The Rise and Fall, and Rise Again, of Paula Deen
For a decade, Paula Deen was one of America’s favorite — if not the favorite — celebrity chefs. Audiences were comforted by Deen’s Southern cooking, happy to have some familiar butter-stuffed alternatives to the latest health food trends. Deen’s recipes wouldn’t help you lose weight, but the lady knew how to stuff a family on the cheap.
But Deen’s life hasn’t been easy, nor without controversy. Trauma from her young adulthood morphed into a crippling anxiety disorder, which stalled her career. She didn’t find fame or fortune until she was into her early fifties, but then by her sixties, her media empire collapsed overnight. Or at least, it seemed that way.
This is how Paula Deen came from nothing, made millions and nearly lost it all.
Growing Up, Her Home Didn’t Have a Toilet
When she was a young girl, her parents didn’t really own a house. At 6 years old, around 1953, her mother and father bought a gas station and souvenir shop near Albany, Georgia. They lived in the back of the shop. There was no bathroom. Their toilet "was a big old slop jar inside a pink wicker chair," she says in her 2006 memoir, "It Ain’t All About the Cookin’."
However, there was a men’s and women’s room outside for tourists, with a shower in the men’s room, which was "cold and dirty." She writes: "I just hated it, hated it. So, even now, I don’t associate bathing being a good thing."
After a few years, her father built a huge bathroom. "I remember my daddy going into the bathroom and just sitting forever on the toilet; what a luxury it was for all of us. That toilet was a throne."
Nearby, there was the Riverbend motel, which her grandparents owned.
She Caused a Mother to Go to Jail
The 1950s was a terrible time for black people throughout the country, especially in the South.
As a child, "a real nice black woman" would babysit her. The woman had a young daughter whom she brought to work one day. That daughter had blisters all over her hands from whatever work she had been doing.
"Something about those blisters just attracted me, and I remember hitting those little hands with a bolo bat, and it busted her blisters good. … I don’t know why I did it. I have a hard time thinking I did it out of meanness," she recalls in her memoir.
The mother, understandably furious, either slapped Paula or spanked her (she can’t remember which). Paula ran home and told her parents, who went ahead and got the woman arrested.
"All this time it’s bothered me," she writes.
She Was Popular in High School
Paula was a popular high school cheerleader and "had a lot of girlfriends and boyfriends — just friends."
All of that made her high school sweetheart and future husband, Jimmy Deen, very jealous. He would monitor what she wore and didn’t want her going out with friends, preferring her to stay home instead.
The groundwork for their tumultuous relationship started early.
She Almost Went to Modeling School
After finishing high school, Paula’s father wanted to send her to school to train for being a dental hygienist, but Paula didn’t want to do that.
She had secretly applied to the Patricia Stevens Modeling School in Atlanta, which accepted her application.
But her father wouldn’t let her go to Atlanta — he thought it was too dangerous — so Paula decided to get married.
She Chose a Fridge Over a Big Wedding
At the age of 18, when she married Jimmy Deen, her parents gave her two choices: a big wedding or a stove and a refrigerator.
She chose the appliances.
Her First Marriage Wasn't Easy
Her first husband, Jimmy, was an alcoholic. Not an abusive one, Paula says, but one that "became dumb as a rock" after just one or two beers.
"I just adored this man, I worshipped him, but I wanted to hit him so bad: he wasn’t dense when he wasn’t drinking, but drunk he had the brains of a chicken," she writes.
Eventually, she sought counseling with a minister, who told her that Jimmy’s drinking wasn’t an issue and that she was "a spoiled brat." The drinking wasn’t ending any time soon.
Jimmy Had No Goals
Paula may have had modeling aspirations, but Jimmy had no goals or plans for the future.
While she claims he was hardworking and a good father, he couldn’t hold down a job and frequently just drank at the house or out with friends.
She Lost Her Father When She Was Young
Deen lost her father when she was 18 years old, just a few months after her wedding day.
He had a bad heart that surgery couldn’t, or didn’t, fix. He had a stroke while driving to work and crashed.
He was 40 years old.
And Then She Lost Her Mother
Four years after her father passed away, her mother was diagnosed with bone cancer. She died shortly after the diagnosis at the age of 44.
Deen was 23, had two children and a 16-year-old brother, Earl, better known as Bubba.
She Developed a Crippling Anxiety Disorder
After her father died, Deen developed an anxiety disorder, which worsened when her mom passed away. Fear of death haunted her at every turn. She carried around a paper bag to hyperventilate when the panic attacks came — although she didn’t know what they were yet — and eventually stopped going out altogether.
"At 19, I tried to figure out why God had taken my beautiful daddy," Deen told Oprah in 2012. Her rationalization back then was that "I was my daddy’s princess, and I was gonna die. But God knew my daddy couldn’t take that, so he took him first. So at 19, I woke up every day waiting to die."
For Several Years, She Never Left the House
In the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Paula became agoraphobic.
In 1977, Jimmy and Bubba invested in a Chrysler Dodge dealership. Then a drought — the worst one seen in over 20 years — withered Georgia’s farmlands and wrecked the economy. The dealership shut down, and the bank repossessed the Deens' house.
They moved into a cheap apartment complex. On the way over, Paula had a panic attack and wrapped herself in a peanut blanket to hide.
So She Cooked
On the plus side, she did a lot of cooking since she was home all the time.
With nothing else to do, Deen put all of her efforts toward making the family good food.
Her grandmother had taught her how to cook, so she put that knowledge "and then some" to good use, she recalls in her memoir.
She Learned About Agoraphobia from Phil Donahue
The medical community had a tenuous understanding of anxiety, panic disorders and agoraphobia during the 1970s and 1980s.
Deen didn’t have enough money to go to a doctor. She learned about panic attacks from her neighbor, and later, about agoraphobia from "The Phil Donahue Show," possibly during a 1985 episode where he discussed the many phobias people had.
Now that she put a name on the problem with no name, Deen was able to start going out of the house. And she would need to.
She Pointed a Gun at Her Husband
It wasn’t loaded, but she wished it were at the time. On Christmas Eve in 1981, Paula became enraged at Jimmy for his constant drinking. She told him that she hated him and that she was going to take the kids and leave after Christmas was over.
Jimmy grabbed her, threw her over his knee, and spanked her "like I was a really bad child," she writes. "I wanted to kill him." She grabbed an unloaded gun and pointed it at Jimmy, who just laughed at her.
"[H]e never, ever listened to me. He never heard what I said about the kids and me leaving. That won’t do wonders for a woman’s self-esteem," she recalled.
She Was Held Up at Gunpoint
In 1987, now in her mid-30s, Deen had gotten over her anxiety enough to find work as a bank teller. Shortly before Jimmy moved the family to Savannah, Georgia, to chase another car dealership opportunity (he couldn’t hold down a job for long), the bank called and asked her to come in to cover for someone at a different branch. She obliged.
Not long after arriving, she found herself on the wrong side of a gun held by a man in a green mask. His hand was shaking. Deen thought he would shoot her by accident.
"To myself I said, It’s over. It’s finally gotten here. I’m dead today. My worst fear is happening. He’s going to shoot me by accident simply out of his own fright," she writes in her memoir.
The gun never went off, and Deen handed over the money without incident. For months, the man in the mask would appear when she closed her eyes. Nearly 30 years later, the robbery came back to haunt her again, but for entirely different reasons.
She Was Still Broke in Her Late 30s and Early 40s
After the robbery, Paula "relapsed" into agoraphobia, lying in bed for two months.
The family was still broke, but at least Jimmy was working. To get over her agoraphobia, Paula turned to prayer and took baby steps. Literally.
"I devised a gradual cure for myself — walk one block, go home; drive two blocks, drive home; walk two blocks, walk home ...." she writes.
Jimmy was making very little money and working less than before, so Paula had to get a job.
Deen didn’t have a profession nailed down, and she never considered a career in the food industry. At least not for a while.
Here’s what she did to make some scratch:
- Real estate agent
- Insurance agent
- Janitorial work at Kroger
- Entrepreneur as a "grease absorber" seller, which amounted to Deen going garage-to-garage selling 50-pound bags of kitty litter for $60 a week
- Medical biller
The Bag Lady
Deen’s first foray into the food industry was as The Bag Lady, her own business, where she wrapped lunches in brown paper bags and sold them to office workers and beauty shops. It was just an idea at first, but she thought it was a good one — and she would need some seed money. At 42 years old, she approached her husband about it.
As she writes in her memoir:
"He just said I was an idiot. It was his favorite word for me. ... [H]e gave me two hundred dollars from my income tax return check, and that’s what I was allotted to spend on my business. When he gave me the money, he said, 'Knock yourself out, b----.'"
Still, Jimmy did help his wife out. Since Paula didn’t have a place to properly prepare food to sell legally, Jimmy got one of his friends to lend her his licensed kitchen to make sandwiches, although that kitchen was so dirty, she ended up making them in her own kitchen.
The Days Were Long
The food industry isn’t easy, especially when you’re starting from scratch and have to use your own kitchen. "Sixteen-hour, even twenty-four hour days were not unusual," writes Deen.
For her first day, she woke up at 5 a.m. and made 37 tuna fish sandwiches. Her son, Jamie, quit his job at Dairy Queen to deliver the lunches, going from door-to-door until someone bought one.
Eventually, Paula was making about 250 lunches a day.
Her First Restaurant
Deen opened her first restaurant, The Lady, at a Best Western Hotel in Savannah.
It doubled as a headquarters for The Bag Lady, which had become a family business by 1989.
The restaurant was successful, but it wouldn’t make her rich. Not by a longshot.
Things between Jimmy and Paula had been falling apart, and it didn’t help that Jimmy couldn’t hold down a job while she worked 16-hour days.
The breaking point came in 1989. Bobby, their son, had purchased a brand-new truck. Bobby was giving his father his checks so that Jimmy would put some in his son’s checking account and also write a check for the car loan.
One day, the bank repossessed the truck. Jimmy had stopped paying. Paula filed for divorce and moved out. Jimmy stayed in the house until the bank repossessed it, too.
A Depressive Spell
Unsurprisingly, Deen fell into a deep depression after the divorce. She was living alone in a house with two birds, which she bought after her dog passed away. The house was a wreck that she didn’t clean up, with bird droppings and old bones stacked underneath newspaper in bird cages.
One day, after a long day’s work, she came home and flipped on the light. A writhing mound of cockroaches "the size of a dinner plate" chased the shadows and scurried under the bed.
"They were under my bed feeding. ... I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I crawled into my bed in this roach-infested bedroom, and I cried until I couldn’t stop until I fell asleep. That was my bottoming out," she writes.
Her Love Light Was Tough for a Long While
Following her divorce, Deen didn’t have an easy time finding another relationship.
Or rather, she found another one — but it was extremely unhealthy.
She was the mistress to a married man, who routinely took or stole money from her, for 10 years.
But She's Happily Married Now
She met her current husband, Michael Groover, while she was dating that person (whom she never names in her biography).
She dropped the married man pretty soon after Groover showed interest.
He’s 10 years younger than her, and they have been married since 2004.
Making Her Flagship Restaurant
In 1995, Deen found a better space for a new restaurant near the Savannah River.
Even though she didn’t have the cash, Deen signed a 12-year lease.
When she mentioned to the owner of the Best Western Hotel that she would be moving The Bag Lady out to a new location, the owner kicked her out immediately and demanded her first and last month’s rent.
Taking on Lots of Debt
Deen was in debt, and the restaurant needed repairs. She would need to put down $25,000 for a $150,000 bank loan for renovations. And for the next few months, she would be paying double rent.
But she had an ace up her sleeve — or rather, an aunt with some cash. Her aunt and uncle lent her a certificate of deposit for $25,000, enough for her to get the renovations and, hopefully, get the dough rolling.
The next several months were lean. She ate bologna and bread sandwiches and puttered around in a beat-up old car, and she regularly accrued tickets she couldn’t pay.
But on Jan. 8, 1996, The Lady and Sons opened to the public. Seventy-six people showed up on opening night, and The Lady and Sons is still open today.
The Cookbook That Started It All
As The Lady and Sons became profitable, and Deen’s bank account went into the black, Deen decided to self-publish publish a cookbook. It was titled "Favorite Recipes from the Lady and Her Friends."
Deen ordered 5,000 copies and sold them for $17 a pop. She sold 25 the first month. But then, thanks to a rainstorm, a woman from the Northeast found her way into Deen’s restaurant. She was an editor from Random House — weeks later, Deen received a phone call from her. The editor had enjoyed her meal enough to ask Deen to send her some cookbooks to look at.
A few weeks later, the editor called Deen again. Random House was interested in publishing her cookbook and would give her a $5,000 advance. Deen called her back and asked for more. She received $7,500.
It Was a Hit
The cookbook was a success.
Random House procured a deal with Deen to come on to QVC and sell her book.
It sold 70,000 copies in one day.
Her First TV Show
Deen’s first appearance on a cooking show was several episodes of "Door Knock Dinners," a reality cooking show where a chef has to make an impromptu meal out of whatever is in a random person’s kitchen.
This led to the Food Network getting interested. A pilot episode was shot but never aired. According to Deen, it was terrible.
Then 9/11 happened. And that event was what pushed the Food Network into giving her a show. Her executive friends at the network sold the show on the premise that the country was scared and that Deen’s home cooking would bestow a feeling of safety to viewers.
"Paula's Home Cooking" aired from 2002 until 2012. The Food Network canceled the show in 2013.
She Has a Potty Mouth
Deen writes that she’s "pretty loose" with the four-letter words around the privacy of her own home — a consequence of hanging around in kitchens her entire life— but that she tries "to never take the Lord’s name in vain."
Another interesting tidbit, which we can’t verify but it seems true: Deen was the first host on the Food Network to ever get bleeped on television.
Things went from fairy-tale cooking to fire-in-the-kitchen bad for Deen in 2012.
By this time, Deen and her two sons, Jamie and Bobby, had become enormously successful. Deen’s enterprises included cookware, several television shows, several restaurants, cookbooks and a magazine. Her sons profited from her success, as did her brother, Bubba. It was a family business.
In March 2012, Lisa Jackson, the former manager of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House (which Bubba co-owned), sued Deen and Bubba for racism and sexual harassment.
Jackson alleged that Deen and her brother, Bubba, discriminated against Jackson, sexually harassed her and made racist comments against her.
The lawsuit was unusual because Jackson is white. According to her complaint, Jackson has biracial nieces, so "derogatory remarks regarding African-Americans are even more personally offensive to Ms. Jackson than they would be to another white citizen."
The Problem With Bubba
Jackson alleged that Deen would make black employees use separate bathrooms and entrances, and that Bubba "regularly made offensive racial remarks," according to Talking Points Memo and other media reports.
Jackson also alleged that Deen’s brother violently shook employees, regularly showed up to work drunk, and made her watch sexually explicit materials on his laptop.
Additionally, she said that Deen had used racist terms when discussing Bubba’s upcoming wedding, where the entire wait staff would be black — something that Jackson saw as harkening back to slavery.
In her 2013 deposition, Deen was asked whether or not she had ever used the n-word in her life. She replied, "Yes, of course."
The lawyer then asked her in what context she had used it. Deen said it was when she was robbed and held at gunpoint 30 years ago by the man in the green mask. She said she "probably" used the word when talking to her ex-husband about the occurrence.
Deen denied using the word at work, or commonly using it anywhere, but said she may have used it to repeat a conversation she heard between black people.
According to Talking Points Memo and other media reports, the lawsuit claimed that Deen said, "Well, what I would really like is a bunch of little [N-words] to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around. Now that would be a true Southern wedding, wouldn’t it? But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that."
Deen said she only used the phrase "really Southern plantation wedding" and had not used the racial slur. She said that a restaurant she had been to inspired the thought.
"Well, it — to me, of course, I’m old, but I ain’t that old. I didn’t live back in those days, but I’ve seen pictures, and the pictures I’ve seen, that restaurant represented a certain era in America."
A Tearful Apology
It should be noted that Deen’s disposition was leaked in June 2013. Just two months later, in August 2013, the judge dismissed Jackson’s claims of racial discrimination with prejudice, saying that "[a]t best, plaintiff is an accidental victim of the alleged racial discrimination."
But before the lawsuit was thrown out, Deen made national — and very negative — headlines. She released apology videos online and then appeared on "The Today Show" with Matt Lauer (who wouldn’t be disgraced and fired for another four years), sobbing and apologizing.
But the damage was done.
Deen’s admission that she had never used the racial slur cost her millions in lost deals and endorsements before the case was dismissed.
She lost her publishing deal with Random House, her 14-year partnership with the Food Network, four restaurants in Caesars Entertainment casinos, a deal with the diabetes drug company Novo Nordisk, her deal with QVC and a partnership with Smithfield.
Home Depot, Target, Sears, Walgreens, J.C. Penny and Walmart either phased out or threw out all Deen-branded items.
How Much Did She Lose?
Prior to the 2014 controversies, celebritynetworth.com’s managing editor told CNN that Deen probably made between $5 and $10 million in revenue from cookbook, merchandise, restaurants and sponsorships annually, plus about $600,000 each year from television appearances.
After the comments and fallout, the editor believed her annual revenue was reduced to $3 million a year.
Of course, that’s just revenue, not profits.
There seems to be no clear-cut answer to the allegations that Deen is a racist.
Michael Twitty, a black culinary historian, wrote her an in-depth open letter about underlying racism in the country and, while not exactly defending her, said, "you are the ultimate, consummate racist, and the one who made us fat, and the reason why American food sucks and ... you don’t believe that any more than I do [emphasis his]." While some might be accusing Deen of those things, he doesn’t believe it to be true.
After the entire case was settled — "without any award of costs or fees to any party," according to the filing — Jackson said in a statement, "The Paula Deen I have known for more than eight years is a woman of compassion and kindness and will never tolerate discrimination or racism of any kind toward anyone."
Investigations With Curious Results
An investigation by Rainbow PUSH, a nonprofit civil rights group, found conflicting information.
Its report said, "There was evidence of systemic racial discrimination and harassment at the operations." But it also said there was "limited evidence of direct racism or racial discrimination" by Deen herself.
Rather, allegations made to Rainbow PUSH were against Bubba or other employees. Bubba closed down his restaurant in 2014 and died in 2019.
There were also findings that Deen called one black employee "my little monkey" and had asked another employee to dress up like Aunt Jemima and ring a dinner bell.
An Angry Friend
Then there’s the case of Dora Charles, Deen’s (former) longtime friend and chef of The Lady and Sons of 22 years. Charles, who is black, "spent years making less than $10 an hour, even after Ms. Deen became a Food Network Star," according to The New York Times.
Charles says that Dean told her, "Stick with me, Dora, and I promise you one day, if I get rich, you’ll get rich." Deen’s camp said that Charles was angry over pay and that Deen had been generous enough during her tenure.
Around 2010, Jackson told her that she was being paid less than others, and so Charles filed a complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
During that same time, Jamie upped her pay to $71,000 a year, and she was given a promotion. It appears that Charles no longer works with The Lady and Sons.
"I still have to be her friend if I’m God’s child," Charles told the New York Times. "I might feed her with a long-handled spoon, but, yeah, I’m still her friend."
Deen devoted a couple of thousand words about Oprah in her book. She actually appeared on Oprah before her Food Network career started and, throughout the years, became friends with the billionaire talk-show host.
When the controversies happened, Oprah initially tried to contact Deen, but then backed off after the situation blew up.
"I think Paula Deen was sort of used as a symbol, but I think lots of people use the word inappropriately all the time," Winfrey said in 2013. "I just really want to know what happened."
While Winfrey expressed some desire to sit down and talk with Deen, she’s been mum on the subject for years now. It’s possible that they made up in private, but they haven’t said anything about it in public.
Her Robber Came to Her Defense
Oddly enough, over 30 years later, some outlets tracked Deen’s robber down for comment on her dropping the N-bomb.
Eugene Thomas King was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the time he robbed Dean’s bank and also for another robbery — plus 13 priors.
"I really feel for her," King told Inside Edition. "She's being persecuted because of that one little mistake in her judgment. She was acting out of anger."
Jimmy Carter Defended Her
Former president Jimmy Carter told CNN in 2013 that Deen deserved to be forgiven.
"She was maybe excessively honest in saying that she had in the past, 30 years ago, used this terrible word," Carter said. "I think she has been punished, perhaps overly severely, for her honesty in admitting it and for the use of the word in the distant past. She's apologized profusely."
Anthony Bourdain Hated Her
One of Deen’s most outspoken rivals was Anthony Bourdain. The late celebrity chef and TV host sounded off on Deen in 2011, well before her controversies.
He told TV Guide, "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." He also called her "the most dangerous person in America" who had "unholy connections with evil corporations."
Deen responded, "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. ... It wasn’t that long ago that I was struggling to feed my family, too."
So, yeah, he wasn’t a fan. But what did he mean with that "unholy connections" comment?
The Diabetes Controversy
Deen publicly announced that she had Type 2 diabetes in 2012, but she was diagnosed with the disease three years prior. Many people thought that she should have been more upfront about her disease, especially because pretty much all of Deen’s classic recipes incorporated copious amounts of fat and sugar.
Even more eyebrow-raising, Deen launched a healthy new campaign called "Diabetes in a New Light," where she partnered with the diabetes drugmaker Novo Nordisk. She was criticized for profiting from both this partnership and for profiting from her unhealthy recipes.
"I made the choice at the time to keep it close to me, to keep it close to my chest," she said in early 2012. "I felt like I had nothing to offer anybody other than the announcement. I wasn't armed with enough knowledge. I knew when it was time, it would be in God's time."
Deen may have been rattled, but she wasn’t down and out. Like a grease phoenix, Deen quickly pulled herself up and brushed herself off from what many thought would have been a career-killing event.
In early 2014, she raised between $75 million and $100 million for Paula Deen Ventures, an umbrella company to oversee her media empire.
She bought back the rights to her Food Network show, purchasing 440 episodes and all unaired footage for an undisclosed sum in late 2014. She used this footage to launch the Paula Deen Network, which is available for $9.99 per month.
She started another show, "Positively Paula," which can be seen on a handful of television networks or watched online for $6.99 per month.
Dancing With Deen
She appeared on "Dancing with the Stars" in 2015 and stayed in the competition for six weeks.
It was just two years after Deen's career-damaging comments, but she made quite an appearance.
During one performance, Deen flashed the audience her underwear, which read "Shake It," and at one point her partner slapped her booty.
How Much Is She Worth Now?
Paula Deen is worth an estimated $14 million.
It’s practically impossible to pinpoint just how much she’s pulling in every year, though, since the Deen empire is a family affair and completely private.
You Can Buy Her House
Anyone have $8.75 million to spare?
Deen is selling her Savannah mansion, which she named Riverbend, and it’s quite impressive.
The home is replete with Deen’s personal touches, like antique lamps throughout and copper pots in the kitchen.
Is America Ready for Paula Deen, Again?
Deen might not be seen on the Food Network again, or offered shelf space at Target or Walmart. But she can rest easy at her mansion in Savannah — those property taxes won’t go unpaid anytime soon.
The first cookbook she released after the controversy was the best-selling book on Amazon months before it officially released, indicating that a heaping portion of loyal fans still exist.
Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen, a restaurant she launched in 2014, currently has three locations, with a fourth one opening soon. She has her own line of air fryers and releases cookbooks every year.
There are clearly enough people willing to say "Hey, ya’ll!" to Deen.