Paula Deen is a Savannah-based restaurateur, author, and television personality. Her cooking and businesses have won both praise and criticism, especially after her past use of racial slurs and promotion of high-sugar recipes while being diabetic became known.
Paula Ann Hiers was born in Albany on January 19, 1947, to Corrie and Earl Hiers. She spent her early childhood at River Bend, a small resort in Dougherty County owned by her grandparents. Her father worked at a car dealership, and her mother and grandmother ran the restaurant at River Bend. Although the young Paula often wanted to help in the kitchen, her mother found the child’s presence disruptive due to Paula’s need to “be in control of [the] pots.” She graduated from Albany High School in 1965 and at age eighteen married Jimmy Deen, whom she met in high school. Her first son, Jamie, was born in 1967, followed three years later by another son, Bobby.
Soon after the birth of her second son, Deen began to suffer from depression and fear of public places, and she often used cooking as a way to cope with her illness. In 1989 she and her husband divorced, and she moved with her sons to Savannah. There she opened a catering business called The Bag Lady, where Deen and her sons distributed bagged sandwiches and desserts in downtown Savannah. When this proved a successful venture, she chose to open a restaurant.
In 1990 Deen’s first restaurant, The Lady, opened in a Best Western hotel in Savannah. In 1996 she opened a larger restaurant, The Lady and Sons, after the lease for The Lady’s space expired. The restaurant proved successful, serving southern favorites like hoecakes, fried chicken, and fried green tomatoes. The following year she published her first cookbook and sold it on QVC, a home-shopping television network. While becoming well known outside the Southeast through her cookbook, her restaurant benefited from increased Savannah tourism resulting from John Berednt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
In 1999 Deen met Gordon Elliott, a television personality and producer, who brought her on as a guest on his cooking show. She began appearing on several Food Network shows, and in November 2002 her own show, Paula’s Home Cooking, premiered on the Food Network. She later starred in two additional Food Network series, Paula’s Party and Paula’s Best Dishes, and focused on recipes inspired by traditional southern foods that could be made at home with readily available ingredients.
Deen married Michael Groover, a harbor-ship pilot from Savannah, in 2004. The next year she began publishing the magazine Cooking with Paula Deen, and in March 2008 she launched a line of housewares and cooking appliances. In 2007 her memoir, Paula Deen: It Ain’t All about the Cookin’, reached number two on the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction, and she received two Emmy Awards for Paula’s Home Cooking.
Deen faced controversy when she revealed in 2012 that for three years she had suffered from diabetes, even while promoting high fat and sugary foods. Saying that she had always counseled moderation, Deen opined, “I’m your cook, not your doctor.”
In 2013, a white former employee of Lady and Sons sued Paula Deen for racial and sexual discrimination. In a deposition, Deen admitted to using racial slurs in the past. Consequently the Food Network pulled her television shows and retailers stopped selling her products. A federal judge eventually threw out the racial discrimination charge and the parties settled the lawsuit out of court, but Deen’s behavior left a cloud of controversy for years to come.
With the increasing popularity of on-demand content, Deen began a digital subscription service, the Paula Deen Network, in 2014. She continues to publish additional cookbooks and operates a handful of restaurants.