Sandra Lee is one of the nation’s leading lifestyle personalities, with skills in cooking, decorating, and entertaining. Lee has written 27 books and has millions of fans. This longtime Food Network star who made “semi-homemade” a thing, is also the live-in love of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The sleek, elegant star seems to do everything effortlessly. But looks can be deceiving. Lee went through a lot to get to where she is. Here are some things you might not know about this domestic diva.
Her grandmother taught her to cook
A native Californian, born on July 3, 1966, Sandra Lee’s full birth name is Sandra Lee Waldroop. She dropped her surname when she launched her career. Her parents were just teenagers when they had her, and when Lee was two, they split up. It was then that Lee and her sister went to stay with her father’s mother, Lorraine, for what was supposed to be a short visit. It ended up being four years, she wrote in her 2007 memoir, Made From Scratch (via ABC News).
She called her grandmother “Mommy” and her parents became a forgotten memory. Lee described herself then as a “happy child, living in a warm, carefree, and loving home.” Lorraine showed her how to cook at an early age, and also taught her about “stretching a dollar” and saving money, Lee said.
“Grandma Lorraine reminded us what a gift life is and how important it was to embrace the joy in each and every day,” Lee shared. “She’d talk about all of the possibilities that tomorrow could bring.” It was a happy time in Lee’s childhood, but it was not to remain that way.
She provided for her family when she was just a kid
— Sandra Lee (@SandraLee) September 25, 2014
When Lee was six, her mother remarried, returning to take Lee and her sister back from their grandmother. “Vicky and Richard tried to explain that they were our mom and dad,” Lee wrote in her memoir (via ABC News),”But I wondered why these strangers wanted to take us away.”
Her mother then had three other kids with husband number two, and the family moved from California, to Washington state. Then her stepfather walked out when Sandra was 11. It fell to the future domestic diva to raise the family, as she said her mother “spent her days lying on the couch, taking pills and screaming at us.” Sandra had to cash the welfare checks, make meals by using food stamps, pay bills, take care of her siblings, and endure her mother physically and mentally abusing her.
“I was so glad Grandma had taught me how to cook and be frugal,” Lee recounted, “Because there was no other way for us to make it through.” It was still hard on her to deal with that adult responsibility at an early age. “I began biting and chewing my nails until they bled,” she wrote in her book (via New York Magazine). “I couldn’t stop because I had no other outlet for my stress.”
She suffered abuse as a teen
— Sandra Lee (@SandraLee) May 29, 2014
If Lee’s teenage life wasn’t already devastating, her stepfather moved back in and “was sexual with her in a way that the memoir leaves vague,” according to New York Magazine. Lee wrote (via ABC News), “I daydreamed of being a normal kid, but that wasn’t the reality I lived in.”
Things came to a head when she was 15. Her mother said to her, “You are going to be so much more than I am when you grow up.” Lee said it “was the only compliment” she ever received from her mother. She responded, “You’re right. I am going to be more than you.” Her mother got enraged and physically attacked her in response. “Both of my eyes were swollen and my body was covered in welts,” she wrote (via People). Lee left for good then, and has had no relationship with her mother ever since.
After this, Lee went to live with her father, who had moved to Wisconsin. Then, her father got in trouble with the law after reportedly raping his 25-year-old girlfriend. Lee witnessed some of it, according to New York Magazine, and had to testify in the trial that put her father in prison for one year.
Her first business was in curtains
Despite all Lee went through, she never let it get her down. She had a passion for decorating from an early age, in order to make her life better. Birdie Rand, a Target buyer who has known Lee for decades, told New York Magazine, “A lot of people would have thrown in the towel a number of times.” But when it came to Lee, “Sandra would take the towel and redesign it, and make it pretty, and make it something a whole lot of people would like to buy.”
Lee went to college in Wisconsin, then dropped out to move back to California and work at selling home and garden products. During this time she came up with the Kurtain Kraft idea — a DIY way of hanging curtains. She wrote in her memoir that she saved $50,000 to make an infomercial, and the idea made her $6 million by the time she was 27. She had the products sold in places like Wal-Mart and QVC during that time. But she also faced lawsuits.
While she was able to get two patents for her products, New York Magazine reported she faced a “cash-flow crisis” due to a slew of product returns. So Lee started “diversifying her product line.” This led to her becoming a big name at QVC.
She had a thing for married men
Lee has been linked to Andrew Cuomo for over a decade, but things were not always so stable at home. New York Magazine reported that “according to people who knew her well at the time,” when she was living in Los Angeles in the 1990s, “She took a particular interest in men who were already attached.” The magazine reported that an acquaintance recalled, “[Lee] felt that if a man could be had, then he wasn’t committed. Lee said more than once, likely as a joke, that she planned to write a book about how to steal a married man,” a claim that Lee acknowledged as “preposterous.”
In 2001, Lee married KB Home head Bruce Karatz, a company she was a spokesperson for, who was reportedly married at the time they met. She even converted to Judaism for him, but they divorced in 2005.
She branded “semi-homemade”
Lee expanded her business to include cooking, coming up with her trademarked “semi-homemade” recipe idea, even though, as New York Magazine sneered, “Lee’s culinary training consists of a two-week course at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa.” But Lee wasn’t trying to be the next Julia Child. Her niche was easy-to-make meals for the harried modern woman. The recipes generally consist of 70 percent store-bought prepared items, and 30 percent fresh ingredients. As she defines it, “Seventy percent store-bought, ready-made, plus 30 percent fresh, allows you to take 100 percent of the credit.”
She wrote her first two cookbooks in 2002 without a publishing contract. Then New York Magazine notes she was able to parlay connections she had made through her career and marriage so far, into meeting with Harvey Weinstein of Miramax. He got her a publishing deal with the book branch of his company, and she quickly made it onto the best-seller list in 2002.
She initially turned down Food Network’s offer
After the success of her first Semi-Homemade book, Food Network wanted to give Lee a show. But at the time, she wanted to have more of a home decor niche. She told New York Magazine, “When I came to the Food Network, I didn’t want to do a cooking show,” she shared. “I told Kathleen Finch for nine months I didn’t want to do a cooking show, I wanted to do a home-and-garden show. She said, ‘No, we really need you to do this. You can do tablescapes also, as long as you cook.’ I said, ‘Okay, fine.'” Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee launched in 2003 and became an immediate hit.
She gets a lot of criticism for her recipes
Lee may have quickly become one of the biggest Food Network stars, with her recipes, tablescapes, and, of course, her “cocktail time” moments. But she didn’t get a lot of respect for her dishes. Food writer Amanda Hesser eviscerated her in the pages of The New York Times, saying, “Using the same strategy that has been so successful for the food industry, she seems more intent on encouraging people to create excuses for not cooking than on encouraging them to cook wholesome simple foods.” Hesser also wrote that “Lee’s reliance on brand-name products feels forced.”
According to New York Magazine, Lee wrote in her memoir that she was devastated by the newspaper’s criticism, until an executive at Food Network “reassured her that negative Times reviews had proved a reliable predictor of Food Network success.” In 2012, Lee pointedly told The New York Times that critics of her recipes are “snobs,” saying, “I’m not sure that some of the food purists are in touch with what really goes on in American households.”
Her Kwanzaa cake recipe is infamous
The one recipe for which Lee has gotten the most grief, was her Kwanzaa cake. Not only was it considered culturally offensive (chef Anthony Bourdain disparaged it as a “war crime“) but she reportedly didn’t even come up with it herself.
Then again, maybe it’s better that she didn’t. Denise Vivaldo, the food stylist who claimed to have created the recipe, attacked Lee in a 2010 Huffington Post column about it. She also mocked Lee’s “incredibly bad food taste” (via New York Magazine). The publication noted that Lee then reportedly had a lawyer lean on Huffington Post to pull the article.
When The New York Times asked Lee about the recipe in 2012, she snapped, “It’s shtick. That’s how some people get their press. There are 17 million children in this country going hungry every day, and we’re worried about my Kwanzaa cake from 10 years ago? That’s what I think is ridiculous. Yes, I can laugh about it.”
She slays her celebrity chef enemies
Food personality Anthony Bourdain is known for having a sharp tongue, especially when it comes to other celebrity cooks, but he’s been particularly harsh on Lee. Along with his Kwanzaa cake crack, he called her the “frightening Hell Spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker.” And that was one of the kinder things he said.
But when they finally met at the premiere of Julie and Julia in 2009, she was very friendly to him, Bourdain admitted. He wrote in his blog about it (via The Daily Beast), saying “I turn and find myself looking straight into the deceptively attractive and reasonable looking face of Sandra Lee.” Yet he added, “I’m pretty sure, judging by the vestigial ectoplasm on my jacket that I was sideswiped by pure evil.” She later took the high road and offered to make him a comfort meal and a cocktail. Imagine the two of them together on her show.
She still hasn’t married after 12 years of dating
Lee has been the First Lady (or is that Semi-First Lady?) of New York since her paramour Andrew Cuomo’s election to governor in 2010. But when she met Cuomo in 2005 at a party, his life was in a shambles. Cuomo’s wife Kerry Kennedy had cheated on him, and they had endured a rough divorce. His political career was in a slump, too, after his withdrawal from the 2002 gubernatorial race.
After the couple fell in love, she became stepmother to his three daughters, but Cuomo and Lee have not yet married. She told The New York Observer in 2014 that they would do so one day, though.
She’s all about cocktails and cursing
Lee may have Grace Kelly looks, but she is known for her sense of fun, especially when it comes to her love of drinking on her programs. Many of Lee’s shows feature cocktails, “cocktail time” being one of her catchphrases. She even has a margarita line, too.
In addition, the elegant-looking Lee swears a lot. Somebody even created a now-pulled semi-homemade compilation video of Lee cursing on the set of her shows.
She got in trouble for home renovations without permits
— Joe Mahoney (@TipMahoney) May 16, 2014
Lee has talked in the media about home renovations to the New Castle, NY mansion she lives in with Andrew Cuomo. She bought the Westchester house in 2008 for $1.2 million, named the place Lily Pond, and did a slew of renovations. Those articles were used against her in 2014, when local officials investigated and reportedly found out she didn’t get permits for the work.
Her home was then reassessed for property tax purposes and faced an $8,200 tax hike. Cuomo’s people called it “politically motivated,” the Times wrote, as the reassessment occurred when Republicans took over county leadership. But it didn’t look good for her not to secure permits first, as other homeowners are required to do.
A survivor, she advocates for breast cancer research
Lee was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and had a double mastectomy. She suffered complications from that and had to get more surgery. She also underwent reconstructive surgery. She has been very open with her fans about what she has gone through. And her partner Andrew Cuomo was there to support her “every step of the way,” Lee told People.
In addition, Lee has done charitable events to raise money for cancer research. She also influenced the governor to get legislation passed in New York to pay for more breast cancer screenings. She and Cuomo have been vocal about encouraging the importance of early detection.
She looks forward to the next 50 years of her life
Lee turned 50 in 2016 and talked about her “blessings,” both good and bad. Her future is bright, especially now that she is cancer-free. She is devoted to her partner, stepchildren, and the rest of her family, telling People her nieces and nephews were her “greatest joy.”
Her career is going well, too, with her own magazine, as well as a stint as contributor to Good Morning America. Lee is also a longtime activist when it comes to hunger causes, an issue close to her heart, due to her childhood.
Lee and Cuomo even attended President Barack Obama’s last White House state dinner in 2016. If Cuomo ever runs for president one day, she might have a hand in decorating the place herself with her tablescapes. Let’s just hope she saves the “cocktail time” for appropriate occasions.