Phyllis Hoffman DePiano & Her Southern Ladies
In 1983 Phyllis Hoffman toted a pillowcase full of checks into a Birmingham bank to open a business account. The act spoke of her unconventionality as a business woman in the 80s starting her own company and publishing a magazine. Retired from public accounting and parenting twins, she decided to launch Just CrossStitch with her sister and two friends. They needed 3,500 subscribers to break even on publishing costs each month, and she had 3,500 subscribers, paid up front, before the first issue even went to press. Since then, Hoffman Media has grown to 12 women’s interest and lifestyle magazines including Southern Lady and Cooking with Paula Deen and Phyllis’ life has become permanently woven into a community of talented Southern women whose stories often hinge on faith.
Her Southern Ladies. As the President and Chief Executive Officer of Hoffman Media, Phyllis has developed relationships with some of the South’s most talented and reputable women. She has sung “Amazing Grace” on stage with Designing Women actress Dixie Carter and has been a prayer partner with television journalist and legal analyst Nancy Grace, who went to law school to become a felony prosecutor after her fiancée was murdered in 1979. However, Phyllis is perhaps best known for her relationship with Paula Deen. She featured the celebrity chef and television personality in Southern Lady as “Southern Lady of the Year” in 2004 then worked alongside Deen to launch the magazine Cooking with Paula Deen in 2005. In one of their earliest photo shoots, Phyllis recalls a disaster with a slippery bubble bath that still makes them giggle to this day. “Paula wanted to do a photo shoot of her in the bathtub, which cracked me up. But I said we’ve got to have a lot of bubbles because it’s got to come up to your neck,” she remembers. “When Paula got in the tub, she sank to the bottom. All I could see was her blue eyes peeking out of the bubbles. She couldn’t sit up because it was so slick, so I had to drag her out. She’ll tell you today I tried to drown her, which is so funny.”
Her Strength in God. Raised in a Christian home, Phyllis attended Lakeside Baptist Church with her parents and became a church organist and pianist in the 8th grade. She still plays today, as a substitute organist for Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Homewood, and says while there is a danger of complacency when growing up in the church, faith often becomes more personal when saddled with a major life change. For Phyllis, change came in the form of divorce from her first husband in 2008. “You don’t grow up planning to be divorced. You don’t grow up planning that you have a broken home. No one ever thinks, ‘I am going to have a major problem in my life,’” she says. “The beauty is God forgives us and wipes the slate clean, and we have an opportunity to start over. The foot of the cross is level. There’s not a pyramid of better than thou, holier than thou. We are all sinners, and we are all forgiven by the blood of Jesus, and that’s where I find my strength.”
It was Phyllis’ work on Cooking with Paula Deen that led her to her second husband, Neal DePiano, who is a Battalion Chief with the Hoover Fire Department and worked as a contractor on Deen’s kitchen remodels in his off time. “We had worked together for years on a professional level where he would handle the construction and working with the designers,” Phyllis remembers. “He had gone through a divorce and then when I did, we started dating. It was like wow, dating one of your friends… then we realized we were in love and God had brought us together.” The couple married at Neal’s ranch on Dec. 23, 2009.
Her Message for Women. People love to try new things, Phyllis says, and that’s part of what has solidified the success of her magazines and Birmingham’s success as a publishing town in general. Women with beautiful gardens are willing to try their hand at turning their flowers into a beautiful centerpiece. They want to learn to bake fresh bread. They want to decorate for the holidays in new ways. And when Phyllis’ readers take a new skill or hobby and turn it into a business, it makes her proud. It’s reminiscent of her segway into business ownership in the crafting sector more than 30 years ago. Besides encouragement to take a chance on creativity and entrepreneurship, Phyllis says the greatest message women need to hear from friends and mentors is that nothing can separate them from the love of God. “My life is a testimony of grace and mercy and forgiveness and love. All Christians struggle at some point in time with something. And that’s where your faith has to come in as restorative,” she says, noting that older Christian women need to realize the impact they can have by sharing this reassurance with the younger women in their lives. “If there’s something that’s happened in your life that has kind of shaken you from your roots, you [may] realize at the end of the day all you have and all you need is the Lord. Everywhere in the Bible when people encountered Jesus and were touched by the Master, their lives started over. You can’t relive your life—it’s not a do-over—but it always is a start over. Whenever you need that forgiveness and starting over in your life, God is faithful. Everyone has that same opportunity.”
– Camille Platt