The press dutifully records all the worthiness, patiently waiting for their opportunity to interrogate Sandra Lee about more personal matters. Finally, the tour ends, and the director asks if anyone has questions for her or Lee. The reporters stare blankly. What they see and the director does not is that Lee has vanished down an adjacent hallway.
She knows what would have happened next. In January, when she visited the food bank in Rochester, reporters asked whether her connection to Cuomo would factor into her food-bank work. She appeared oddly unprepared for the question, and a squirmy televised moment followed until an aide interrupted to say that Lee wouldn’t be answering any more questions.
“I like actually doing the work,” she says afterward. “The media part is not what I like to do, because I know what’s coming, and it’s not about any of this.”
“That’s unfortunate,” a matronly staffer coos empathically.
“It goes with the territory,” Lee says. “They’re going to write about the food bank and what you guys do, and we got the right messages out, and that’s what’s important.”
What the staffer really wants to talk about, though, is Semi-Homemade. She’s a fan and has brought her copies of Desserts 2 and Money-Saving Slow Cooking for Lee to sign. “One of my favorite shows is the lava cake,” the woman gushes, referring to a Bundt cake that somehow incorporates dry ice. “That was a one-take shoot,” Lee reminisces, and soon she’s talking girlfriend-to-girlfriend with the staff member, telling stories from the set and passing along a baking tip and pulling a swatch of patterned black velvet from her bag; she’s considering it for some Roman blinds and asks for the woman’s opinion. Before leaving, Sandra promises to send a copy of The Bake Sale Cookbook. “You’ll love it. There’s a whole chapter on cupcakes.”
Because of Lee’s upbeat temperament and craftsy aesthetic, it’s easy to underestimate her ravenous entrepreneurial hunger. She dropped out of college after two and a half years and moved back to California, where she returned to calling herself Sandra Christiansen and got work pitching 90,000-volt O-Mega stun guns and Black & Decker security systems at home-and-garden shows. Soon, after improvising a window treatment from coat hangers and fabric for her apartment in Malibu, she developed her own product to sell. Kurtain Kraft, as she called it, was a line of do-it-yourself curtain hardware (crowns, rings, lattices). Having saved $50,000, she spent it on an infomercial, and the line caught fire. According to her memoir, at the end of 1993, after just nine months, Kurtain Kraft had grossed $6 million. She was 27.
“I have no energy for that kind of negativity. It only bothers me when my sister calls me crying.”
Lee began to sell Kurtain Kraft through retailers like Wal-Mart, QVC, and Target. Birdie Rand, then Target’s window-coverings buyer, says her boss first noticed Lee on a late-night infomercial and invited her to do a presentation. “This woman made workaholics look like a slacker,” Rand remembers. “She would exhaust me with the detail of the questions she’d ask.”
The business of drapes and glue guns could be surprisingly sharp-elbowed. Once Kurtain Kraft took off, Lee was sued by a number of rivals who claimed patent infringement. She, too, filed a number of suits and obtained two patents. But after an unanticipated wave of returns at QVC precipitated a cash-flow crisis, Lee rebounded by diversifying her product line to include categories like home, gardening, crafts, and scrapbooking. She hired spokesmodels to host her infomercials (including, for a time, Florence Henderson), but Lee turned out to be adept on-camera, and soon she was flying around the world as a QVC host. In 1997, in an act that simultaneously snuffed out a vestige of her unhappy childhood and streamlined her brand, she legally changed her name to Sandra Lee.
As a comely, preternaturally contoured self-made millionaire living in Los Angeles, Lee had little trouble attracting romantic attention. According to people who knew her well at the time, she took a particular interest in men who were already attached. “She felt that if a man could be had, then he wasn’t committed,” says an acquaintance, who adds that Lee said more than once, likely as a joke, that she planned to write a book about how to steal a married man, an account Lee calls preposterous. By 1999, Lee had become a spokesperson for KB Home, as well as romantically involved with its CEO, Bruce Karatz, who was 21 years her senior. Karatz’s marriage subsequently dissolved, and by 2001, Lee had converted to Judaism and married Karatz at Ron Burkle’s estate in Beverly Hills.
Lee’s new lifestyle with Karatz had little in common with the one she knew growing up. She drove a Mercedes SL600 and lived in a mansion in Bel Air. The couple had season tickets to the Lakers. There were parties on Diddy’s yacht and vacations to St.-Tropez. Lee became close to Entertainment Tonight’s Mary Hart, Arianna Huffington, and the art consultant Barbara Guggenheim, with whom she would breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “She was a great favorite there,” Guggenheim says. “The waiters still ask about her.”