Cancer Pushes New York’s ‘First Girlfriend,’ Sandra Lee, Onto Political Stage

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VAN NUYS, Calif. — She strolled slowly through the neighborhood, a down-to-earth sprawl of sun-blasted ranch houses, and Sandra Lee was in her element.

In contrast to her high-gloss public persona, Ms. Lee wore a simple, loose-fitting dress, no makeup, the only thing adorning her face a pair of oversized sunglasses. Still, she could not contain her inner rah-rah: Whenever a jogger passed, she stopped to cheer them on.

And then she resumed the conversation, back to the art of the undersell.

“I have magazines and cookbooks, come on,” she said, pooh-poohing the idea of her as any kind of political figure, ceremonial or otherwise. “It’s not who I am,” she said. “I don’t do that.”

There might have been a time when that was indisputably true, certainly in the 1990s, when Sandra Lee started her first successful business enterprise from this Los Angeles suburb, in a rear bedroom of her relatives’ house.

But that was before she became a television cooking celebrity, before her relationship with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and well before her extended and well-documented bouts with breast cancer.

And it was absolutely before her cellphone rang that day.

It was Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, a Democrat like Mr. Cuomo. And just like that, Ms. Lee — the reluctant and unofficial first lady of New York — started to pitch Mr. Inslee on replicating a New York law concerning cancer coverage, urging him to provide money in his state’s budget for screenings and asking if she can send him bill language to examine.

All the while, Ms. Lee, who had just laughed off the idea of herself as a political player, is nodding and smiling at Mr. Inslee’s seemingly encouraging response. She thanked the governor for his time, and then signed off.

“Please tell the first lady,” Ms. Lee said, “that the first girlfriend said hello.”

It would be difficult to describe a woman who has spent much of her adult life in front of television cameras as reclusive; Ms. Lee is arguably more famous as a Food Network star than Mr. Cuomo is as a governor. But during the governor’s nearly eight years in office, Ms. Lee has largely avoided the political spotlight, appearing only sporadically at events like Easter egg hunts and gay pride parades.

She does not campaign with Mr. Cuomo, and while she stood beaming on the dais in Midtown Manhattan on election night, as he was easily elected to a third term, she was not in photos of the campaign and governmental team taken at a private celebration later.

In recent months, however, Ms. Lee has begun to flex her ample charm and determination in what she calls “my campaign,” a nationwide effort to fight breast cancer. Ms. Lee, 52, is a survivor of that disease, having been diagnosed in March 2015; she underwent a double mastectomy two months later.

That procedure is a central part of an HBO documentary, “Rx: Early Detection, A Cancer Journey with Sandra Lee,” that her company, Sandra Lee Incorporated, produced and debuted in October.

As part of the campaign to promote the film and her cause, Ms. Lee offered The New York Times a rare glimpse of her life and partnership with Mr. Cuomo, as she highlighted her efforts to get other states to replicate a so-called “No Excuses” bill that Mr. Cuomo signed in 2016, expanding breast cancer screening and eliminating insurance co-pays for screening mammograms.

Ms. Lee has been carefully assembling a to-do list — color-coded, naturally — and calling top officials in several Democrat-led states. And while her method of lobbying is often as casual as her “semi-homemade” cuisine, which famously combines prepackaged ingredients with a smattering of fresh ones, her intentions are far more deliberate.

“I think that the older that you get and the more thoughtful that you get and the more educated that you get about the well-being of the next generation to come, you have to be focused,” Ms. Lee said. “If you’re not spending your days making the planet a better place, what are you doing?”

In conversation, she is unfiltered, self-effacing and frequently extemporaneous. At one point during an interview, she handed a reporter a handwritten copy of her favorite smoothie recipe. “You should have that every morning,” she said.

In speaking about politics, she immediately mentioned her distaste for it, particularly the bare-knuckled variety practiced in New York, where Mr. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have often skirmished.

“I don’t like the nonsense of the fighting,” Ms. Lee said. “I think it’s unnecessary. I think everybody deserves a seat at the table, and everybody gets a say.”

“I hate conflict,” she added, at another moment. “Conflict and I am not …” Then she stops, and suddenly pivots. “I like Bill de Blasio. I like him. We have a rapport,” she said.

“I’ll stand there and I like him. I do,” she concluded. “I don’t like conflict. With anybody.”

That bonhomie could be catching: Mr. de Blasio’s Office of Media and Entertainment honored Ms. Lee at the Gotham Awards on Monday for her 40-minute film, which is arresting in its portrait of her medical battle, with graphic depictions of the surgery and her recovery, including nudity and necrotizing skin.

And that was the point, she said.

“I want this to be a tool for people that have to do it to understand what it means to do it,” Ms. Lee said. “And I want people who have done it to understand what they went through.”

The film also makes clear how serious Ms. Lee’s health problems were. The cancer was initially found in three spots in her right breast, and surgeons found even more cancerous tissue. She herself has said she did not realize how bloody and invasive the surgery was until she saw the raw footage.

“I went into the editing bay and it was the surgery and I just started crying,” she recalled. “I walked in and immediately lost it.”

The battle with the disease was just the latest chapter in a personal biography with enough turns and tribulation for a telenovela.

The eldest of five children, Ms. Lee grew up in chaotic fashion in California, Washington and Wisconsin (three states, not surprisingly, where she plans to lobby elected officials about copying Mr. Cuomo’s cancer bill). When Ms. Lee was 2, her mother, then 18, dropped her and her younger sister at their grandmother’s house in Santa Monica.

“She left that day promising to return shortly,” Ms. Lee wrote in her 2007 memoir, “Made from Scratch.” “We didn’t see her again for several years.”

When her mother returned, the family moved to Washington and became Jehovah’s Witnesses. Her mother was abusive, depressive and suicidal, and her stepfather beat her with a belt and molested her. She started working at 13 and left home at 15, headed for Wisconsin to live with her birth father.

But after her father was sent to jail for two years on a charge of second-degree sexual assault during a domestic violence incident involving an argument with his girlfriend — Ms. Lee had to testify against him — Ms. Lee’s aunt and uncle offered her a place to live in California.

She accepted, and soon after she started her first business — a line of window dressing accouterment — out of their house. (She still stays there when she visits, usually about once a month, to care for her aunt and uncle, now in their 80s and in faltering health.)

That business, Kurtain Kraft, blended ordinary objects and a do-it-yourself craftiness that landed Ms. Lee and her products on QVC. It was also a gateway to her Food Network career.

Ms. Lee met Mr. Cuomo at a party in 2005, the same year that her four-year marriage to Bruce Karatz, the former chief executive of KB Home, ended in divorce.

Margaret Cuomo, the governor’s sister, called Ms. Lee “my de facto sister,” and said that her influence on Mr. Cuomo is invaluable. “It’s a high-stress job and not everyone will have his best interest in mind,” she said. “She does. And that’s a precious gift.”

Ms. Lee is protective of her relationship with Mr. Cuomo, and of his three daughters from a previous marriage to Kerry Kennedy — Cara, Michaela and Mariah — to whom she has been a surrogate mother for more than a decade.

On a tour of the house they share in New Castle, N.Y., much of it is deemed off-the-record, if not off-limits. What she did share showed a family home festooned with all manner of personal memento and political keepsakes: a dining room lined with reproductions of letters from the Founding Fathers and an antique ballot box; a den with a wall-size, wooden replica of the Constitution; hallways and stairwells densely populated with casual photos of family and friends, including former President Barack Obama.

The kitchen contains a space-capsule-size cage for Ms. Lee’s two cockatoos — Phoenix and Halo — adjacent to an almost all-white sitting room, with views of the patio fireplace on one side and on the other, a duck pond, surrounded by small signs noting the New York State Police patrols to warn off trespassers.

Ms. Lee’s two Emmy Awards sit on a piano that belonged to her grandmother. Bathroom hand towels are adorned with gold Cs and Ls, in cursive. They are disposable.

Ms. Lee mostly sidestepped questions about Mr. Cuomo, but allowed that she was affected by what she said were unfair portrayals of his character.

“I am the one who watches him work every single hour of every single day and not sleep,” Ms. Lee said, sitting outside their home surrounded by pumpkins and other autumnal decorations.

Emotion stopped her for a moment, and then she continued.

“It’s hard to watch this be hard on someone you love. And know that they do everything right, every day, for everyone,” she said, adding, “It’s not O.K.”

She continued: “I think if people saw the day to day, they would only say, ‘Thank you.’ That’s the truth.”

Ms. Lee even briefly became an issue on the campaign trail, when Mr. Cuomo’s Republican opponent, Marcus J. Molinaro, suggested that her financial information should be made public. (Because they are not married, Mr. Cuomo does not have to disclose any information about Ms. Lee’s business dealings.) Ms. Lee did not feel that was warranted, and said she appreciated Mr. Molinaro’s wife telling him to not attack her.

In another aside, during the pre-election stroll in Van Nuys, she also dismissed talk that Mr. Cuomo would run for president. “He’s told me he doesn’t have any interest right now,” she said.

Again and again, Ms. Lee said she understands how politics works — “I know how to maneuver it. I have friends that are in it, obviously my partner is part of it,” she said — but she wants to stay out of the fray.

“If you’re going to get mad, get mad because someone has cancer,” she said. Or because children are hungry, or “elderly people are being abused.”

And then, she said, turn that anger into action.

In the meantime, other projects await: a how-to show with her sister, Kimber; a series of children’s books featuring a character called Aunt Sandy Claus; another series based on her 2013 novel “The Recipe Box.”

She also said she wants to do a documentary about dying, tentatively called “Silent Lucidity,” a title borrowed from the heavy metal band Queensrÿche, one of several hard-rock groups she likes. (Def Leppard, Rush and Led Zeppelin also make the cut.)

Ms. Lee is healthy; she announced in 2016 that she is cancer free. Still, there’s something in her that suggests that she now sees the world in the same winner-take-all prism that Mr. Cuomo often does.

“Were you part of the solution or were you part of the problem?” she said, calling her life and body “just a vessel” for good works. “And I think you have to choose every single day which part of that you’re going to be on.”




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