Paula Deen's Transformation Is Seriously Turning Heads

Paula Deen's name is synonymous with Southern cooking. Corned beef sandwiches, cheesy chicken and rice casserole, banana pudding ... her dishes are likely to kick your new diet plan out the window. Having said that, the celebrity chef has come a long way from being thought of as someone who can eat a butter popsicle. She has delved into making healthier and lighter recipes, too, after she was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, which forced her to make some changes in her calorie-laden recipes (via ABC News).

Those who have seen her shows know that food is sometimes second to what Deen has to say about her private life and Southern culture. And while food is what she is known for, Deen's story goes beyond her skills in the kitchen. It's also about her struggle to overcoming loss, fight phobias, and learn the ropes of survival. Deen, who has authored over a dozen books and owns several restaurants, has seen life's ups and downs, especially after Deen was embroiled in a scandal that saw her using racist slurs (via Delish). 

Ever since, she has been slowly and carefully reclaiming the love of her fans. Here's how Paula Deen has been turning heads with her years-long transformation.

Paula Deen grew up when racial segregation was at its peak

As a child, Deen remembers hanging out at a drive-in theatre called Arctic Bear that had separate water fountains and toilets for "colored" and "white" patrons. Reflecting on it years later, in her memoir Paula Deen: It Ain't All About the Cookin', she writes, "I'm plain horrified that things could have been that way and I was so blind I didn't get that it was wrong."

Born on January 19, 1947, Deen's childhood and teen years coincided with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Albany, Georgia, where Deen was born and raised, saw demonstrations, campaigns, and arrests during this time. The evening news was filled with stories of African Americans fighting for justice in Georgia and beyond.  

When she was in high school, her class was the only one that had integrated black students in that area, back in 1965. This was soon after the Albany Movement of 1961 that called to end desegregation. "It was happening right under our noses: our local African Americans were claimin' their right for fair and equal treatment and some white folks were inspired to rethink old ways," she wrote.

Paula Deen wanted to be a cheerleader, but fate had other plans

Paula Deen was a 'senior superlative' at Albany High School, a title that 10 of the most popular boys and girls are conferred with at the time of their graduation. Deen recalls that she was a "social butterfly", but confesses quite unhesitantly that she flunked algebra about three times. "If I could have made a livin' cheerleading, that would have been my chosen path," she wrote

When she was in her late teens, Deen wrote that her dad wanted her to be a dental hygienist. Deen wanted to be a model. In fact, she applied to a modeling school and got in without her parents' knowledge. However, her parents would hear nothing of her traveling alone and pursuing a career in modeling. So, she decided to get married. She and her high school sweetheart, Jimmy Deen, tied the knot in 1965 when she was all of 18 years old, according to Success magazine. After marriage, her dreams of modeling faded. Instead, she joined Albany First Federal Savings Bank as a teller. 

Paula Deen took to cooking at home because of her phobia of public places

Something inside Paula Deen snapped when her dad passed away a year after she got married. "The night my daddy died, I had to sleep between my husband and my mother in the same bed," she told Oprah Winfrey. Raw fear took over her life completely, and she couldn't seem to unclench herself of it for the next two decades of her life.

That fear made her incapable of stepping out even for mundane errands like getting groceries. She later learned that this was a phobia called agoraphobia, a phrase she picked up from an episode of The Phil Donahue Show (via The New York Times). "Some days, I could get to the supermarket, but I could never go too far inside," she told The New York Times. "I learned to cook with the ingredients they kept close to the door," Seeking help from a professional was not a popular option back then. "In those days, in Georgia, nobody was going to a psychiatrist just to mend your spirit," she said.

The only alternative was to immerse herself in cooking. "I could concentrate on what was in my pots and block out what was in my head," she said. Without knowing yet, she was charting her path to be one of the most popular chefs in America.

Paula Deen started a catering business to support her family

All Paula Deen wanted to be after her marriage was a good wife and mother. "It was my dream that my husband would earn the living and take care of us, and that making money would never be my responsibility," she wrote in her memoir. But her husband kept losing jobs. She soon realized that the family couldn't depend on just his income to run the household. Deen rolled up her sleeves and tried out a range of different jobs, from hanging wallpapers and cleaning bathrooms in the Kroger grocery store, to selling grease absorbers and managing billing at a medical center.

Eventually, Deen began a catering business called "The Bag Lady", after her son's name for the venture (via Smoky Mountains). The business, which specialized in lunch delivery, started in 1989 and soon became wildly popular. Paula Deen was on the first step to celebrity chef stardom.

Paula Deen's early successes helped her start a restaurant

Paula Deen had been saving a little every day from the profits that she made running The Bag Lady. She also scrimped and saved at the grocery store, where she writes that she wasn't above buying slightly old fruit for a discounted price.

By being judicious with her money, Deen was able to save $4,000, enough to rent out a restaurant setting for her business. 'The Lady', as she called the space, had a capacity of 30 to 40 seats. She served breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and had her sons and their girlfriends waiting at tables. After her lease ended, Deen bought her own place in downtown Savannah. (via The Lady and Sons

Within three years, USA Today named it 'International Meal of the Year', according to The Lady and Sons. Other accolades followed. Deen was unstoppable. Soon enough, The Lady and Sons expanded to a three-story building with over 300-seating capacity.

Paula Deen's first cookbook helped her hit the big time

As with her food business, Paula Deen dove into writing with no prior experience. In fact, she had no idea how traditional publishing worked or who the top publishers were. All she knew was that she had a bunch of handwritten recipes passed down through the generations, in her "mother's brown paper sack", and she wanted the world to know about them. Unlike most first-time authors, Deen wrote in her memoir that her very first cookbook, Favorite Recipes from The Lady and her Friends, was "so stinking easy to write, it was unbelievable."

As fate would have it, a copy of her book was picked up by an editor who approached Deen with the desire to publish it through Random House. Deen's first book was published as The Lady and Sons Savannah Country Cooking in 1998. "And it sold, it sold, it sold! America was ready for Southern Country cooking, it seemed," she wrote. With a chance to promote the book on the shopping network QVC, Deen was soon selling tens of thousands of copies per day (via Eater).

Paula Deen got her own show on Food Network

Paula Deen's first taste of national television was opposite Spencer Christian in Good Morning America. "When the segment aired, I could hear the quiver in my voice and I could see my hand shake, but I was never again scared on TV after that," she writes in her memoir. Deen must have got an inkling that she was cut out to be a television star. The universe confirmed this by sending Australian journalist and television host Gordon Elliot along her way.

It was a friend who introduced Deen to Elliot. Back then, he had a show called Doorknock Dinners on Food Network, of which Deen would later take part (via TV Guide). He was instrumental in getting Deen's foot at the door of Food Network. Besides Doorknock Dinners, she also was seen in Ready, Set Cook! But having her own show still seemed impossible for Paula. "Here I was, this grey-headed, older Southern girl who wasn't a size 2 and didn't have a culinary degree. I think [Food Network] had their doubts whether America had a need for anything like that," she told Food & Wine.

However, she did finally land a show of her own, called Paula's Home Cooking which went on for over a decade. Paula said that it was really the tragedy of September 11, 2001, that changed Food Network's mind. "I think a lot of people needed comfort food," she told Food & Wine.

Paula Deen remarried in 2004, thanks to her dogs

Paula Deen's first marriage with Jimmy Deen lasted 27 years. His excessive drinking was an issue that followed the couple like a dark shadow from the very beginning of their relationship. "For about twenty-five years I'd endured not only my own awful agoraphobia but also Jimmy's drinking, his insults, and both of us tearing each other down in a thousand different ways," she wrote in Paula Deen: It Ain't All About the Cookin'.

Soon after her catering business took off, Deen ended her marriage in 1992. Thereafter, work was her biggest priority as her fame spread beyond Georgia. Then, there came a point when she realized that her work-life balance had gone for a toss. "My business was well on its way to being successful. But my social life was in the pits. My life was consumed with work and family, about 95% work and 5% family," she wrote. Deen prayed for a "neighbor". Call it divine intervention, but one sunny day, her capering dogs led her to just such a neighbor's house.

"Well, I chased those dogs around the wall and right into the arms of a man I'd never seen before, propped on his fence and talking on his cell phone. He looked like Ernest Hemingway," she said. His name was Michael Groover and he was, of all things, a tugboat captain. The two hit it off so well that, in 2004, the pair was married.

It took courage for Paula Deen to finally write her memoir

By 2007, Paula Deen was at a comfortable place in her life. She had published five books, had her own show on Food Network and chain of restaurants, and had tied the knot for the second time. She also had a lot to lose. Publishing a memoir required every ounce of courage that Deen had, especially one that laid bare all things good and bad about the person that Deen was. 

As she writes in the foreword of her 2007 book, Paula Deen: It Ain't All About the Cookin', "Maybe if you heard the truth about Paula Deen, about the mistakes I made in my life, how bad my judgment's been at times, and how guilty I feel because my mothering wasn't always so wonderful ... well, maybe you wouldn't be quite as lovin' to me as you have been. And that would kill me." 

In the book, Deen is open and vulnerable. She presents herself as someone far from the perfect personality that television had painted her to be. She even confesses that she is a smoker, calling it "an addiction I can't be quit of, though I try every day." The book, while delving into her private life, also makes space for the kind of recipes that made Deen famous in the first place.

Paula Deen hid her diabetes, making fans furious

What Paula Deen serves in her restaurants is solidly under the umbrella of comfort food. Think of her infamous burger served not on a bun, but between two glazed donuts (via Business Insider). However, after fans learned that the queen of comfort food had been concealing her type 2 diabetes diagnosis for three years, according to The New York Times, her food got a little harder for fans to comfortably digest. 

High fat and sugar, which are key components of most of Deen's food, can cause obesity, which then can lead to type 2 diabetes, according to The Mayo Clinic. After she disclosed her diagnosis, Deen was roundly criticized for promoting all things butter while knowing she had to cut back for her own health. In fact, on learning that she was diabetic, she said "I went home to my kitchen and threw out everything that was white. White bread, white rice, white potatoes, white pasta. I did that for four months, y'all!" Her new diet and the eventual transformation was shocking, as she lost nearly 40 pounds (via People).

But the fact that Deen hid her diagnosis from the public for three years while, according to Business Insider, she made over $10 million a year advocating very un-healthy food did not sit well with fans. Her announcement was also timed to coincide with her new high-paying gig as a spokesperson for drug company Novo Nordisk, further souring many opinions of Deen.

In 2013, Deen admitted to using racist slurs and lost nearly everything

Deen acknowledges naughty language as one of her weaknesses. "I tell people who come to my cooking class that I can be a little bawdy and I sure hope that I don't upset them," she wrote. Yet, her language would prove to be her undoing.

Paula was nothing short of a culinary star when Food Network decided to let her go in 2013, to the shock of many of her fans. But what was more shocking was the 'why' of it. Deen, the warm and welcoming woman who is always seen with a hearty plate of food, had "admitted to using racist language, and tolerating racist jokes in one of her restaurants," reported The New York Times. This revelation was soon followed by the cancellation of her Food Network shows and the end of a profitable Walmart deal.

As reported in Today, she told fans "I want to apologize to everybody for the wrong that I've done, and I want to learn and grow from this. Inappropriate, 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." Some, however, called the apology half-hearted and pointed to other awkward details about Deen's life. Despite some support from fans, Deen was off the air. Perhaps Food Network had, for the time, had enough of its own bad decisions.

Paula Deen started her own network

A lot happened after Paula Deen's 11-year-old career in Food Network came to an end. Like dominos, all the standing connections that she had with a sizable number of brands fell. Target stopped selling Deen's line of pots and pans, reported the StarTribune, while Walmart announced it would no longer stock Deen's line of merchandise (via The New York Times). Drugmaker Novo Nordisk dropped her as their company's face and her publisher, Random House, officially called it quits. 

Armed with ladles and oven mitts, Deen decided to reconnect with her audience by launching the Paula Deen Live! tour (via Globe Newswire). Deen also bought all the rights to her shows and released them on her own digital platform, The Paula Deen Network, along with original content.

And all the while, she never went away from the limelight. If anything, we only saw her in more diverse roles than before, including a stint on Dancing with the Stars. Slowly, she found her way back to television with Positively Paula that began airing on RFD-TV in 2018.

Throughout the lockdown, Paula Deen posted cooking videos on YouTube

When the COVID-19 lockdown began for Deen in March 2020, Paula Deen happened to watch Trisha Yearwood, country artist and celebrity chef, and husband Garth Brooks perform a concert online. Deen wanted to do something similar, reach out to her fans, stay connected. So, with the help of her team, she started posting videos of her cooking simple recipes as part of a new "Quarantine Cooking" series. "Now, with so much time in our hands, it's a great time to get into the kitchen, make something that you have been putting off trying to tackle," she said in an episode of her web series.

One of the first episodes was on how to make the Southern specialty, Georgia Cracker Salad. Deen, who has never been a big advocate of from-scratch cooking, uses pre-made saltine crackers and a tub of mayonnaise in the dish. The series also features her daughter-in-law Claudia, who, in stark contrast to Deen, makes lighter recipes such as acai bowl and avocado toast. In November 2020, the "Quarantine Cooking" series gave way to "Holiday Recipes" that featured sweet potato bake, broccoli casserole, and southern cornbread dressing.

Ever since the beginning of 2021 though, Deen has surprisingly leaned towards healthy cooking, dedicating a whole week to air-fried dishes.