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The Ravenous and Resourceful Sandra Lee

Determined to become a down-market Martha Stewart, she parlayed her miserable childhood into a Food Network empire for those of limited means. Now, somewhat improbably, she’s the First Lady of Albany. Not that she shows any interest in redecorating.

Sandra Lee will make this happen. On a Friday afternoon in early March, the Food Network star and girlfriend of Governor Cuomo is sitting on a sofa in a photo studio in Chelsea, wearing a white sweatsuit, running shoes, and no jewelry. Even dressed down, she still has the long neck and blonde polished looks of the QVC host she used to be. But today’s self-presentation is a ways from the Sandra Lee of Vogue features, inaugural ceremonies, and television fame. She is here to pursue what is in effect her second ­career—as an anti–child-hunger advocate—by filming a public-service announcement for Tyson Foods. In January, after visiting nine of New York’s ten food banks and learning that what they needed most was protein, she made a deal with Tyson to appear in this PSA in exchange for their donation of 10,000 pounds of meat to each of the ten banks. Tyson has flown in two reps from Arkansas for the shoot. Clearly, these nice folks have no idea what they’re in for.

Before the shoot begins, Lee tells me that she will persuade Tyson to increase its donation. “I think we’re going to end up with 30,000 pounds per bank,” she says. “I’m working on it. I’m working on it.” Slight pause. “I’ll get it.”

During the filming, she recounts the heartrending story of her family’s stint on welfare. “It was pretty traumatizing,” she says, describing a time when she stood in front of a classmate at the grocery store and had to pay with food stamps. “I’m Sandra Lee,” she tells the camera. “I know hunger.”

Lee has a hardwired ability to pivot from sad to sunny, and with the shoot finished, she’s soon smiling again, posing with the Tyson folks for a commemorative photograph. There’s a solicitous, midwestern quality to Lee; her speech is celery-­seasoned with locutions like “dang” and “holy cow.” She’s disarmingly quick to hug a new acquaintance or touch his arm. She says, not infrequently, “It’s all good.” She also knows the levers of suasion, and with the Tyson guy trapped for the photo op, she calls me over. She wants a witness—a media witness—when she makes the ask.

“You can give 30,000 pounds a bank?” It sounds less a question than a statement.

“I think we can do that,” Ed from Tyson says, smiling helplessly and looking, despite being an accomplished professional in his fifties, like a blinded fawn.

Lee, still smiling, spells out her understanding of the deal: If she shows up when Tyson delivers the meat, Ed can make the deliveries over the next six months.

“I think we could, probably,” Ed says, “if we can spread it out over six months.”

“Thirty thousand pounds a bank,” Lee confirms.

“Well, approximately,” Ed says.

“And all I have to do is show up and deliver one of the trucks?” Lee says.

“As many as you can,” Ed says.

Can Ed make a 30,000-pound delivery next Friday for City Harvest? Lee asks.

“I can try,” Ed says hesitantly.

Lee’s publicist chimes in that it would be a great way to “seed the press.”

“Yeah,” Ed says, getting with the program. “We’ll do it. I’ll make it happen.” He laughs nervously. “I may get in trouble … I’m gonna have to do some forgiveness-asking.”

Sandra Lee is pleased.

The media in the state capital of Albany, a.k.a. the world capital of boring, bristled with excitement from the moment it became clear that Andrew Cuomo would run for governor. Not because of Cuomo so much as for the woman whose home he shares in Westchester. Eleanor Roosevelt aside, the First Ladies of New York have heretofore not merited inclusion on TMZ’s stalk list. (Quick: State a single fact—anything at all—about Libby Pataki.) Sandra Lee was something entirely new: a bona fide famous person in her own right.

The speculation was partly political. With her cheery mass-market appeal, would Lee be an upstate asset, an electoral-map ringer in remote towns where Cuomo, the dark prince of a New York City–oriented political dynasty, was a less-natural sell? But mainly what galvanized the Albany crowd was her raw human star power. Lee has just wrapped her fifteenth season of Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee;she’ll shoot her fifth season of Sandra’s Money-Saving Meals this spring; and she oversees a 300,000-circulation magazine, Sandra Lee Semi-­Homemade. This week, as a tie-in to Share Our Strength’s Great American Bake Sale, which Lee is hosting at Grand Central on March 29, she will publish The Bake Sale Cookbook, her 23rd cookbook in nine years (she will donate half the royalties to charities). It’s hard to think of another First Lady, anywhere, whose Q rating eclipses her significant other’s, with the possible transatlantic exception of Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy and trans–space-time-­continuum exception of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier.