Paula Deen's Transformation Is Truly Staggering

Her chirpy "Hey y'all!" greeting is just a pinch of the Southern charm that cooking queen Paula Deen used to attract millions of fans who don't turn their noses up at cooking with cake mix. Her down-home, grandmotherly appeal helped her build a culinary empire with restaurants, cookbooks, and cooking shows, but Deen's public persona is a tiny bite of her entire story.

Another way Deen buttered up her loyal fanbase is by becoming famous for her unapologetic and sometimes out-of-control use of her favorite dairy product: butter. She has been criticized for promoting unhealthy eating habits and giving Southern cuisine a bad name by making people associate it with processed ingredients. "It's almost like a spoof of Southern cooking," food historian Nathalie Dupree told The New York Times. Deen herself has downplayed her talents in the kitchen, telling Mashed, "I am not a chef, I'm a cook."

Deen's backstory is a boot-strappy one, making her the type of celebrity that a lot of people want to root for. However, while her comfort food might accomplish its purpose, some of her behavior has made many others uncomfortable. In other words, her transformation from a girl who wanted to be a housewife into a self-made businesswoman wasn't as easy as her sweet tea pie recipe.

Her idyllic childhood memories are marred by a shameful incident

Paula Deen grew up in Albany, Georgia, where her grandparents owned a quaint resort called River Bend. In her 2006 book, "Paula Deen: It Ain't All About the Cookin'," she described it as having plenty of amenities to keep a young child entertained, including a pool and skating rink. Lunch at her aptly named Baconton Elementary School wasn't bad, either; she loved the peanut butter balls so much that she later requested the recipe from the daughter of a cafeteria worker.

Deen has fond memories of collecting arrowheads on the bank of the river that the resort got its name from. "They were very plentiful," she said on "What's Cooking with Paula Deen." Eventually, Deen's parents purchased a gas station nearby, and part of its souvenir shop became the family's new home. "I could walk into my momma's souvenir shop after school and start eating [candy] for free," she recalled in her memoir.

While Deen had a carefree childhood, that part of her past includes a blemish partially of her own making. One day a Black babysitter brought her daughter with her when she was watching Deen. The little girl had a blistered hand, and Deen thought it would be fun to hit the blisters with a paddle. The girl's mother struck Deen, and Deen's grandfather had the woman sent to jail. "All this time it's bothered me," Deen wrote. She also experienced segregation firsthand, confessing, "I was so blind I didn't get that it was wrong."

The wannabe model got kicked out of the kitchen

Paula Deen was surrounded by cooking growing up. Her grandparents' resort included a restaurant, where local wildlife was on the menu. "My grandmother would prepare rabbit and squirrel, and she would cook the most wonderful fish roe," Deen recounted on "Larry King Live." During her sophomore year, she developed an interest in cooking herself and requested a lesson from her mother. "I wasn't in there five minutes before she said, 'Okay, honey, you have to go now.' I made her so nervous she was about ready to throw up," she recalled to Good Housekeeping. Unsurprisingly, this isn't when she decided she had a future in the culinary arts.

She was a popular cheerleader and majorette in high school, and an uncle living and working in New York as a model convinced her that she should consider profiting from her good looks by also pursuing a modeling career. Deen became enamored with the big city when she visited her relative, recalling in her memoir, "I loved the fancy restaurants."

When she returned home, Paula's high school sweetheart, Jimmy Deen, proposed to her. While Paula had always dreamed of being a homemaker, she also decided to apply to a modeling school in Atlanta. Her father forbade her from attending, so she decided to rush into marriage at age 18 instead. She recalled her dad telling her, "We can give you a stove and a refrigerator, or a big wedding." She chose the former.

The role tragedy played in her cooking career

Paula Deen's hopes of enjoying a blissful marriage vanished when Jimmy Deen started drinking. In "It Ain't All About the Cookin'," she revealed that alcohol use was something she and her husband often fought about. However, a strained marriage became the least of Paula's concerns when her father began having heart problems. He underwent heart valve replacement surgery, which caused him to suffer a deadly blood clot. Paula was just 19 when he died.

She sought solace in cooking with her grandmother while she was grieving. "I said, Grandmamma, I've got to learn how to make your chicken and dumplings, just in case this is a bad dream and my daddy comes back," she recalled to NPR. Just one year after her father's passing, she celebrated the birth of her son Jamie in 1967. Three years later, Paula's second son, Bobby, was born.

Yet another terrible loss befell Paula shortly after Bobby's birth when her mother died from bone cancer. The mother of two was just 23 years old, and she became the guardian of her 16-year-old brother. In this period of tragedy, Paula increasingly experienced anxiety and panic attacks. To help ease her symptoms, she had started carrying around a paper bag to breathe into. She also found a little comfort in the kitchen again. "I cooked everything my granny taught me and then some. Fried chicken, collard greens, country fried steak — my family ate good," she wrote.

Paula Deen learned she had agoraphobia and made a big move

Paula Deen's culinary skills improved to the point that her cooking had her sons' teachers happier than a tick on a fat dog when the holidays rolled around. Of the homemade gifts that his mom sent him to school with, Bobby told Good Housekeeping, "Oh, the divinity [cakes], the buckeyes, and the coconut balls! ... I always got great grades in January." Unfortunately, getting the ingredients she needed to concoct her tasty confections could be a real nightmare if Deen suffered a panic attack while shopping. "I have gone off and left many a buggy of grocery sitting there in the grocery store," she shared on "Larry King Live."

Eventually, Deen became unable to shop at all. "I stopped doing anything that required me to leave my four walls," she wrote in her book. One afternoon, a friend who was aware of her struggles called her and told her to watch the episode of "The Phil Donahue Show" airing at that moment. This is how she learned that she had agoraphobia, a condition that makes those afflicted fear being outside in certain environments and situations, with many only feeling safe in their own home.

Unfortunately, Deen didn't have the financial means to seek treatment for her condition, which made it especially stressful when her husband decided to move the family to Savannah in 1986. "I was devastated and sick with fear," she recalled. "I didn't know a soul there, and we'd all have to move so far from home."

Her first food business was a family affair

Paula Deen spent her first few weeks in Savannah almost completely bedridden due to her agoraphobia. "I was more terrified than ever that I'd die if I went outside," she recalled in "It Ain't All About the Cookin'." But one day she remembered the Serenity Prayer. By turning the words over in her head and parsing their meaning, she found the inspiration she needed to get up and get moving.

Jimmy Deen was struggling to stay gainfully employed in Savannah, so Paula's renewed ability to leave the house came at the perfect time. She got a job in the billing department at a local hospital, which she actually liked. However, she felt the need to become more self-sufficient due to her husband's unreliability. After learning about a woman who had a snack delivery business, Paula decided to try a similar enterprise in 1989, but with lunches. She was 42 years old when she launched The Bag Lady with nothing but $200 and a dream.

Instead of relying on customers to come to her, Paula enlisted a reluctant 22-year-old Jamie to hawk her lunches around town. Eventually, his younger brother, Bobby, would choose the family business over working at Circuit City. Other family members also helped Paula out in the kitchen on occasion — it was an aunt who came up with the idea to save a buck by using underwear as hairnets.

A married man and the Food Network came a-courtin'

Turning a food business into a lucrative enterprise is rarely easy, but Paula Deen soon found herself busier than ants at a picnic. It's a good thing she was becoming financially independent, as she divorced Jimmy Deen the  same year she opened her business. In her memoir, she shared that the final straw was when he quit making payments on Bobby's truck, resulting in it being repossessed.

In 1991, Paula rented a Best Western motel's vacant restaurant. This became the location of her first eatery, The Lady. It's also where she opened one of the most shameful chapters in her life. Being as busy as she was, work was one of the best places for her to meet potential partners. Unfortunately, the customer she started seeing was married. Despite Paula knowing this, the celebrity cook's shady relationship continued for a decade. "I could get down on my knees and I could beg people never, never do what I did," Deen said on "Larry King Live."

Amid her affair, Paula opened a new restaurant in downtown Savannah. Bobby and Jamie also got billing on the sign this time, and The Lady & Sons became the setting of another chance meeting that changed Paula's life. A guest who frequented the restaurant, former model Carol Perkins, arranged for the cook to meet producer Gordon Elliott. He invited her to appear on "Door Knock Dinners," and a Food Network star was born.

Her first impression of the love of her life wasn't great

The waves of success kept rolling in for Paula Deen. She published her first cookbook, "The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cookbook," in 1998, and her Food Network series "Paula's Home Cooking" premiered in 2002. In her memoir, she revealed that Gordon Elliott was inspired by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to pitch the show to the Food Network. His selling point was that she was the comforting figure a mourning nation needed in a time of tragedy.

Meanwhile, Deen's relationship with the married customer was causing her a lot of inner turmoil and pain. "He was an accomplished torturer," he described it thusly. "I was a willing slave." On "Larry King Live," she revealed that what finally broke her of his spell was meeting her now-husband, retired tugboat captain Michael Groover.

The paths of the fated lovers first crossed when Deen decided she needed a change of scenery and moved to a waterfront property on Wilmington Island. While she was out walking her dogs one day, they made a beeline for Groover. "My dogs run up to him and greet him, immediately start pooping, you know, right under his nose," she explained. Michael's beard and hair were long and "shaggy," which she found to be a red flag. Deen recalled thinking, "He is like the ax murderer and I've got to leave here quickly." But when her dogs repeated their actions during a later outing, she decided to get to know her new neighbor better.

She lost weight after making a controversial diabetes revelation

Life seemed to be all gravy for Paula Deen when Michael Groover popped the question on Christmas Day in 2002. Naturally, tons of sugar was involved — Deen told Good Housekeeping that he pulled the old Russian doll box trick, and each gift she opened was loaded with chocolates. The smallest inner nugget of her layered presents also contained her engagement ring.

Unfortunately, the last thing Deen needed in her life was more sweetened chocolate. In a 2012 appearance on "Today," she revealed that she had been diagnosed with type-2 diabetes. She confessed to keeping her diagnosis a secret for three years, explaining, "I had to figure out things in my own head." What possibly helped her decide to come clean was a business deal — she also announced on "Today" that she had partnered with Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical company that produces diabetes medications. The critics of this move included late chef Anthony Bourdain, who had already been feuding with Deen. He said on "Good Morning America," (via Us Weekly), "It's unconscionable, cynical and greedy."

During a 2015 "Dr. Oz" appearance, Deen revealed that she had lost 35 pounds since her diagnosis. She also shared her simple trick for improving her diet. "I went home to my kitchen and I threw out everything that was white," she said (via ABC News). This meant kissing her beloved taters goodbye, as well as the glazed buns of her infamous donut burger.

She admitted to using a racial slur

Paula Deen's Food Network career ended in disgrace in 2013. A former employee had sued her, accusing the "Paula's Party" star of racist behavior. Deen's deposition leaked, which included some damning comments. When asked, "Have you ever used the N-word yourself?" Deen replied, "Yes, of course" (via Eater). She also admitted to saying that she would have loved for the servers at her brother's wedding to be Black because she wanted him to have what the attorney questioning her described as a "southern plantation wedding." The lawyer was quoting a conversation that the employee suing Deen had allegedly overheard.

Deen's admission resulted in Food Network severing ties with her, and she lost several other business deals. She defended her character on "Today," insisting that she isn't racist. Deen also told disgraced host Matt Lauer that the only time she used the N-word was when a Black man pointed a gun at her during an armed robbery at the bank where she was working. However, in her deposition, she had admitted to saying it when recounting "a conversation between Blacks."

Also in 2013, HuffPost shared a resurfaced video of Deen speaking about slavery during a TimesTalk. She referred to slaves as "workers" and glossed over the horrors they faced by saying, "Black folk were such integral part of our lives, they were like our family." While it seemed like her career was toast, this didn't turn out to be the case.

Her half-baked stint on Dancing with the Stars

Despite her scandals coming to light, Paula Deen ensured that fans could keep getting their fill of her caloric creations served with a side of sass by launching her own network in 2014. A year later, she was invited to compete on "Dancing with the Stars." Some critics called the show out for giving her a platform for a redemptive arc, with The Guardian publishing a piece titled, "To cast Paula Deen on Dancing With the Stars is to condone her racism."

However, many viewers were evidently hungry for a heaping helping of Deen, as she kept progressing on the show. While some celebs are mortified when they suffer wardrobe malfunctions on "DWTS," Deen gleefully lifted her skirt and flashed her behind to the judges after her jive. She seemingly had her britches on her mind a bunch during her stint on the show. After her first performance, she told Tom Bergeron (via Eater), "I had on white underwear when I started, but they probably ain't white no more!" And anyone at home eating Southern goulash immediately lost their appetite.

Deen was eliminated in Week 6, and Bindi Irwin would go on to win the Mirrorball Trophy. After she was ousted, Deen tried to squeeze a little extra sympathy out of her fans. "[The judges] have been hard on me since the very start," she complained to Us Weekly.

She debuted a dramatically different look

In 2024, Paula Deen made an appearance with Lara Trump that garnered a lot of attention. In an Instagram video, Deen revealed that she had cooked a pot roast dinner for Lara. Their meeting came years after Donald Trump defended Deen's usage of the N-word in 2013. On X, formerly known as Twitter, he responded to a user who had tweeted a version of the word, writing, "Why does Paula D get destroyed and you can use the 'N' word so freely, a***ole?" Unsurprisingly, the company Paula was keeping in 2024 generated some controversy — which was forgotten when her critics' focus shifted to her appearance.

In a video that she shared on her TikTok account, the cook looked noticeably thinner. This sparked speculation that Deen had used Ozempic. "Oh wow ... Paula needs that butter again," one commenter wrote. "That's Paula Lean," another person joked. Meanwhile, over on Reddit, she got skewered with an insult that had a distinctive Southern flavor: "Aged like an egg on the sidewalk under the summer sun."

While she clearly still had a vocal contingent of critics in 2024, Deen had managed to bounce back like a slapped slice of her cranberry congealed salad. After mentioning that Deen's net worth was around $14 million, PR expert Chris Cline told Newsweek, "Generally, we live in a society that wants to forgive." But clearly, some have chosen to criticise her for one reason or another.