Deen was born Paula Ann Hiers in Albany, Georgia, the daughter of Corrie A. Hiers (née Paul) and Earl Wayne Hiers, Sr. She grew up Baptist, and is still deeply devoted to her faith. Her parents died before she was 23, and an early marriage ended in divorce. In her 20s, Deen suffered from panic attacks and agoraphobia. She then focused on cooking for her family as something she could do without leaving her house. Her grandmother Irene Paul had taught her the hand-me-down art of Southern cooking; one of the only places she felt safe was at her own stove, making thousands of pots of chicken and dumplings. She later moved to Savannah, Georgia, with her sons. In 1989, she divorced her husband, Jimmy Deen, to whom she had been married since 1965. She was left with only $200 and money was tight raising both her children and her younger brother, Earl ("Bubba"). She tried hanging wallpaper, working as a bank teller, and selling real estate and insurance. She then started a catering service, making sandwiches and meals, which her sons Jamie and Bobby delivered.