Getting to Know Sandra Lee, First Girlfriend of the Empire State

Gov. Cuomo's live-in wasn't always a golden girl

By Alice McQuillan
|  Tuesday, Jan 4, 2011  |  Updated 12:04 PM EDT
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ALBANY, NY - DECEMBER 31: Andrew Cuomo (L) is sworn in as Governor of New York at the Executive Mansion by Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman (3rd R) December 31, 2010 in Albany, New York. Governor Cuomo's girlfriend and Food Network host Sandra Lee (2ndL), his daughters Michaela, Mariah and Cara (obscured) and his parents former Governor Mario M. Cuomo and Matilda Cuomo look on. (Photo by Nathaniel Brooks-Pool/Getty Images)

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Resplendent in gold for the governor's inauguration, New York's "First Companion," Sandra Lee, dressed much more casually when visiting a food bank near Albany on Monday.

The millionaire TV chef wore jeans, an oversized sweater, glasses and a loose pony tail to campaign against hunger and to remind the public that this cause is personal.

"Because that is also where I come from," said Lee, 44.  "If it wasn't for food banks, and if it wasn't for food stamps and the welfare system, that's how I grew up."

The eldest of five kids, Lee has parlayed her bootstrap past in California and Wisconsin into a food empire, making her more famous than her famous boyfriend, New York's new governor Andrew Cuomo.

Lee's "Semi-Homemade Cooking" show is in its 15th year on the Food Network and she's written 23 cookbooks.  In her 2007 memoir, "Made from Scratch" she lays bare a tough childhood with a mentally ill alcoholic mother and an abusive father.  It fell to Lee to take care of her younger brothers and sisters and she learned how to make do and be imaginative with meals -- a common thread of her cooking shows today.

Image obviously matters to Lee, who color coordinates the set of her show for each episode and -- if this week is any indication -- knows how to play to different audiences.   She was the literal golden girl for the New Year's Day inauguration ceremony, her long blonde hair cascading down the back of a gold quilted coat worn over a bright white dress.  Standing by Cuomo's side, she held the bible as he took the oath of office.

On Sunday, she walked with Cuomo, her live-in boyfriend, and his three teen-aged daughters to mass.  Lee told Beliefnet that she was raised a Jehovah's Witness but that her family is Catholic. She had converted to Judaism for a time during her failed marriage to the disgraced CEO of building giant KB Home, Bruce Karatz, convicted last April of manipulating stock options.

When the blue-eyed Lee met Cuomo at a Hamptons cocktail party in the summer of 2005, both were on the rebound from divorce, which for Cuomo was a messy headline-filled ordeal.  His 13-year marriage to Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, Robert F. Kennedy's daughter, imploded after stories linked her to a polo-playing millionaire.

Lee shares a home with Cuomo in Westchester County where this holiday she reportedly decorated seven Christmas trees.  As for marriage, the pair seem in no hurry, as she told the New York Post Monday.

"I think when it's important to the kids, we'll do it.  Right now we have much more important things to do."

Lee won't be getting state security or other perks reserved for the state's first lady.  Instead, she said she pays for her own security and for the costs of her trips, like the visit to the food bank.

"It's not just the poor and the homeless who are suffering, it is the middle class too," Lee said.

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