The Semi Homemade World of Sandra Lee
By Joshua David Stein
Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee is the apotheosis of this theatrical domesticity. In fact, Steve Skopick, the show's art director, explains, 'Sandra even calls herself a drag queen.' Indeed, with Lee's ever-changing blonde locks, her large yet resolutely perky breasts, and her strong cheekbones, she could pass as a drag queen. No woman is this much woman. The same holds true for her kitchen. Lee and her team change the decor every show, but it is always an aesthetic blitzkrieg. In one episode, all of the dishes are black, and a black KitchenAid mixer sits on the counter. Lee wears a black dress. In another -- a Mexican-themed one -- Lee makes tacos in a festive blue and lime green ensemble. Plates are green and pink. The KitchenAid is lime green. It functions like a metal chameleon, changing color according to its surroundings and Lee's mood.
But the coup de gr'ce comes not in the kitchen but at the end of each episode when Lee welcomes the viewer into her living room to behold her tablescape. Somehow between the kitchen and the living room, she manages to change into something a little nicer. A forest green velveteen dinner jacket, for instance, replaces a ruby red scoop-neck sateen blouse. The tablescape is where Lee turns it up to 11. In one episode -- 'Italian Topiary Garden' -- the plates are gold-rimmed porcelain in shades of mauve and dark green. Next to each there is a Faberg' egg and a small African country's worth of silverware. There's always an ornate centerpiece -- in one, a golden chair reared up on its hind legs is adorned with fake flowers, like a memorial sculpture of a chair expired in battle.
What is this vision? Skopick admits, 'You got me stumped on that one.' But, he says, 'She's a real big tastemaker in middle America. They go crazy for her.' He thinks for a moment then says, 'She has kind of, like, a gay man feel.' This isn't simply because Skopick is gay or because the majority of the men who work on Semi-Homemade are gay -- it's by design. By appealing not only to Midwestern housewives, unironically, but to coastal gays in a somewhat kitsch way, women like Stewart and Child not only established media empires, they vastly increased their personal worth. Lee wants to get in on the goods too, and she's well on her way.
'We have a huge gay following,' Lee says as we sit in the courtyard caf' of St. Bartholomew's Cathedral in Manhattan. She's just ordered a hamburger -- 'well-done, raw onion, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and a ton of mayonnaise' -- and a cosmopolitan. Lee, as she often does, has brought a gay with her. 'We have a saying,' she tells me, ' 'No Gay Left Behind.' ' Today's gay is a flouncy framer named Jeffrey Fegenheimer. 'We met at a party,' says Fegenheimer. 'I looked at her breasts, and I said, 'They're fabulous!' and she said, 'Aren't they?' and I asked, 'Can I touch them?' ' Lee finishes the sentence, 'And I let him and then we went and danced.'
Lee displays a formidable knowledge of the internecine political struggles that often accompany the courtier-like relationship between a gay and his girl. 'I had to talk to a gay last week about his girl because he was being very nice to me. I said, 'You have a responsibility to your girl, and that is not me. And my gay would freak out if he heard us having this conversation.' I said, 'Love your girl.' ' Fegenheimer laughs heartily at this. Like many of her employees -- though Fegenheimer isn't one in the conventional sense -- he belongs to a group of gay men who surround Lee known simply as the Boys. They are part friends, part workers, part walkers, and part jesters. The Boys include Lee's culinary director Jeff Parker, who prefers muscle shirts that show off his tribal tattoos, her hot Serbian makeup artist Bata Plavsic, her art director Skopick, and Russell Halley, her talent coordinator, who resembles a young Mickey Rourke. But the king of the court is her 31-year-old brother, John Paul Christiansen, better known as Johnny.
The story of Sandra Lee is the story of Sandra and Johnny. Well, of Johnny, Richie, Kimmy, and Cindy, Lee's four siblings. Lee raised her brothers and sisters like sons and daughters in Southern California and Washington state in the 1970s. Their mother was sick -- both miserably depressed and stunningly cruel -- and their fathers were absent, and Lee's childhood was a hardscrabble one, barely a childhood at all. As she writes in her memoir, 'I was 9 years old and' I became the sole caretaker of our family. By age 12 I was doing all the laundry, cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping.' On the next page she quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: 'I lie here buried alive in my loneliness.'
Lee had one way out of her loneliness: attending to the constant needs of her siblings, above all, Johnny, her youngest brother. 'The three other kids could be having a meltdown,' Lee recalls, 'and Johnny would be like, 'OK, Sandy. Back to me.' I've always been his mom and his sister.' (Johnny is the one with the mirror in the photograph.) 'He's holding it up to himself,' says Lee. 'One thing about my brother Johnny is that it's all about my brother Johnny.' As the only gay member of Lee's close family, Johnny is also a key ingredient in Lee's recipe for success with gays.
When Johnny turned 18, he moved in with Lee in Los Angeles, where she had moved in 1988. Shortly after he arrived, on one of those perfect Los Angeles days when the entire city seems like a climate-controlled set on a Hollywood sound stage, he turned to her while they were driving on Sunset Boulevard.
'I have a really horrible thing to tell you,' he said, 'This is going to be the worst thing you've ever heard.'
'You're pregnant!' joked Sandra.
'No,' he said, 'I'm gay!'
'Of course you are! Everybody knows that!' said Sandra.