Tragic Details About Sandra Lee

The following article mentions abuse and sexual assault.

Chances are if you're into cooking, decorating, or entertaining, then you're probably familiar with Sandra Lee. Per her website, the Emmy-winning chef has built something of a lifestyle empire that includes over 20 books and her very own magazine. Yet, it's safe to say that Lee is best known for being a TV personality, having appeared on a number of programs, including her own Food Network show that ran for multiple seasons. Of course, she's also the creator of the popular cooking concept called "semi-homemade cooking," which incorporates pre-packaged products and fresh foods, making her recipes more accessible to fans.

With all her successes in business, her skills as a domestic queen, and her millions of admirers, it seems that Lee has had the perfect life. In reality though, the California native has actually been through a lot of trauma. Yet Lee has managed to face everything that life has thrown at her head-on, even if all those challenges have taken a toll on the lifestyle aficionado over the years. Let's break down the tragic details of what the celebrity chef has been through.

Sandra Lee had a tough childhood

It appears that Sandra Lee's childhood was sadly filled with instability and abuse, along with pressures that no child should ever have to deal with. As she shared in "Made From Scratch" (via ABC News), Lee was only a toddler when her young parents left her and her sister at their grandmother's house. "I started calling Grandma Lorraine 'Mommy,' and [biological mother] Vicky became a distant memory," she wrote. Lee and her sister would move in with their biological mother and stepfather some years later, but they weren't eager to leave their grandmother's home. "I wondered why these strangers wanted to take us away," she shared. 

After Lee's stepfather left the family, her mother struggled with drug use. Lee took on the role of her family's caretaker, making sure their welfare checks went through and she and her younger siblings were fed. She explained, "I'd use the food stamps to stock the kitchen as best I could. I was so glad Grandma had taught me how to cook."

Remembering her childhood, she said in New York magazine, "It was pretty traumatizing." After growing up in a food insecure household, she sees the value in showing families how to eat on a budget. She said to Newsweek, "I know that so many people benefit from what we had to go through."

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The Food Network star was abused as a teen

Things didn't get easier for Sandra Lee during her teenage years  For one, when Lee was only 15, her mother brutally attacked her. She wrote in "Made From Scratch" (via People), "Her punches were landing fast and hard — I could barely catch my breath. Both of my eyes were swollen and my body was covered in welts."

What made matters even worse is that around the same she was being physically abused by her mother, her stepfather had moved back in and was sexually inappropriate toward Lee, according to New York magazine. Lee mentions his abuse in her memoir but doesn't give many details.

Lee left her mother's to live with her birth father, but that brought its own set of trauma. While Lee was living with him, her father was not only arrested for raping his then-girlfriend, but Lee says she even witnessed some of the attack. Things did finally start to look up for Lee after her father went to jail and other family members took her in. Lee recalled to People, "My uncle asked me if I would please move in with them. So, he gave up his home office and turned it into my bedroom." That aunt and uncle were supportive of Lee's passion for crafting and even helped her start her career.

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If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Sandra Lee has been unlucky in love

While Sandra Lee is reportedly happily dating actor/producer Ben Youcef as of April 2022, it seems the author has had a hard time with love in the past. Lee was apparently once known for having a thing for taken men, with an unnamed acquaintance dishing to New York magazine, "She felt that if a man could be had, then he wasn't committed." Lee brushed off those rumors, yet her only husband, KB Home CEO Bruce Karatz, had been married when they met. She had served as a spokesperson for his company in 1999 and two years later Karatz got divorced and immediately married Lee. You could say that, along with Karatz being over 20 years her senior and very rich, wasn't great for Lee's reputation.  

Despite the scandalous nature of their relationship, it appeared Lee really loved Karatz, even converting to Judaism for him. It was also Karatz who introduced Lee to a more Hollywood lifestyle that included a Bel Air mansion and celebrity events. Yet, the two couldn't make it work and Lee filed for divorce in 2005, citing irreconcilable differences, per Los Angeles Business Journal. A year after their split, Karatz was charged with manipulating stock options and was later convicted of four felonies, including mail fraud, according to Builder. His sentence included a fine and probation. 

The TV chef was diagnosed with breast cancer

In 2015, Sandra Lee got devastating news that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She immediately took action, revealing to Good Housekeeping, "I decided to fight back just as aggressively." After weighing her options, Lee made the difficult decision to undergo a double mastectomy. "I didn't want to take any chances. My cancer was in three separate places, and there was the possibility it could come back in the other breast," she explained.

At the Miami Breast Cancer Conference, Lee shared her beloved grandmother also influenced her decision, having once survived stomach cancer only for it to come back years later. She shared, via OncLive, "I wasn't going to live my life wondering when and if." Unfortunately, Lee's double mastectomy brought its own complications and she ended up back in the hospital with a dangerous infection that brought more surgeries. She told her fans on Facebook, "I just need to complete this unexpected phase of a tough journey."

Lee kept her fans updated throughout her journey in hopes of helping others with early detection. She told People, "The biggest thing I can do is really show people what it looks like to go through this so they walk in with open eyes." On a September 2015 episode of "GMA," she shared with the world that she was cancer free. "Women are not just about their boobs," she said. "You know, it doesn't matter if you're a DD, which I was, or an A, which I am."

She's been subjected to a lot of criticism

Sandra Lee's work has faced a lot of criticism over the years. While the concept of "Semi-Homemade" cooking was designed to be easy and affordable for people, many foodies judged her use of processed foods. However, Lee never wanted to be an elaborate, made-from-scratch chef, telling New York magazine, "When I came to the Food Network, I didn't want to do a cooking show. ... I wanted to do a home-and-garden show."

Regardless, Lee has been taken to task by online trolls on food blogs and mainstream publications alike. The New York Times once wrote, "She seems more intent on encouraging people to create excuses for not cooking than on encouraging them to cook wholesome simple foods." In an interview with The New York Times Magazine, Lee brushed off the naysayers, stating, "I'm not sure that some of the food purists are in touch with what really goes on in American households."

Of course, there was also Lee's infamous Kwanzaa cake, which was blasted for not only being culturally insensitive but for its mess of strange ingredients. It didn't help that the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain roasted the creation. "Watch that clip and tell me your eyeballs don't burst into flames," he once told MSN TV. "It's a war crime on television." Bourdain often went after Lee, but she remained unfazed, telling New York magazine, "It's just shtick, so I can't even be mad at him."

Her rocky relationship with Andrew Cuomo

Sandra Lee was in a high-profile relationship with former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom she dated for 14 years. During their long courtship, there were rumors that Cuomo never intended on marrying Lee even though it seemed to be what she wanted. Take, for example, when she told the New York Observer in 2014, "We'll get married some day. ... It's not like we don't know we're going to do it." Or the time a source told the Daily Mail that she allegedly had a ring picked out. 

Insiders suggested that Cuomo used his Catholic faith as reason for never remarrying but Lee denied those claims. The couple eventually split in 2019, revealing in a statement to the AP, "Our lives have gone in different directions." Yet the two were apparently still on good terms a year later, with Lee telling The New York Times, "He's still my guy. ... I will protect him and be there for him until the day I die." With that said, it had to be hard for Lee when Cuomo was then hit with sexual harassment allegations.

There were also reports that Cuomo hadn't been faithful to Lee, which he denied. Yet a former aide told the New York Post that everyone knew he wasn't monogamous. "It was an open secret," the source claimed. "Andrew was sleeping with at least one other woman who wasn't Sandra." Lee took the high road though, with sources dishing to the Post that her main concern was how Cuomo's daughters were handling the scandal.

Sandra Lee was devastated to leave Lily Pond

Sandra Lee's September 2019 split from former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was not easy. Two months after the breakup, the "Semi-Homemade Cooking" host admitted to Us Weekly that the dissolution of the relationship still hurt, which made sense considering she had been with him for over a decade.

The lifestyle expert was also devastated to leave the New York home she shared with Cuomo and affectionately named "Lily Pond." The day she moved out, Lee wrote on Instagram, "Today will be one of the saddest days of my life... I love that house." And by all accounts, that house really felt like a home to Lee. She even once gave People a tour of the house saying, "Everything in here is wonderful and sentimental."

Lee detailed her emotional goodbye in another post, writing, "Thanked each [room] for giving us love and shelter, a warm place to grow and a true home to be happy." She did acknowledge though it was time to move on and that's exactly what she did, relocating to California in December 2020. Lee didn't hold back when it came to how hard that was for her either, opening up on Instagram about how emotional it was to go back to her home state. She later thanked fans for their support and wrote, "My feelings have been in storage for so so so long simply trying to suck it up...and smile every single day for the cameras."

The HGTV personality struggled with her body image

Sandra Lee has faced issues with her body image. In January 2021, just weeks after her emotional move back to California, she shared with her Instagram followers that she wasn't happy with her body. The TV personality wrote, "Over the last year I gained 30 pounds ... None of my clothes fit and worse i feel terrible." Lee announced that she'd started a diet. 

In April 2020, Lee shared on "Today" that she made a point to put on weight after her cancer battle. She said, "I actually worked at it with my doctor ... I was so stressed after the double mastectomy that I was underweight. I love having a little weight on me." But some months later, Lee was not content with where she was at. In the aforementioned IG post, she detailed her diet plan, which involved cutting alcohol, steering clear of carbs, and sticking to things like nutrient-packed produce and eggs.

By July 2021, Lee was feeling better about herself, captioning a selfie, "I'm pretty happy with where I am-I feel great!!!" Feeling great is all that matters. 

The Semi-Homemade Cooking host was robbed

Just months after moving out of her beloved Westchester County house, Sandra Lee was dealt another blow. In February 2021, her storage locker was broken into and the perpetrators made off with some of her belongings. The "Recipe Box" author shared on Instagram, "Most crushing is collections of my one-of-kind Halloween Costumes and Wardrobes." Among the ensembles that were stolen was a Bob Mackie original that Cher actually wore and costumes from a production of "Cinderella." "These pieces were all Handmade and irreplaceable," she wrote. 

Additionally, around that same time, People reported that someone attempted to break into Lee's home in Malibu. Thankfully, Lee wasn't there at the time but it was probably terrifying for her to learn that a man was caught on surveillance video trying to enter her home in the middle of the night. A source told the outlet that the chef brought in a security team as a result of the incident.

Sandra Lee underwent a painful hysterectomy

In 2022, seven years after surviving breast cancer and undergoing a double mastectomy, Sandra Lee's health struggles still weren't over. She made the tough decision to undergo a complete hysterectomy. The Food Network chef explained on Instagram what led her to another major surgery, writing, "During a routine appointment with my gynecologist, she noticed a change in some of my cells." Worried that her breast cancer would come back in her ovaries as it did to one of her late friends, Lee said, "I hadn't had the courage to get this final stage done until now."

Unfortunately for Lee, the recovery was very painful. She said in a post, "I was so sick, I threw up and cried, threw up and cried." She also shared that she suffered complications, writing, "The head of ER... said I had some kind of infection and my kidneys were only working at 30%" Of course, Lee kept her positive attitude throughout the ordeal, adding, "Surgeries are so brutal but I'm still glad I did it." It seemed that despite the challenges, Lee knew she saved her own life.

You could say that Lee has been saving herself since childhood, continually overcoming tragedy after tragedy, and coming out stronger. Even when posting from a hospital bed in pain Lee wrote, "No amount of time on this beautiful planet will be long enough," proving that through it all, she always kept her lust for life.