Sandra Lee, the creator of the Semi-Homemade brand of cookbooks, magazines and TV shows and a person who leaves nothing to chance, is sitting in a high-ceilinged ballroom on Wall Street on a rainy evening the weekend after Thanksgiving, listening to a local official present her with a tribute. But, sincere as the speech is, it cannot be heard over the chatter of the members of the New York City independent-film community who have turned out for the IFP Gotham awards.
This is not Lee’s usual audience. To New York’s indie-film elite, she is that woman who rose to fame on her ability to gussy up ready-made food into something that feels like a home-cooked dinner on the Food Network. Rachel Weisz, Glenn Close and Ethan Hawke are among the assembled throng–it’s probably more of a Padma Lakshmi crowd. Still, when Lee rises to give her acceptance speech, the room falls quiet.
Lee, 52, is being honored with a Made in New York award for her film Rx: Early Detection, a Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee, an HBO documentary in which she chronicled her 2015 treatment for breast cancer. It’s a brave film, in that it lets viewers see many of the more gory parts of getting a double mastectomy, and some of the less glorious parts of being Sandra Lee.
That she can work this room–indeed that she is even in this room–is testament to Lee’s unlikely journey from marketer of DIY home decor to award-winning TV host and author of 27 books to politically connected health advocate. In a way few can manage, Lee has lived her brand. Just as she once transformed ice cream, cocoa, Cool Whip and store-bought lemon icing into a baked-potato-shaped dessert, she has scraped together whatever she had and, with a little prettying up and a lot of will, made it look extraordinary.
The particular award Lee is receiving, for example, is given out by the New York City mayor’s office. Interestingly, Lee is the longtime girlfriend of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is the long-term bête noire of the city’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio. So, as well as being a nod to her willingness to take on a tough subject (she funded the film herself), the honor speaks to Lee’s ability to use to her advantage circumstances that would seem to many to be deeply unfavorable.
Perhaps most of all, her presence at the awards is also evidence of Lee’s unassailable congeniality. The First Girlfriend of New York, as she jokes about being called, has many critics. Her style of cooking is a favorite target of the Internet mock-o-sphere. (Feel free to google “Kwanzaa cake” for a sample.) But very few people, no matter their feelings for Lee the chef or Lee the award recipient, can withstand the force of Lee the friendly person. Take the subject line of her email to set up the first meeting with a reporter from a national newsweekly: “R U my date, dear????”
This is a divorced ex-convert to Judaism living with a divorced Catholic who has been personally blessed by the Pope twice. This is a woman who got Florence Henderson, of Brady Bunch fame, to sell her wares on infomercials, after Henderson’s agent turned her down three times. “I told her what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it,” says Lee of her big break. “And I said, ‘This is how much money I have left, and I’ll give all of it to you if you please help me.’” According to acknowledgments at the end of her documentary, Elton John and Bono helped her out. Lee makes friends the way Raytheon makes missiles: expertly and with precision aim.
Her greatest asset may be her ability to make people feel instantly that she’s 100% on their side. She’s immediately intimate, sharing more vulnerability than a new relationship might warrant and quick to offer advice, sympathy or the Name of Someone Who Can Do Something. “I’m the help,” Lee says, a week or so after the awards, sitting in the lobby of the apartment building/hotel she stays in while in Manhattan. “I’m like, ‘What do your kids need? What can I do for you?’”
Lee’s alliance-forming skills were refined in the crucible of her nonidyllic childhood. As detailed in her 2007 memoir Made From Scratch, her mother was 16 and her father not much older when Sandra Lee Waldroop was born in Santa Monica, California. Her parents’ union did not last, and Lee bounced between her mother, who left her for years with her grandparents; her father in Wisconsin, against whom she would later testify when one of his girlfriends accused him of assault; and–most happily, she says–her aunt and uncle in California. She says she hasn’t spoken to her mother since she left her home at 15.
Perhaps because of this chaotic upbringing, Lee developed a knack for organization and for making things look more appealing than they were. Her first company, Kurtain Kraft, launched in 1993, was a system for creating window treatments with fabric and cheap pieces of hardware. That grew into other DIY home and kitchen shortcuts, cookbooks and eventually an offer from the Food Network to bring the semihomemade-meal concept to TV. “It took nine months to negotiate that because I really didn’t want to do the show,” says Lee, who adds, “It wound up being the highest-rated new show launched in the history of the network.” (A Food Network spokesperson says was one of the top three new weekend shows when it launched in 2003 and remained so for five years.) She knows her peers snicker at her recipes but believes she’s helping people, no matter their resources, have better lives. Take her table settings: “It doesn’t have to be china and silver; it can be paper and plastic and still be extraordinary,” says Lee.
By and large, Lee now has all she missed out on as a child. She’s wealthy, she’s respectable and she has a wide circle of well-connected friends. Recently she has begun to use these advantages to do for cancer screenings what she did for cuisine: take out a lot of the effort. “We shouldn’t have to choose between heating our homes or talking to our kids’ principal and getting screened,” she says.
Lee was mostly apolitical for Cuomo’s first two terms. She says the two of them use a one-to-10 rating system for how important her presence is at events. If it’s a seven or higher, she’ll go. But in 2016, she flexed some political muscle to aid the passage of New York’s “No Excuses” law, which eliminates co-pays and deductibles for mammograms and requires many clinics and hospitals to remain open on evenings and weekends.
Lee is now attempting to meet with other governors to lobby for similar legislation, starting with the states where she grew up. Given that her family tree has no other breast-cancer sufferers, she believes something in her environment could have triggered the disease. She has already had conversations with California’s Gavin Newsom and Washington’s Jay Inslee, both of whom have relatives who have had breast cancer. She’s also plotting to deploy her charm arsenal wider, to “doctors, the health care system or the drug companies–whatever it is” to ensure people have access to screenings and care. Some health advocates note that screenings are not a panacea, are not recommended for women under 50 and can even lead to unnecessary treatment. But Lee is undeterred. “I’ve had enough conflict in my life,” says Lee. “If I’m going to have to be aggressive, let it be for something like cancer.”
Correction, Feb. 8
The original version of this story misstated Sandra Lee’s birthplace. It is California, not Washington state.
This appears in the February 18, 2019 issue of TIME.