the interview | hollis wilder

A few years ago, my friend Paulina (who created the cartoon of Hollis above) and I did a bit of work adding design elements and editing Hollis Wilder’s web site. Hollis was about to debut on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars and, although we were thrilled to be on the project, we lamented that we could not be paid in the delightful variety of cupcakes and fro-yo that are sold in her two retail shops located in Orlando and Jacksonville, Florida. Sweet teeth aside, this lady went on to win Cupcake Wars – three times – and publish her first book, Savory Bites: Meals You Can Make in Your Cupcake Pan. But things started to unravel for Hollis right after that third win and, instead of hitting a high when she appeared on Katie Couric’s show in September of 2013, it was the beginning of a rock bottom fall that challenged her to reclaim her body and mind. Today she has a much different outlook on what success looks and feels like.

(Note: For background and context, the first 5 Q&As are carried over from an interview I did with Hollis just before her book launch in April 2013.) 

What led you to cupcakes? I was making cupcakes in Los Angeles while I was a catering chef for tv shows. They weren’t a big thing. It was so funny because I did not have my radar out on the phenomenon that was about to take off. I moved to Florida and knew that I wanted to do something with food, but I wasn’t sure. It was just one of those things that hit me –frozen yogurt was a huge thing on the east and west coasts, and cupcakes were also huge on the coasts, but not where I was now living. It was a conscious decision to go with something that I simply thought would be good business. The premise of the book is using the cupcake tin to make beautifully portioned meals that are healthy and taste great. How do you see it changing the way people eat? The cupcake tin is a way to get the conversation started about serving food in a different way. I think the presentation is fun and friendly. You can have a dinner of cupcake-sized proportions! This [book] is for all meals…it’s food on the go…portable feast…party in a pan…as I’ve been writing the book and incorporating these recipes into my life, and preparing for people I care about, I came up with the idea of re-inventing the potluck . Which, you know, is the classic casseroles wrapped in tin foil and the portions are ridiculous. If you elevate the potluck for a new generation, changing it into a pot-luxe – it’s more sophisticated and looks a lot prettier on the buffet. Those casserole dishes are just not appealing to the eye. So mindful eating factors into all of this? Conciously or unconsciously, when you are done with your cupcake you ask – am I going to have another one. If you start to ask yourself, well I’m done with my [cupcake-sized] chicken pot pie, am I still hungry? Do I want to get a roasted vegetable terrine? This is the way the Europeans eat, and this is the way I learned how to cook. It’s not about sacrifice, it’s about size. What’s been your biggest challenge to date? Continually pushing and putting myself out there. At a certain point it’s difficult not to be attached to the outcome. I am not in charge of the timing of things, so being patient as well. I don’t really question that the success is going to continue, but I don’t have a Plan B. There is so much going on – Cupcake Wars, a producer is pitching TV shows for me, working with a company in New Zealand to create a product line with proprietary technology. Very excited about all of this, but it’s the insanity behind building it. I have small children, two Sweet by Holly locations, the travel…that’s the challenge. Watch Hollis sizzle…

2015 … So what was the catalyst for the breakdown that occurred later in 2013? A series of events in rapid succession. Writing Savory Bites was a two-year process from book deal to book shelves.  Preparing for the third Cupcake Wars, raising two children, speaking engagements, book promotions, acting as private chef to a client in LA (while living in Florida), being invited by the U.S. Government to entertain the troops at Guantanamo Bay Cuba, having talks with producers in the creation on my own show and then pitching it, developing a product line of foods with a German company that would be sold based on my success. After years of pushing myself so hard, my health was starting to suffer around the time I did Katie Couric’s show. The body has great timing, no? I was so excited for that invitation. As soon as I arrived in NYC, I was off to the market and baking cupcakes through the evening for the show’s 200 guests. Doing my own hair and makeup, of course. In order to utilize this opportunity to its fullest, my agent suggested that I use her assistant to manage transportation and social media. To top it all off, my publisher had sent her 20-year-old assistant to help me and handle my social media accounts while I was on air. This girl was given all of my log-in details, but decided to do everything through her own accounts. She then proceeded to put herself in the middle when Katie came to talk to me backstage. So instead of what could have been a lovely few minutes with a woman I admire, Katie got a kid in her face saying, “You’re so amazing! I’ve been watching you since I was 10!” There I was, finally connecting the dots of my 30-year career as a chef. I was in a position with the girl, Katie and the producer.  Should I put her in her place or let her go on gushing? I chose the latter. It backfired because she was seen as an extension of me. It did not matter that she was my agent’s assistant; the moment happened and it reflected badly on me.  I should have said No Thank You when she arrived at my apartment in four-inch heels and clearly dressed to be on the stage. I speak about this exact quality when I’m paid to speak at large events… The very reason I was so successful in Hollywood was because I carried myself in the complete opposite way in which this girl acted. 

hollis-collageI can only imagine the anger. You were truly a one-woman show for years and these things are supposed to be rewards for all of the hard work.  You just said it – one woman show. Perhaps that had been my problem all along… What self propulsion got me into the mess I now found myself in? I never had any kind of entourage to help with hair, makeup, shopping for outfits. I was buying all the ingredients and doing all the pre-talk show baking at friend’s homes the night before. Sleeping in my makeup to make sure I did not miss the early morning call times. Having to maintain an upbeat and energetic persona at all times because I only had three minutes to push my message. Exhausting. Another aspect of this was that my book publisher would not provide promotional support because I was not a “celebrity”. Wow. One would think that winning a Food Network series three times over would classify you as a celeb chef? Three wins, cookbook, pilot, product line, cooking for a high profile client in LA… really it’s all just a good conversation and that is it. I’m self-made and I always told myself, after learning so many lessons in Hollywood, that you’re a dilettante if you aren’t doing anything to make the grandiose plan you have happen. I believed that my wanting to be part of the 5% of the celebrity food space… the chefs that have the show, the collection of pots and pans, the multiple book deals… could be mine too. Why not me? I was doing all the right things. And yet the product line was at a stand still as they were waiting to see if I’d get a show. There’s a no show no deal caveat because you can’t sell enough without it. What happened next? I would have pushed myself harder had I not gotten sick. Depression. Double kidney infection. My adrenal glands and thyroid were out of whack so that led to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Overall, I was living in a mental fog with blurry vision, hair loss. I felt depleted and really started to see age in my face. I also went through a series of MRIs to investigate a lump in my throat. Had a biopsy and, thankfully, it turned out to be benign. How were these issues treated? With bed rest, and I have to take thyroid medication for the rest of my life. I spent a year and a half going through recovery and I’m always working on maintaining the necessary balance to keep my hormones on track. How does exercise factor in? I work with a trainer. Endurance tests keep me in my body, which engages my mind. I’m a competitor and I’m best when competing against myself. A healthy diet is obviously important to you. I am a vegetarian who keeps it plant-based and gluten-free. I do not eat anything white as those foods, along with animal protein, tend to exacerbate Hashimoto’s. These days I ask myself, with everything from food to friendships, Do I need that and how important is it? My time is not wasted on anything unless I choose to waste it.hollis-wilder Any personal practices, like meditation or yoga retreats? I did yoga for 18 years, but prefer pilates and meditation these days. Every couple of years I go to Sedona to shut down. Is that a resort you go to? No, there is nothing pretty about it. I have to forage in the wilderness, go on hikes in cold conditions and eat nuts and berries. Literally living in a cave. I found out about it through a spiritual environmentalist. I guess we all need to find the place where we can disconnect. I had to do that. Along with a lot of internal review and disconnecting from my ego-based messaging. The hard, personal stuff to talk about is the childhood victimization I experienced. As an adult, I needed to have a deeper conversation with myself.  It was when I got sick… I was ready to hear the rest of my story, and tell the truth in that moment. I still had a lot of fear I needed to shed. There was a reclaiming of myself that needed to happen. Through recovery, and having a small support group of friends that I can be honest with, has changed everything for the better. Any book authors you recommend? I like Alan Watts and Brené Brown. Reading Mary Shelley offers me an understanding of the minds cobwebs – hers, mine, ours. I’m fascinated by the mind. I am also interested in the law of attraction and use daily affirmations. Web sites? 3QuarksDaily is an eclectic digest of science, art and literature. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? At the moment I feel more youthful and energetic than ever. Just preserving my energy and living in the day, detached from outcomes. I’m focused on being completely in love with my kids and having the best time with them. As far as work, a local company has asked me to start teaching events that will utilize my sweet and savoury talents. I’m going to be volunteering at Leu Gardens. I’m looking forward to taking direction and being less of a chief. How would you describe yourself today? Courageous. I am in a great place where I can let myself feel incredibly successful. I mean, my parents gave me $500 when I left home at 16 and said “Good luck”… I survived and, in the end, things turned out amazing because of the choices I’ve made. I am starting to accept speaking engagements where I can share more about my journey and shine a light on the dark side of seeking fame and fortune. I also want to talk about childhood victimization and the process I am going through of unsticking myself from the story. I would like to have those deeper conversations and help people. What else? Well, I got a call from the Food Network a couple of weeks ago about two new shows. I said I was interested, so we’ll see. I’d like to see if I can use my heart instead of my head this time.   Visit SweetbyHolly.com and follow Hollis on Twitter @HollisWilder.

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