I'm a very blessed girl,” said Southern chef and television personality Paula Deen, recounting her rags to riches fairytale. (And, yes, she calls herself a “girl.”) During her 70 years, she’s endured multiple peaks and valleys, most recently the challenges that she faced in 2013. “How did it feel to take time off a few years ago?” I asked. “I never left!” Paula replied.
She lost her parents early on. Raised two sons and a younger brother while suffering from agoraphobia.
“I was so fearful of something happening to somebody else I loved that I couldn’t live my life,” she explained during a recent interview at her Wilmington Island home. “I let it cripple me for 20 years.” She recalls the precise moment, however, when everything changed.
“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN ONE TO LAUGH AT MYSELF, BUT I REALIZE NOT EVERYBODY IS LIKE THAT.”
“I got up one morning and it was like I flicked on a light switch. The Serenity Prayer went through my head. And it was like I’d heard it for the very first time, God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage the change the things that I can, and please God, give me the wisdom to know the difference. I started getting better. And I asked myself, ‘Paula, honey, what are you good at? You can’t sing or dance.”’ Paula cackles when I remind her she survived five rounds on Dancing With the Stars in 2015.
But she considered herself a good cook. So she took her last $200, bought a business license, a cooler, $50 worth of groceries, and sold sandwiches.
“In the South that’s how we always showed our love for each other,” Paula said. “You might not be able to afford the number-one toy, but you do have the ability to feed your family a delicious meal.”
Two and a half decades later, Deen oversaw an empire focused on Southern cooking and hospitality. And then, the unexpected happened. An employee (who happens to be Caucasian) added Paula to a lawsuit. Deen admitted she’d once used a racially charged ethnic term decades ago, though not to demean. The lawsuit was dismissed, but the damage was done. And Paula’s honesty cost her some opportunities.
But cookbook sales soared. Her furniture and pots and pans continued selling. Former President Carter vouched for the girl he knows. Four years later, it’s as if Paula never left the spotlight. She’s opened four new restaurants, launched two television shows, and her 18th book, At the Southern Table with Paula Deen, debuted in September.
“Positively Paula was started to fulfill a need,” she said, describing her syndicated TV series. “I’ve got millions of people on Facebook saying, ‘Do a show, we miss you.’ What you see is actually in real time. It’s very simple. This is what I’ve cooked, here it is, and we’re eating it. People are enjoying it because they’re just getting me in the kitchen with them. You never know who you’re touching out there, how a simple smile or little joke can lift their spirits.”
No matter how fast-paced our lives have become, Paula remains a big advocate of family mealtime. “We’re all time deprived,” she pointed out. “But I’ve found you get your children in a relaxed situation, they have a tendency to talk to you.”
Shop-at-home network Evine carries Paula’s other show, Sweet Home Savannah, where Paula sells various product lines, including clothing, jewelry, and appliances. She especially loves her air fryer, which she demonstrates for me. “No oil whatsoever,” she said. “I’ve always been the kind that if I had something people would like, I want them to have it, too. It’s real important to me that I bring value to my audience. I can’t stand the idea of gouging somebody.”
Her shows are unscripted. But Paula’s more comfortable laughing and interacting with people in the moment. Besides she can’t remember lines. “I’ve always been one to laugh at myself,” she says.
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