Paula Deen can't shop at her favorite produce market without hearing that fans dropped by asking where she lives, and she's spotted tourists with cameras ducking behind the bushes at her home.
Cable TV's queen of Southern-fried comfort food is still coming to grips with the Paula-mania that's seized Savannah since her Food Network show took off in 2002.
But Deen, who called herself The Bag Lady when she started a catering business in 1989 with her last $200, has nothing ungracious to say toward her fans — even those who go a little off the rails.
"Some days you wish you could be invisible, days you don't have makeup on and your hair looks like poo-poo," Deen, 59, told The Associated Press after taping the final show for her second Food Network series. "But isn't it great for somebody to love you like that?"
A decade ago, John Berendt's best-selling book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" was the pop-culture magnet that drew tourists in droves to Savannah. These days, it's Deen, who is whipping up a fan frenzy that fattens the coastal city's $1.5 billion-per-year tourism industry.
Outside The Lady & Sons, the local restaurant Deen opened in 1996, visitors start lining up at 8:30 a.m. — 2 1/2 hours before the doors open for lunch — to load their plates with fried chicken, collard greens and cheese biscuits. The restaurant served 400,000 people last year — nearly 1,100 a day.
Coming to Savannah just for Paula
"Paula Deen is why we came to Savannah," said Gerry Adams, 59, of Ft. Myers, Fla., waiting in line with two friends and more than 100 other people on a recent Saturday morning. "We're going to come back and get in line for supper. We've got to come to Paula's as much as we can."
Old Savannah Tours hasn't had trouble filling buses for its Paula Deen tour, even at $53 per ticket. Since the tours started in March 2005, more than 15,000 tourists have taken the four-hour, 20-mile trip devoted to Deen trivia.
Others gladly pay $250 apiece to attend Deen's cooking classes. It's the only way her fans are guaranteed to see her in person. She rarely appears at her restaurant anymore — though sons Jamie and Bobby still oversee its management.
"It's hard for momma to come in, because it's like if you went to Graceland and Elvis walked out," said Jamie Deen, 39. "If mom's on the dining floor, it stops everything."
There's been no stopping Deen in the decade since she opened The Lady & Sons. Random House picked up her self-published cookbook in 1998 after an executive wandered into the restaurant. Four books more have followed.
USA Today gave the restaurant its "Meal of the Year" award in 1999. A mutual friend introduced her to TV producer Gordon Elliott, who gave Deen a guest spot on his show "Door Knock Dinners" before producing "Paula's Home Cooking."
Besides promoting its silver-haired hostess, the show has kept a spotlight on Savannah.
"What Paula's done for Savannah is invaluable," said Melissa Yao with the Savannah Convention and Visitors Bureau. "My measly budget isn't going to be able to touch all the exposure Paula has given to the city."
There's no sign of Deen slowing down. Besides filming a fifth season of "Paula's Home Cooking," the Food Network this year opted to expand the Deen family franchise with two new shows.
Jamie and Bobby Deen debuted their own program — "Road Tasted" — to strong ratings in July (a month after People magazine named Bobby Deen, 36, among its 50 hottest bachelors). Deen herself just finished taping 13 episodes of "Paula's Party," her new series that starts Sept. 29.
The new show lets Deen cut loose with her Southern sass in front of a live audience, and her fans eat it up. One of them is Kenna Wiggins of Springfield, Mo., who was among more than 600 fans to write the Food Network hoping to attend a taping of "Paula's Party" in Savannah.
The 54-year-old teacher said she felt an instant kinship when she discovered Deen while channel surfing two years ago.
"Here's the most charming, bubbly lady making this sinful concoction with Krispy Kreme doughnuts and butter," Wiggins recalled. "I said, ‘That's my kind of cook!' Between family and butter, those are my two great values in life."
It's a formula that's found Deen a solid fan base. "Paula's Home Cooking" consistently ranks among the Food Network's top shows.
"I really had no idea that America was so hungry for somebody that made them think of momma or grandmomma," Deen says, heading for the remnants of the crew's lunch after her shoot. "By the time Food Network got me, I was too old to change. I've been around the block and I know what's important and what's not."
A spoon, for example, is unnecessary when Deen starts gulping gazpacho soup straight from its foam container. She sticks her wad of Nicorette gum to the rim. She quit smoking July 1, to buy more time with her first grandchild, the newborn Jack.
Deen has been buying produce from Becky Polk Bashlor since she started The Bag Lady, when Deen had her sons sell her bag lunches door-to-door. Back then, Bashlor says, Deen often had to buy groceries on credit, and return with cash from the day's sales.
Now Deen's paying back the favor. More than 20 tourists are lined up at the register at Polk's Fresh Market with armloads of boiled peanuts, red pepper jellies, poppy-seed salad dressings and peach preserves.
Bashlor makes $400 off the visitors before they return to their bus to resume the Paula Deen tour.
"These people come in, bus after bus, and they're here for my little friend who started out frying chicken and cooking greens," Bashlor said. "But she's just as real as she was back when she was doing bag lunches."