Paula Deen’s ‘soul sister’ and longtime cook: ‘She didn’t treat me fairly’

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Paula Deen called Dora Charles her soul sister — a sister who has been with Deen for 22 years and contributed to the growth and success of the Deen empire.

However, somewhere along the way, things went awry.

Charles, who is African-American, began to believe that she was being treated unfairly – she continued to make less than $10 an hour and said she was asked to perform degrading tasks like ringing a bell to call guests in front of her restaurant, Lady & Sons.

This, and plenty more, is revealed in Charles’ interview with the New York Times. The piece also exposed workers’ intentions in filing a lawsuit against Deen – which ultimately placed the celebrity chef in the middle of a firestorm.

“It’s just time that everybody knows that Paula Deen don’t treat me the way they think she treat me,” Charles told the paper.

As a longtime worker for Deen, Charles’ lived in Savannah, Georgia, and spent more than two decades adding finishing touches to the impeccable Southern dishes Deen is known to make.

Business began to boom and Deen went on to become a Food Network star. She eventually landed big-name endorsement deals with companies like Walmart, Smithfield and Sears.

Throughout Deen’s rise to fame, Charles continued to support her and their relationship grew beyond their culinary bond.

The New York Times’ Kim Severson wrote:

Their birthdays are a day apart, so they celebrated together. When Ms. Deen catered parties to survive until they could open the Lady & Sons, Mrs. Charles hustled right beside her.

“If I lost Dora, I would have been devastated,” Ms. Deen wrote in her 2007 memoir, “It Ain’t All About the Cooking.”

Early on, Mrs. Charles claims, Ms. Deen made her a deal: “Stick with me, Dora, and I promise you one day if I get rich you’ll get rich.”

Now, Mrs. Charles said, she wished she had gotten that in writing. “I didn’t think I had to ’cause we were real close back then,” she said.

Things soon took an unexpected turn. Some of Charles’ accusations were echoed by Lisa Jackson, a white manager who helped run Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House – a restaurant Deen opened for her brother, Earl Hiers.

In 2010, Jackson came forward and filed a lawsuit based on claims that she heard both Hiers and Deen routinely make inappropriate racial and sexual remarks.

The lawsuit soon skyrocketed and Deen did in fact admit to using racial slurs like the n-word, a statement she announced in her deposition.

“It was like, how could — you know, how could she say something like that?” Jackson said, who admitted that she was surprised by Deen’s inappropriate comments given her affection for Charles.

The revelations from the lawsuit quickly made national headlines and Deen was soon dropped from several big business partnerships. Food Network was the first to cut ties with Deen, saying that they they would not renew her contract as a host on the network. Others soon followed, including four casino restaurants, her book publisher and WalMart.

Soon after, Charles filed complaints with the Unites States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She was also given a salary of about $71,000 a year but it remains unclear if the raise was provided in connection to her complaints to the E.E.O.C.

Charles eventually returned to work and said is isn’t expecting any money from Deen.

“I’m not trying to portray that she is a bad person,” she said. “I’m just trying to put my story out there that she didn’t treat me fairly and I was her soul sister.”

To read the full New York Times interview, click here.

Follow Lilly Workneh on Twitter @Lilly_Works