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Paula Deen shares something in common with Savannah, Ga., her home base, the city made famous in the story Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Both have a certain timeless beauty, seductive charm and gracious hospitality. Both know how to treat you like family, especially Deen. With her big Southern smile, sparkling blue eyes, and “Hey y’all!” personality, she’s one of the most recognizable tastemakers in America.
Fans who’ve watched her whip frosting on The Food Network feel they know her; she reminds them of someone in their own lives who gives comfort with sweet tea and hugs. On camera, she laughs out loud and mischievously licks her fingers. When you’re a woman of substance, you can get away with it; and make no mistake: Paula Deen has got substance down.
“It ain’t been all about a bed of roses,” Deen says about becoming a best-selling author, entertainment entrepreneur, and hostess to the stars. She has overcome personal tragedy, financial wallops, and a bout with agoraphobia so terrifying, she was afraid to leave the house for years.
Growing up in Albany, Ga., the former Paula Hiers had a “delicious” childhood and lived her teen years with a cheerleader’s smile and a carefree passion. Life appeared wonderful and safe. Then she married high-school sweetheart Jimmy Deen and soon was a young mom of two boys. By the time she was 23, she had lost both parents, and her spirit broke. Money was tight raising both her kids and her younger brother, Earl (“Bubba”). She tried hanging wallpaper, working as a bank teller, selling real estate, even insurance. A sense of danger followed her everywhere, and she didn’t trust good fortune, she says.
“When something snatches away that rug that you call security, you land on your ass,” she wrote in her book It Ain't All About the Cookin; Deen discussed how fear ran her household. During panic attacks, her arms would go numb and her heart would pound. Her grandmother Irene Paul had taught her the hand-me-down art of Southern cooking, Deen says, and one of the only places she felt safe was at her own stove, making “thousands of pots of chicken and dumplings, the best soups on the planet and tons of candy.”
In her 40s, with divorce imminent, she used her last $200 to open a catering service, The Bag Lady, serving homemade sandwiches. Deen cooked while sons Jamie and Bobby did the peddling in office buildings. In two years, she grew the business enough to open a restaurant in a Best Western motel, calling it The Lady. Five years later, she moved her restaurant into historic downtown Savannah, opening The Lady and Sons with her two boys.
If you make comfort food, people will smell the biscuits and follow their noses. Random House and The Food Network found the path to her door. She also met the man she calls “the dessert of my life,” Michael Groover, and the two married in 2004 on The Food Network.
Today her entertainment brand includes TV shows, numerous cookbooks, a magazine, signature cookware, and strategic alliances with companies such as Smithfield and Kraft through the Real Women of Philadelphia cooking show project.
SUCCESS caught up with her on a rare, quiet morning in Savannah.
SUCCESS: If it “ain’t all about the cooking,” what’s it all about? Give us the ingredients for a life well spent.
Paula Deen: I think it’s about the journey. It’s about learning things about ourselves. For me, it was my goal to become a woman of substance before I die. It’s about lookin’ over your shoulder and learnin’ from your mistakes. I don’t think it’s a sin in tryin’ something and failin’ at it. I think the mistake is never to have tried at all. It’s really about that journey, you know, and the people we meet, the opportunities that we need to go after. It’s about our relationships with our family and our friends. It’s so much more. I’m not through with my journey yet.
You’ve cooked with Jimmy Carter, Michelle Obama and Oprah. Do you still get a little taste of fear doing that?
PD: Not really. Maybe once in a while, but I know how to combat it. I know how to put my hand up and stop it, where before, I would let it overcome me. I would let fear take over. I’ve had to tell my story so honestly because it’s important that people know just how low you can go, and how you can come back. I had to lay the cards down on the table. I had a lot of people on my team who were very concerned about me overtelling my story. But I said, “I’m sorry; it’s my story, and I’m gonna tell it.”
You’ve built your brand through TV, the restaurant, publishing, cookware, even a movie. Is there something you still want to achieve?
PD: Oh my Lord, yes. I don’t know that I know what it is, but I know that my favorite part of the day is wakin’ up in the morning and seein’ what exciting thing is gonna unfold for that day. I just love gettin’ up and havin’ my coffee and gettin’ awake, and just seein’ what God’s got in store for me.
You started small and built a hospitality empire. Do you have advice for budding entrepreneurs?
PD: You cannot let fear paralyze you. You have to face your fears. You can’t run from ’em, and I ran from ’em for 20 years. You have to be passionate. You really have to believe in whatever it is that you’ve chosen to tackle. You’ve got to be willin’ to make sacrifices.
When I was building up my business, I kinda referred to myself as “that old plow mule”; it was like I had to get up every day and put on these blinders so that I couldn’t look to the right or to the left. I had to keep my eye on my goal because if I looked out there and saw somebody livin’ a normal life, a real well-rounded life and havin’ a good time and doin’ all those things, I felt like I would have dropped. So I had to keep my eye on the ball.
With all you’ve accomplished, how do you stay on top of everything?
PD: We have a wonderful, wonderful team that I don’t even begin to try to micromanage. I give ’em their job, and I allow ’em to do it. That is like a freedom you would not believe.
Get yourself a good team around you, but do it in good time. I really think that’s one of the reasons why I was able to succeed, because the first two years I did everything myself. When I went into my first restaurant, I was too cheap to hire anybody. So I had my two sons, I had their girlfriends, and I had myself. I tried to do as much of the work as I could to rat-hole money, so that I was able to grow.
When you have no money, that’s not necessarily a bad thing because you can’t make mistakes if you have no money. You have to move slowly. And you have to think everything out, I mean right down to, Is this cantaloupe that I’ve got in my hands, is it nice and ripe? Will I be able to use every piece of it? Because I didn’t have the money to throw around. If somebody had come to me 21 years ago when I started my business and said, “You know, I think you’re a pretty good cook, and I want to back you. Here’s a quarter of a million dollars,” I would have probably failed miserably.
I started with $200. I grew very slowly; I grew every day along with my business. It was not overwhelming to me because I did move slowly. Not havin’ money kept me from doing stupid things. And I’ll forever be grateful for that, for the way I started.
You have a great love for giving back. What’s your involvement with Helping Hungry Homes and entertaining the troops through the USO?
PD: I’m so fortunate to be associated with people like Smithfield. They make my protein products, and they’re a very American company, very civic-minded. They have been so generous. I have made a commitment along with them that we’re gonna feed 20 million people in the next two years. And we have fed over 8 million people up to date, so we got a ways to go. But we go from one city to the next, and when we show up at a food bank, we usually have about 35,000 pounds of protein on our truck.
What’s it like for you personally to be able to give back on this large of a scale?
PD: I’ve never been hungry, but I’ve been close enough to it that I could smell it. I have needed help before, so what a gift it is to me to be able to pass that on, that helping hand on to somebody else. It’s just one of the greatest gifts bestowed to me. By helping someone else, how fulfilling and satisfying it can be for me, to know that I’m doin’ something to make somebody else’s world just a little bit better. With the troops, I try to convey my thanks. Because of what they do, I can do what I do.
Tell us about the Real Women of Philadelphia cooking show.
PD: These are ordinary girls doing extraordinary things. The four winners got $25,000 apiece. That’s life-changing. That can change four girls’ lives out there who want to take responsibility for themselves and make things better. We’re gonna continue working with ’em; they’re gonna write their own cookbook; they’re going to be doing cooking videos. We can really create a star here. For me to get to launch a star. What a gift!
If you could define success in one word, what would it be?
PD: Whoa, that’s a hard question. Probably… satisfaction.
To use one of your favorite expressions, what side of the dirt are you on today?
PD: On the right side. I woke up on the right side of the dirt today. Looking down on it, not up.