This is the kind of hangout time Paula Deen and Katie Lee have.
“She has a few wigs,” says Lee. “We had a good time one night trying them on.” She pulled on one, a platinum bouffant, then went into Deen’s kitchen, found a huge country ham and posed for pictures imitating her mentor.
“When we get together,” says Deen, “we just have a bawel.”
The close friendship shared by Deen, 64, and Lee, 30, is rare in the culinary milieu, where the competition is fierce and the gossip as juicy as an overripe kiwi. Deen, who lives in Savannah, is the wildly successful Food Network star and cookbook author (her latest is Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible). Lee, a native of Milton, West Virginia, who is divorced from singer Billy Joel, lives in New York. She hosted the first season of Bravo’s Top Chef and has published two cookbooks, but compared with her friend, she’s a relative newbie.
The two, who met at a Florida food show, usually get together at Deen’s home. “I call her my fairy godmother,” says Lee. “I tell her things I couldn’t even tell my mom.”
The cooks lounge around in sweatpants, watch TV “and stay up late, eating,” says Lee. “She tells the best dirty jokes you’ve ever heard in your life.”
Deen started her career with a home catering business called The Bag Lady, then opened a restaurant in Savannah, The Lady & Sons. Divorced with two boys, she suffered from debilitating panic attacks. Still, her Southern specialties attracted attention, and her first show, Paula’s Home Cooking, debuted on the Food Network in 2002.
She’s been in the business for 22 years and likes to mother any chance she gets. “I love that girl,” she says of Lee. “If you’re lucky enough to find someone who will be your friend forever, how gorgeous is that?”
So does Deen have any fond anecdotes about Lee? “Honey, my memory is as long as my peter, if I had one.”
Among their bonds: Both adore Hoppin’ John salads, pounds of butter and sweet potato pancakes. Their cooking is simple, straightforward and unpretentious—three adjectives that also describe their friendship.
“After I wrote the foreword to her cookbook, The Comfort Table, she gave me the most beautiful purse,” Deen reports. (For the record, it was Chanel.) “I said, ‘Lord have mercy. I hope that was Billy’s money, not hers.’ ”
Joel and Lee—he is 32 years her senior—married in 2004. After they split in 2009, Deen (now wed for seven years to second husband Michael Groover) was there for Lee. “I was married when I was 23 and divorced before most of my friends were even married,” Lee says. “I really didn’t have a peer to talk to. So to be able to call on Paula, I had somebody who could help overcome my sadness. She’s a good, loyal friend.”
Despite their age difference, Deen clearly relates to the younger woman: “Katie came, like me, from a very average background.” Now Deen relies on Lee to help her keep up with trends. “Katie is a younger version of me and a more worldly version,” she says. “She could have been me 40 years ago.”
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