Paula Deen: A Taste of Life
Traumatized by the loss of her parents, Paula Deen suffered from
agoraphobia for more than 20 years. Then, she cooked up her own cure and
became one of the country's most beloved TV chefs.
As Paula Deen saunters toward her restaurant, the Lady & Sons, on a fine Monday morning in Savannah, hordes of fans are lined up outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the amiable celebrity chef. Deen is a busy lady, no doubt, with a long day of photo shoots ahead, but that doesn’t mean this belle of the South can’t stop to shake a hand or sign an autograph—even if takes 20 minutes. It’s clear that Deen enjoys the spotlight and her opportunity to reach out to others, and it’s a role she seems born to play.
A housewife with no formal training in food, the Albany, Georgia native launched her culinary career at age 42 with a home-based lunch delivery service in Savannah, The Bag Lady. In 1991, she opened the Lady & Sons with her boys Jamie, 38 and Bobby, 35. Then Deen’s career skyrocketed with the debut of her nationwide cooking show, Paula’s Home Cooking, in 2002, an instant Food Network hit. In fact, her wedding last year to pilot Michael Groover became one of Food Network’s all-time highest-rated specials. She has written four best-selling cookbooks and runs two restaurants—the other, Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House in Savannah, is a joint venture with her brother Earl “Bubba” Hiers Jr. And this fall, at 58, Deen added “magazine publisher” and “actress” to her list of credits, as she launched Cooking With Paula Deen and appeared in the film Elizabethtown produced by Tom Cruise.
It’s hard to imagine there was a time—a long period of time—when Deen, a woman with boundless energy, was afraid to leave her home. After losing her father when she was only 19 and her mother four years later, Deen was struck with an anxiety disorder known as agoraphobia, which causes an intense fear of public places. For the next 20 years, the wife and mother of two lived her life in minimal contact with the outside world unless it landed on her doorstep—until she resolved to get better all by herself.
Here, after sharing her healthy holiday feast with Energy Times, Deen opens up about her struggle with loss and fear, and how she ultimately overcame it to become a wildly successful celebrity chef.
Energy Times: We’ve talked a lot about food, but now we want to talk about you.
Paula Deen: It’s been quite a ride. I was just in a movie, Elizabethtown. It was like stepping into another world—talk about country coming to town! It was one of those experiences that I will take to my grave. Watching people like Susan Sarandon, Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst work was fascinating. Sitting down and reading the script with Tom Cruise wasn’t too shabby, either. To see these people use their talents, to be able to sit right there while it’s all happening, it was just fabulous. I would do it again.
ET: Now you’re hooked.
Deen: I might want to be an actress when I grow up!
ET: What did you think you would be when you grew up? What did you envision?
Deen: I wanted to be a housewife and a mama, like so many little girls that grew up in the ‘50s. If I couldn’t be that, I wanted to be a model, but my daddy would not allow me to go to modeling school in Atlanta.
ET: What happened when you got married after graduating from high school?
Deen: My life took some unexpected turns. For my first 18 years, I lived this perfect life. I had parents that I adored and everything I could want, although we certainly were not wealthy. All of a sudden, my parents were dead. My daddy died at 40 and my mom died at 44, and with them also went my security. I went on a 20-year trip of agoraphobia. I became frightened of everything and it turned me into a person I didn’t recognize.
ET: Did you always have some agoraphobic tendencies, or was this something that only surfaced after the death of your parents?
Deen: It started with my daddy’s death. Looking back, I know the thoughts that I had were not normal. I became very preoccupied with death. I couldn’t understand why my daddy had to die at 40 years old. I said, “Well, it’s probably because I’m fixin’ to die. God spared him from seeing that happen.” So at 19, I got up every day waiting to die—and that will mess you up.
ET: What was the turning point that made you decide to change your life?
Deen: I’m a slow learner. At 40 years old, I got up one morning and the serenity prayer ran through my head, and I suddenly understood what it was saying. “God grant me the serenity to change the things I can, accept the things that I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I had fought my parent’s death for 20 years because I didn’t want it to be, so I finally accepted their deaths mentally and in my heart. I accepted the fact that yes, one day I was going to die but I could not control that. God has given me today so I feel glad.
ET: What were the first steps you took to get help?
Deen: I didn’t get any help. I had to do it on my own. For starters, there wasn’t any money. Secondly, agoraphobics don’t like to leave the house, so going out and getting help wasn’t attractive. It meant stepping out of my familiar zone and an agoraphobic doesn’t want to do that. I had to kind of heal myself.
ET: Where did you find guidance and inspiration during this period?
Deen: My Aunt Peggy, my mother’s sister, really filled a void with my mother being gone. She is a very strong woman and she gave me the support and encouragement that I needed while I was trying to build my business.
ET: How long was it before you felt that you were functioning more normally again?
Deen: What is normal? It’s hard to define what normal is, but it was a process. You can’t beat a fear unless you face it. In order to start healing, you’ve got to go out and hit head-on whatever it is you’re so frightened of. Your confidence builds slowly that way. Whether it’s going to the grocery store, because I’d normally have a panic attack and would have to get out…I remember going to the mall to my favorite store and I finally got to where I could go on the first level, and I would stand there and look at the escalator. Everything that I loved was on that second floor but I could not go up there. I remember the day that I did it and I didn’t die, I didn’t have a heart attack. That was a wonderful feeling. Something as simple as that—and people who’ve never suffered from this have a hard time understanding that—just overcoming something that simple is a victory.
Now I fly all over the country. I still don’t like flying. Every time I get on the plane I say a little prayer…I don’t ask God to prevent the plane from crashing, I ask God to hold us in the palm of his hand.
ET: Do you ever feel nervous about being in public places now, especially when you have those crowds of people waiting to see you?
Deen: Not really.
ET: What inspired you to launch a cooking career?
Deen: When you spend a lot of time at home…I wasn’t crazy about vacuuming and cleaning, but I loved cooking. I felt like I became pretty good at it. I was uneducated, a high school graduate. My grandmother was a fabulous Southern cook. And I needed to make some changes in my life. I had been in a 27-year marriage and I wanted my freedom. I was ready to accept responsibility for myself. I had to figure out a way to tend to myself and my children. I made a commitment to take charge, take control. The only place that I felt I had to turn to was my stove because that’s what I was good at. That’s what I enjoyed, that’s what I loved doing. I think that’s important, do what you do best.
ET: How do you develop your recipes?
Deen: A lot of them are passed down from family, from friends, some of them I get in the kitchen and formulate. I get them from a few different areas.
ET: Did you ever imagine that you would become famous?
Deen: Infamous, maybe, but never famous! My goal when I started out was that if I could buy groceries on Wednesday and payday wasn’t until Friday and the check didn’t bounce—to me that was success. I envied people who could go to the grocery store no matter what day they needed it.
ET: You’ve certainly come a long way. What’s your advice for anyone who’s struggling with loss, illness or hardship?
Deen: Never, ever give up. Try not to take yourself so seriously, be able to laugh at yourself, enjoy each and every moment. Be passionate about whatever you’re trying to do. In America we want everything instantly, we want that 30-second meal from McDonald’s drive-through, we want to get rich quick, we want to win the lottery, we want everything quick. It’s made us a little lazy. I’m living proof that it’s good to do it the old-fashioned way. Roll up your sleeves and work like a dog. You’d be surprised: The harder you work, the luckier you’re going to get.
ET: What challenges lie ahead for you? Is there anything else you’d like to tackle?
Deen: I would love to be a grandmother, but my children are not cooperating with me. There are a lot of things out there. Everyday I get up and life is so exciting. How great is that? At my age, you think the most exciting thing you’re going to be doing is yelling, “Bingo!” Life doesn’t have to be boring at this age. I can’t wait to get up every day to see what’s going to happen, to see where I’m going to go, to see who’s going to have me on their show—just getting out there and being with people.
ET: What do you do to take care of your health?
Deen: Just live life and pretty much enjoy it. Your attitude has so much to do with it. My main thing is that I get the proper amount of sleep. I do a lot of things that are not necessarily good or nice to Paula, but I can function pretty well as long as I’ve gotten my sleep.