ALBANY, Ga. -- Even in this golden age of celebrity, few names loom larger than Paula Deen's.
The queen of down-home cooking, who's become such a star she's now a regular target of sniping tabloids and gossip rags looking to cash in on her popularity, has charmed her way into the frenzy of modern-day pop culture, whose ground zeroes are New York and Los Angeles, without losing those Southwest Georgia-ingrained qualities that allow her to relate to Joe and Jane Average Citizen.
"I think you can say I'm living proof that the American Dream exists," Deen said in a phone conversation with The Albany Herald from her Savannah home. "I'm proof that if someone will roll up their sleeves and go to work ... Well, if I can do it -- I don't want to say just anyone can do it -- but, yes, almost anyone can, if they have the kind of passion I have about the things I do."
While her adopted home of Savannah, executives of The Food Network, talk show hosts who love her say-anything wit and glorious Southern accent, and all those foodies across the globe have staked their claim to Deen after becoming addicted to her wildly popular "Paula's Home Cooking," "Paula's Party" and "Paula's Best Dishes" TV shows, she remains an Albany girl, through and through. Some of her most ardent hometown supporters want to make sure the world makes that connection.
Led by businesswoman B.J. Fletcher, who announced recently plans to run for a seat on the Albany City Commission, and Jimmy Deen, Paula's ex-husband who still lives in Albany with his wife, Therlus, a local group is working with city officials to turn Paula Deen's childhood home into a museum that they hope will attract her legion of fans to her hometown.
"It just takes my breath away that folks back in Albany would consider doing something like this," Paula Deen said of the plan, which she has given her blessing. "I'm just trying to wrap my head around this incredible honor. I would want something like this to be a symbol of hope for people looking to make their lives better."
Fletcher said she has been working with Jimmy Deen and others for more than a year to breathe life into the museum. Their efforts took a giant leap recently when a group purchased Paula Deen's Whitney Avenue home with the intent of turning it into the museum.
"This is something I started working on 1 1/2-2 years ago," Fletcher said. "Even before I got into the mayor's race (which she lost in a runoff to Dorothy Hubbard in 2011), I started talking with Jimmy Deen about doing this to honor Paula. I saw it as something to help our downtown; what other name is going to bring people here off the Interstate?
"I wrote a letter to Paula and explained what we wanted to do, and Jimmy told me she was deeply touched by the letter. When I texted Jimmy and told him (the group) had closed on Paula's house, I got a voicemail from him telling me I should call Paula. He gave me her private number."
When Fletcher called Paula Deen to talk further of plans for the museum, the celebrity chef immediately started throwing out ideas for the facility.
"She told me she had a lot of the original furniture from that house," Fletcher said. "I told her I'd heard she had a great passion for Albany, and she started talking excitedly about being involved in the museum project."
Jimmy Deen, who with sons Jamie and Bobby and then-wife Paula started the family's first cooking venture -- The Bag Lady, which cooked and delivered food for businesses in Savannah -- said he's pleased to see Albany officials reaching out to Paula Deen.
"It's great that Albany is embracing Paula for all she's accomplished," Jimmy Deen said. "I've talked with her, and I know if the city reaches out to her, she's going to reach back. I certainly hope this is something that works out because the tourism (a museum) would generate could help return Albany to what it used to be."
Downtown Manager/Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority President Aaron Blair said Tuesday he plans to meet with the group working on plans for a Deen museum to try and move the concept forward.
"It's been discussed for a while now, but I was waiting to be sure that it's something Paula would support," Blair said. "I understand she's pretty much given her blessing, and the group purchasing her former home is a big step. We're looking at possibly moving the house to land near Thronateeska (Heritage Center), and since it's a potential tourist attraction, I would expect ADICA would work jointly with Thronateeska and the Convention and Visitors Bureau on this project.
"I think there's a great opportunity to turn this into a unique attraction that would be an asset to our downtown."
City Manager James Taylor said he expects Blair and other city officials to step up discussions on the proposed project now that Deen's former home has been purchased.
"That house holds so many memories for me," Paula Deen said of the Whitney Avenue residence. "All the cheerleader cookouts, the spend-the-night parties. ... And it just so happens I can pretty much furnish it like it was. I still have mama's living room set and daddy's -- they had separate rooms later on because daddy had to sleep with a night light on and mama couldn't.
"I'm just so excited about the possibilities."