Christmas of 2005 was a tough time for Blount County native and “Saturday Night Live” alum Melanie Hutsell.
The Malibu, Calif., resident and her husband, Fred Rapoport, opted to stay at home on the West Coast with their daughter, Carly, 9, and son, Leo, 6, instead of coming home to Blount County.
What seemed like a good idea led to a heart-rending bout of homesickness that put a damper on the holiday spirit for the whole family.
“I thought I was making this great decision to have some Christmas memories in our home. I thought it was a good idea,” Hutsell said. Instead, the homesickness got worse.
A week later when New Year’s Eve rolled around, Hutsell said she didn’t even try to stay up until midnight.
“Then, lo and behold, I shot up out of bed at about 3 a.m. with a jolt of energy like you wouldn’t believe. To calm myself down, I flipped on the TV and there she was on Food Network- Miss Paula Deen along with her new husband, Michael Groover, doing a special show in Paris,” Hutsell said.
Hutsell said she had never seen Deen but knew immediately she was Southern to the core. “She reminded me of my mother, of my aunts and cousins, and she even reminded me of ... well, me,” Hutsell said. “In a way she was soothing my bout of homesickness, and, in another way, she was making it worse.”
From that point, Hutsell said she became a truly devoted fan of Deen’s.
“I really enjoyed her message about getting in that kitchen and really bringing your family together to enjoy good, home-cooked meals,” Hutsell said. “I had certainly learned this from my mother, but watching (Deen) cook took it to a whole other level. Did it matter that every recipe had a stick or two of butter? Heavens no. I’d say for about the next year, I cooked Paula style, and I gained the 20....uh... maybe 30, pounds to prove it, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
At this point in Hutsell’s career and as a mother of two, performing for the comic actress and impersonator had really fallen by the wayside. “Since my stint on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ I had pretty much stopped doing impersonations,” she said.
Then one day, while she was making Paula’s Chocolate Ooey Gooey Butter Cakes, she found herself talking to her children in “Paula” speak.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t need to cook like Paula, maybe I need to BE Paula.’ And that was the beginning of my Paula journey,” she said.
The first time she impersonated Paula Deen, Hutsell’s mother, Claudia, was in town and helped her prepare.
“Thank goodness for my mother’s expertise in hair and make-up,” she said. “From there, I did my Paula act pretty much anywhere they would have me. I did it in theaters, churches, temples - you name it.”
Hutsell said that after impersonating Deen for about two years, she decided it would be fun to do the impersonation of Paula for Paula herself. “This notion scared me to death, but yet my fear didn’t stop my fingers from composing an e-mail explaining what I had been up to to the producers of Paula’s show and pushing the send button,” she said. “I sent it, didn’t think anything of it, and I forgot about it.”
After not hearing from the producers, she began to think nothing would happen until one day, shortly after returning home from a family trip to Tennessee last year, she received an email from Deen’s show producer.
“I went weak in the knees and started to tear up. I couldn’t believe it. By the end of August (2008), the plan was in order. I was to go on her show, ‘Paula’s Best Dishes’ and surprise her with my impersonation of her,” Hutsell said.
Hutsell said Deen actually thought Hutsell was going to get dress up like the sorority girl character she had played in the early 1990s on “Saturday Night Live.”
“I’m too old to play that character anymore. Paula knew something was up, she just didn’t know what it was. She was pretty shocked,” Hutsell said.
Hutsell’s mom flew in to Savannah and met her there for the show. “We had such a good time,” Hutsell said.
Hutsell said it was an out-of-body experience to do the impersonation for Deen. “Her response was she was just laughing uncontrollably,” Hutsell said.
When a producer suggested cutting Hutsell’s impersonation because of its length, Deen wouldn’t hear of it. “She said, ‘You cut me before you cut her.’ She loved it and felt protective of me. She could have taken my head off. That’s the risk I took,” Hutsell said.
Hutsell said her mom was so happy to be part of the experience. “She loved every minute of it. It was exciting,” she said. The Deen show taping was at the end of September, 2008. The show will air at 11:30 a.m. Saturday on The Food Network.
Hutsell’s mom and dad, Claudia and Steve Hutsell, and brother Andy, all live in Maryville. Hutsell’s brother has made news recently with his design of Clayton’s new I-Home, an environmentally friendly manufactured home. “I’ve absolutely seen it, and I couldn’t be more proud of Andy doing that; he’s a very focused person,” she said. “Give him a job and he’ll do it up right. I’m incredibly proud.”
Claudia Hutsell said her daughter wasn’t the only one in the family scheduled to be on television this week. Andy Hutsell is scheduled to be on Fox News on Friday to talk about a design he helped create for Clayton called the Clayton I-House, Claudia Hutsell said.
Hutsell said she definitely carries Maryville with her always. “It’s hard to believe 20 years later, after I move away, it’s still a part of me -- a strong, very present part of me all the time,” she said. “I identify with being from the South and Maryville. That helps me to not be so homesick.”
Hutsell said people in California enjoy hearing about the South. “It’s interesting when I do a character and perform, not just Paula Dean, I perform stories from home,” she said. “That’s why I’m not always homesick. I get to share that part of my life, and people love it. People love anything from the South out here.
Hutsell said she hopes her friends back home enjoy the show. “I think people back home probably connect with her in much the same way I do,” she said. “I think that she’s been such a great role model for Southerners and Southern women.”
Hutsell said Deen parlayed a small business making tuna sandwiches out of her home into a multi-million dollar empire. “I think it will be fun for people to watch me go on her show and see how it goes down. I hope it goes good. I think it will be fun.”
Hutsell said she has the utmost respect for Deen. “Paula is as gracious and funny and crazy as she appears to be on television and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience,” Hutsell said. “She and her staff could not have been more kind to my mother and we will never forget it.”
Hutsell is also a writer. She recently wrote an essay about becoming a parent for a book entitled, “Afterbirth,” by Dani Klein Modisett. The book was released April 28.
In “Afterbirth,’ a writer/producer created stage routine in which celebrities told the story of when they realized they had become parents and there was no looking back. “She got actors and writers and producers, anybody and everybody out here in L.A. to write essays and then she decided who to include in her book,” Hutsell said. “I was excited to be published. The story I wrote is probably a little bit funny, but also tender.”
For more information on the book, go to www.afterbirthstories.com. For more information on Hutsell go to melaniehutsell.com.
Paula’s Best Dishes - 11:30 a.m. May 23, on Food Network.
Paula Deen and former SNL member and Blount County native Melanie Hutsell are ‘Kiddin’ Around” in the kitchen with recipes for Mini Cheeseburger Puff Pies, Ranch Chicken Nuggets; Peanut Butter & Banana Bread Finger Sandwiches and Dirt Cupcakes.