Just know you’re not alone. ‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home.
— Phillip Phillips
Even with the emergence of a growing list of sports and entertainment celebrities from this region — baseball’s Buster Posey, country music’s Luke Bryan and Dallas Davidson, TV’s Phillip Phillips — there is arguably no local celebrity more, well, celebrated than Albany girl Paula Deen.
Businesses in Savannah “discovered” the celebrity chef everyone now just calls Paula when she and then-husband Jimmy Deen and their two sons, Jamie and Bobby, cooked and delivered meals through their unique business they called The Bag Lady. The Bag Lady became a genuine restaurateur with the success of the Savannah-based The Lady & Sons restaurant, and pretty soon The Food Network wanted in on the action.
Deen, who remarried (to sea captain Michael Groover) and eventually built a magnificent new home in Savannah, became a bona fide celebrity when her “Paula’s Home Cooking” became a Food Network favorite (earning her an Emmy). Suddenly, the world couldn’t get enough of the Southwest Georgia chef with the syrupy-sweet Southern accent and the magic touch.
But a funny thing happened to Paula Deen on her way to fame and renown. She never lost touch with her Albany roots, and she never traded her hometown friends in for an opportunity to rub elbows with the rich and glamorous.
Paula hosted a birthday party for BFF — and Albany resident — Susan Greene on Saturday, and she was still recovering from the weekend on Monday when she talked with me about plans to turn her childhood home into a Paula Deen Museum that would bring tourist dollars to her hometown and further the cause of her charitable Bag Lady Foundation.
“We partied all weekend long,” Deen said, laughing when I mentioned the party. “We had a fundraiser for The Bag Lady Foundation a while ago, and Susan — who is on the foundation board — made her husband (local businessman Phil Greene) buy one of the dinners that was auctioned off. We decided to make that part of her birthday celebration.
“I guess we’re not as young as we used to be, though, because we both fell sound asleep sitting in my living room. They took pictures of us sacked out that I’ve got to get a copy of. Susan woke me up snoring.”
Deen laughs her deep, genuine laugh as she tells the story, and I start to get an inkling of why she’s so popular around the world. Even as she’s become a popular TV guest and host and has even become fodder for the tabloid press — “The latest story they have out about me is that I lost weight because I’m getting rid of my husband,” she hoots. “No, I lost weight because I have diabetes. ... And Michael and I are closer than ever. Aunt Peggy (Ort) always tells me I only need to worry when they stop writing about me.” — she is still that Albany High School cheerleader who hosted cookouts and spend-the-night parties at her Whitney Avenue home.
Albany city officials paid lukewarm attention to a group — which includes businesswoman B.J. Fletcher and Paula’s ex-husband Jimmy — that has been pitching the Paula Deen Museum idea for a couple of years now, not exactly sure how the idea might work. But the group has purchased Deen’s former home, and the cooking star herself has expressed excitement at the concept.
“I’m just blown away that people like B.J. think enough of me to want to do something like this,” Deen said of the plan. “I’m just floored that the folks back in Albany would consider something like this. Even with all that’s happened to me in my life, there’s just no other place in the world like Albany.”
There are going to be detractors who’ll read of the Deen museum idea and scoff. That’s just what they do. But when a hometown girl with the star power of a Paula Deen expresses interest in lending her name to a project that could become a genuine tourist attraction, city officials would be foolish to not jump at the possibility of making it happen.
The city’s track record with such attractions notwithstanding, this could be a home run for a city that has long been mired in a slump.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at email@example.com.