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A down-home entrant in America's new wave of celebrity chefs, Paula Deen parlayed her definitive Southern charm and irrepressible personality into a multimedia epicurean franchise joining the caliber of überfoodies Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray. A once-abandoned single mother who conquered crippling agoraphobia through her love of cooking, Deen leveraged her rich Southern cooking into a successful, regionally renowned restaurant. A self-admitted "cook" versus trained chef, the CEO of Paula Deen Enterprises expanded this renown into a multimedia empire, including cookbooks, a magazine, numerous shows on the Food Network cable channel and a syndicated daytime talk show for Warner Bros. What set Deen apart from all other culinary giants remained her homespun charm and her refusal to make heart-healthy any of her Southern friend delicacies, which in turn, delighted fans who appreciated her unorthodox, down-to-earth style of cooking. Despite her growing popularity, not everyone was as admiring of Deen's high-fat approach to dining, in particular fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain who once called Deen "the worst, most dangerous person to America." Not surprisingly, when during a 2012 interview Deen...
A down-home entrant in America's new wave of celebrity chefs, Paula Deen parlayed her definitive Southern charm and irrepressible personality into a multimedia epicurean franchise joining the caliber of überfoodies Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray. A once-abandoned single mother who conquered crippling agoraphobia through her love of cooking, Deen leveraged her rich Southern cooking into a successful, regionally renowned restaurant. A self-admitted "cook" versus trained chef, the CEO of Paula Deen Enterprises expanded this renown into a multimedia empire, including cookbooks, a magazine, numerous shows on the Food Network cable channel and a syndicated daytime talk show for Warner Bros. What set Deen apart from all other culinary giants remained her homespun charm and her refusal to make heart-healthy any of her Southern friend delicacies, which in turn, delighted fans who appreciated her unorthodox, down-to-earth style of cooking. Despite her growing popularity, not everyone was as admiring of Deen's high-fat approach to dining, in particular fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain who once called Deen "the worst, most dangerous person to America." Not surprisingly, when during a 2012 interview Deen admitted that she had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes some three years prior, the Grand Dame of Southern cooking found public sympathy to be in short supply. A home-spun heroine to some and an unrepentant hypocrite to others, Deen continued to whet the appetites of comfort food fans across the nation until the fallout from a lawsuit brought against Deen and her younger brother jeopardized her entire career in the summer of 2013.
She was born Paula Ann Hiers on Jan. 19, 1947, in Albany, GA to Earl and Corrie Hiers. Paula, along with younger brother Earl Jr., affectionately called Bubba, spent her early years in and around a restaurant/motel complex run by her maternal grandparents in the nearby River Bend area. Their mother and father helped run the mini-resort, operating the adjacent gas station and souvenir stand, while her father also began running his own car dealership in Albany. Deen effectively studied the art of cooking at her grandmother's elbow, becoming enraptured with food's function as a social engine in Southern culture, until her grandparents sold the business and the family moved to Albany. In high school, she met Jimmy Deen, and though her parents had misgivings about Deen's prospects, the couple married almost as soon as the teenager had graduated.
At age 40, Deen's father passed away unexpectedly in 1966, and just four years later, she lost her mother, as well. With such a one-two punch of grief, Deen was traumatized. As the mother of two young sons, Jamie and Bobby, as well as assuming guardianship of 16-year-old Bubba, she began suffering a chronic fear of death; a fear so all encompassing that she became agoraphobic, desperately afraid to leave her house, as the family continued to struggle financially. She coped by throwing herself into her cooking, finding the busywork therapeutic. When she finally managed to venture outside the house and take a job as a bank teller, she was robbed at gunpoint. By 1987, when Jimmy announced he was leaving the family to take a job in coastal Savannah, GA, Deen's nervous condition had become so paralyzing - as she recounted in her autobiography, It Ain't All About the Cookin' (2007) - that she cancelled her boys' extra-curricular activities, even guitar lessons that were a mere mile away, because she could not take them nor pick them up. At her wit's end, Deen moved to Savannah herself, secured a divorce in 1989, and that year decided to try to make a business out of what she did best - working in her kitchen.
Deen conceived this new operation, around her phobia, calling it The Bag Lady, in which she concocted bag lunches and drafted her sons deliver her fare to local businesses. They established such a brisk business that Deen was able to venture outside again herself, and two years later, essayed the business into a restaurant called The Lady at a local Best Western hotel. By 1996, they needed to expand so they moved their business into an old Sears & Roebuck building in Savannah's higher-traffic historic downtown, reopening it as The Lady & Sons restaurant, with a "homecookin'" menu anchored by her soon-to-be famous fried chicken and a buffet filled with traditional Southern dishes. Her sumptuous cuisine, notoriously enriched by the liberal use of butter in her recipes, made the place a local attraction. In 1997, she self-published her first cookbook, The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cooking, which Random House quickly bought and reprinted for national distribution, leading to a succession of successful recipe volumes; by 1999, she earned national renown when USA Today tabbed the restaurant as serving the "International Meal of the Year."
That same year, she also signed on with an agent Barry Weiner, who sold her as a featured guest on the Food Network's "Door Knock Dinners" (1999-2002) program in a series of episodes focusing on Savannah. Nurturing a relationship with that show's host, Gordon Elliott, Deen shot a pilot for Food Network in 2001, and was eventually given her own series, "Paula's Home Cooking" (2002- ) late the next year, produced by Elliott. By now, Deen had turned her restaurant operation over to her sons to focus on her fledgling TV career. Her Georgia drawl and boisterous, no-nonsense approach - she married new boyfriend Michael Groover on the show in 2004 - drew a national fan base, leading to a flurry of off-network media appearances, including segments on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" (syndicated, 1986-2011), the networks' top morning and late-night talk shows, and even a movie role as an epicurean aunt in Cameron Crowe's romantic feature film, "Elizabethtown" (2005), starring Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom.
The buzz spurred rapid growth of Deen's business. Attempting to keep up with demand, she relocated the flagship restaurant again to a 200-year-old downtown building, expanded her terrestrial footprint with the Paula Deen Buffet at Harrah's Tunica Casino in Tunica, MS, and Uncle Bubba's Oyster House, run by brother Bubba, in Savannah. She tripled up on her Food Network franchise, starting with "Paula's Party" (2006- ), a more interactive format in which Deen helped audience members solve culinary problems; then "Paula's Best Dishes" (2008- ), which saw her fix favorite dishes of guests. Sons Jamie and Bobby even scored their own measure of fame as hosts of the first season of "Road Tasted," an on-the-road tour of various cities' top local restaurants, as well as published their own cookbook, Y'all Come Eat in 2008.
In 2005, Deen extended her brand by way of glossy print with a combination food/lifestyle magazine, Cooking with Paula Deen, published by Hoffman Media, and began licensing her name to kitchenware and packaged goods such as Lady & Sons brand mixes and sauces. She also inked an endorsement deal with packaged meats purveyor Smithfield Foods, effectively becoming the face of the company on TV and online, and bankrolled Groover's own line of boutique coffees under the Captain Michael's of Savannah sub-brand. In 2007, she won two Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lifestyle Host and Outstanding Lifestyle Program. Things continued on a rocket ship trajectory the next year when Forbes estimated Deen's annual earnings at $4.5 million. Also in 2008, she inked a deal with Warner Bros.' Telepictures division to leverage her effervescence into a daytime talk show format, as fellow food network star Rachael Ray had done before her.
A gradual backlash began to build, however, in response to Deen's growing butter-soaked empire. While promoting her latest book, Paula Deen's Cookbook for the Lunchbox Set, on the daytime talk show "The View" (ABC, 1997- ), Deen was aggressively chastised by Barbara Walters for promoting exceptionally unhealthy foods to children in the midst of a nationwide childhood obesity epidemic. Later, amidst health rumors first put forth by The National Inquirer in 2010 and leaked reports about Deen inking a lucrative spokesperson deal with Norvo Nordisk, a Danish pharmaceutical company specializing in diabetes treatments, Deen made an admission that was less than shocking to many of her critics. During an interview in January 2012, Deen revealed that she had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years prior. Immediately, she found herself under fire and vilified by scores of vindicated detractors. Chief among them was fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain - having previously called her "the worst, most dangerous person to America" the year before - who opined that Deen's continued promotion of artery-clogging cuisine while knowing she had diabetes was, if nothing else, in poor taste. Attempting a bit of damage control, Deen announced that she would be donating an unspecified portion of her compensation from the Norvo Nordisk deal to the American Diabetes Association. The gesture did little to quell the growing criticism.
In May 2013, Deen gave a videotaped deposition in a lawsuit brought against her and her brother Earl "Bubba" Hiers, in which a former employee claimed sexual and racial discrimination. Deen's statements in the deposition, including an admission that she had used a particular racial epithet several times, and that she had considered planning a "plantation-themed" wedding in which the servers would be African-Americans in antebellum South dress, caused a storm of controversy when they became public the following month. Within days, Food Network announced that it would not renew her contract when it expired on June 30, 2013. Several companies with which Deen had sponsorship and licensing deals, including Wal-Mart, Smithfield, Target and Home Depot, also dropped her. The publisher of Deen's cookbooks, Ballantine Books, also canceled its five-book contract with her.
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