her interview on a conspiratorial note, implying she'd been set up. "There's someone evil out there that saw what I had worked for," she told Lauer, "and they wanted it."

Companies severed ties with Paula Deen en masse

During her disastrous Today interview, Paula Deen addressed being dropped by Food Network while expressing gratitude for all the companies she was in business with that were standing by her. "I am so very thankful for the partners I have who believe in me," she told anchor Matt Lauer. Unfortunately for Deen, that belief was already evaporating.

As Entertainment Tonight reported, Deen was now so universally loathed that companies began dropping her left and right. After the QVC home shopping network put their relationship with Deen on hold, Smithfield Pork dumped her as spokesperson. 

Then, retailers Walmart and Target both severed their business agreements, declaring they would no longer sell Paula Deen-branded merchandise in their storesShortly after those announcements, Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment likewise severed ties with Deen. "It is in the best interests of both parties to part ways at this time," said a Caesars spokesperson in a statement. In addition, Novo Nordisk — manufacturer of the diabetes drug Deen had been endorsing — also ditched her.

Paula Deen's publisher cancelled her contract

As her racism controversy raged on, Paula Deen watched her business partnerships disappear and her television career come to a halt, yet an interesting phenomenon was taking place with her books. As The New York Times reported, her upcoming cookbook, Paula Deen's New Testament, skyrocketed to No. 1 on the Amazon sales charts as fans pre-ordered the book several months ahead of its October 2013 release. 

Despite that unforeseen success in the midst of a scandal, the book's publisher announced it would no longer be releasing the book. In addition, the publisher, Random House, also announced it was cancelling a five-book deal with Deen that was inked the previous year.

According to a report in HuffPost, the situation grew so dire that Deen turned to a heavy hitter in the PR world: Judy Smith. One of America's top crisis management professionals, Smith was the inspiration for Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington in ABC's hit drama Scandal. An "associate" confirmed that Smith had taken Deen on as a client, but the company was "not at liberty to discuss the situation any further at this time."

Paula Deen's "soul sister" Dora Charles leveled charges of racism

Paula Deen's success didn't come without some help behind the scenes. For more than 20 years, the secret ingredient in the kitchen of Deen's Savannah restaurant was Dora Charles, whom Dean referred to as her "soul sister." A profile on Charles in The New York Times recalled that Deen once quipped, "If it's a Southern dish, you better not put it out unless it passes this woman's tongue." 

Charles told the Times that Dean once promised her, "Stick with me, Dora, and I promise you one day if I get rich you'll get rich." That turned out to be far from true; Charles claimed she was still making under $10 an hour even after Deen became a Food Network star. "It's just time that everybody knows that Paula Deen don't treat me the way they think she treat me," said Charles.

Charles also had some dirt to dish, claiming that Deen once asked a Black employee "to dress in an old-style Aunt Jemima outfit." Charles also alleged that Deen requested she ring an iron dinner bell outside the restaurant. "I said, 'I'm not ringing no bell.' That's a symbol to me of what we used to do back in the day," she said.

Backlash to Paula Deen's son's brownface scandal

Paula Deen's racism scandal was two years in the rearview mirror when a social media blunder brought the whole thing back into the spotlight. In 2015, reported The Independent, a photo was shared on Deen's Instagram account in which she's costumed as Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy mode, while her son Bobby Deen is decked out as Desi Arnaz's Cuban character, Ricky Ricardo. 

There was one not-so-teensy problem with the photo: Bobby's face had been darkened with makeup. "Lucyyyyyyy! You got a lot of esplainin' to do!" read the caption. As it turned out, it was the disgraced celebrity chef who had to some 'splainin' about the photo, which was apparently taken back in 2011 during taping of a Halloween episode. 

For critics of Deen, her response spoke volumes. Deen's rep issued a statement that placed the blame on Deen's social media manager for posting the photo. "Paula immediately had this picture taken down as soon as she saw the post and apologizes to all who were offended," the statement said. "As such, Paula Deen Ventures has terminated their relationship with this Social Media Manager."

Paula Deen's brother's tragic death

Few people knew about Paula Deen's brother, Earl "Bubba" Hiers, until her deposition was leaked, revealing that Hiers went to rehab for cocaine addiction, had been accused of watching porn at work, and used the n-word while referring to President Barack Obama. In the wake of the scandal that ensued, Deen was forced to shut down the restaurant she and Hiers co-owned, Uncle Bubba's Seafood and Oyster House.

The 2014 closure of the restaurant stirred up a whole new mini-scandal, reported Savannah Morning News, when the restaurant was abruptly shuttered without anyone bothering to inform any of its employees. A police barricade had reportedly been set up to prevent cars from entering the Uncle Bubba's parking lot. 

Hiers made headlines again in 2019 when the Savannah Morning News reported on his death at age 65 after losing his battle with pancreatic cancer. "Bubba was the greatest brother who was loved by so many people," Deen said in a statement to the Daily Mail. "We will miss him dearly."