Paula Deen's reputation is taking yet another hit -- this time from a cook, Dora Charles, who reportedly helped build the former Food Network star's multimillion-dollar empire. Speaking about Deen in a new interview with the New York Times, Charles says the now-beleaguered chef treated her unfairly and failed to live up to her promises of wealth in exchange for loyalty.
For 22 years, the Times reports, Charles was Deen's "soul sister" in the kitchen. When Deen opened Lady & Sons, the Savannah, Ga., restaurant for which she is famous, Charles was by her side, developing recipes, tasting food, and training cooks. She did all of this for less than 10 dollars an hour, the Times says, in part because she and Deen became such close friends, but also because Deen reportedly said they'd make it big together someday.
"Stick with me, Dora, and I promise you one day if I get rich you'll get rich," Charles claims Deen told her. She tells the Times: "I didn't think I had to [get it in writing] 'cause we were real close back then." (Charles, who still works at the Lady & Sons, was recently put on a $71,000 salary but lives in a trailer home and is using the money to pay off bills and take care of her grandkids.)
There have been other issues, too. Charles, who is African-American, tells the Times that Deen used racial slurs and tried to exploit her black employees for show. She claims Deen once asked her to ring a dinner bell and call for customers outside the restaurant -- a job she refused on principle.
"I said, 'I'm not ringing no bell,'" Charles recalls. "That's a symbol to me of what we used to do back in the day."
"I'm not trying to portray that she is a bad person," she adds. "I'm just trying to put my story out there that she didn't treat me fairly and I was her soul sister."
Deen, for her part, has denied Charles' claims about unfair treatment and racism. In a statement about the accusations, her publicity team said: "Fundamentally Dora's complaint is not about race but about money. It is about an employee that despite over 20 years of generosity feels that she still deserves yet even more financial support from Paula Deen."
In fact, Charles did enjoy certain perks as Deen's friend. The Times reports that she occasionally appeared on the celebrity chef's TV shows and sometimes received clothes and other free goods. Deen's son Jamie reportedly even said his family would fix a rotting floor in her mobile home.
Alas, Charles' relationship with Deen has taken a tense turn in the wake of the star's recent scandal. She says, though, that it will never be over completely. "I still have to be her friend if I'm God's child," she says. "I might feed her with a long-handled spoon, but, yeah, I'm still her friend."