Paula Deen is out of her element.
Instead of a kitchen, the Food Network’s Southern-cooking queen was holding court Thursday in a lavish hotel suite. And instead of being home for the holidays in Savannah, Ga., she’s ringing in the new year serving as grand marshal of Saturday’s Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif.
“I have rehearsed my wave,” she announced, with a playful grin. “They informed me that there are four or five different waves. One is the figure eight. One is the queen. One is screwing in a light bulb. But, would you like me to show you the Paula Deen wave?”
Deen then raised both arms in the air, shook them frantically, and laughed long, loud and hard.
“I am not going to be able to be that regal and calm about it,” she added, smiling.
Deen really does love roses. “Roses and diamonds, what girl doesn’t?” she asked. But she admitted she wasn’t so excited when first pitched the grand-marshal gig, thinking the pitch was a prank. Then, after learning the offer was legit, she thought she was being told she was just one of many being considered.
It took a giant bouquet from the Tournament of Roses selection committee to fully convince her she was it. “I went over and read the card and it said, ‘Thank you for accepting the role of grand marshal.’ I screamed bloody murder.”
The past year wasn’t all roses for the perpetually sunny Deen. Her former housekeeper was recently sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing jewelry from the star’s home and last holiday season, she got hit in the face by a flying ham.
But 2011 is another year and Deen was planning to usher it in with a quiet New Year’s Eve dinner with family and an early bedtime in preparation for an ungodly parade call. “I have been told my makeup call is 2:30 a.m.. 2:30 or 3 o’clock,” explained the 63-year-old Deen.
And she won’t be making any New Year’s resolutions. “Because I’m weak,” Deen confessed, laughing again. “So, I don’t make them because it just sets me up for failure. I have made a commitment though: to try to learn how to use a computer and e-mail. Maybe do that other thing. What is it when you send notes to folks?”
“No, I have someone who helps me Twitter. Not e-mail but . . .”
“Text message! I want to learn how to do that,” Deen replied.
Earlier Thursday, Deen dropped by a Los Angeles-area food bank as part of her Helping Hungry Homes Across America Tour, to which she’s stayed committed, despite the November 2009 ham incident on a tour stop in Atlanta. She was not seriously injured but the video got some serious attention on YouTube.
Yet the swirling swine didn’t stand a chance against Deen, for whom the food donations are serious business. “We have made a commitment to feed 20-million people over the next two years,” she said. “We are somewhere around 10 million. But I can promise you that we are not going to stop at 20 million. Because hunger, there is almost no cure for it. You can take care of the problem today, but it is a recurring problem. You are going to be hungry again tomorrow.”
Deen knows what it’s like to be down and out. In her early 20s, she was coping with the recent death of both parents, newly divorced, suffering from agoraphobia and not able to leave her house. But cooking helped her cope and, eventually, she launched a successful catering business, wrote a best-selling cookbook and opened an acclaimed Savannah restaurant called The Lady&Sons.
Her relationship with the Food Network dates back to 1999, with “Paula’s Home Cooking” launched in 2002 and earning Deen a Daytime Emmy as Outstanding Lifestyle Host in 2007. Today, the Deen name is on cookware, foods and furniture.
“When it is all said and done, when my party is over, I hope that I leave behind hope for other women,” she said. “I am living proof that the American dream still exists. It is still alive and well. There is only one trick, you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and work very, very hard. But, I hope that I leave hope.”