Disgraced chef PAULA DEEN’s marriage in turmoil as sources say divorce may be imminent!

PAULA DEEN fans across the country were stunned by her headline-making emotional breakdown before 1,500 cheering admirers – but The ENQUIRER has learned the devastating secret behind her tearful outburst.

After agonizing for more than a year over her crum­bling marriage, the scandal-plagued queen of southern cooking was overwhelmed by new fears that she’s headed for a $20 million divorce, a source says.

What’s more, we dis­covered the REAL reason that her embittered hus­band of nine years, Michael Groover, stood by her side in Houston as she launched her attempted comeback at the Metro Cooking & Enter­taining Show.

“For months, Michael wanted to get away from the limelight created by Paula’s scandal,” a close source told The ENQUIRER. “But Paula pleaded with him to stand by her as she tries to resume her career. Despite their marriage woes, Michael realizes that he and Paula have to keep up appearances so her business can thrive again.

“Now she’s scheduled to have several more public appearances and pleaded with Michael to join her. With the family encouraging him, Michael caved in and said he’d be there for her as she gets her business going again.”

Paula’s brand and image were destroyed early this summer after The ENQUIRER revealed exclusively that, during a court deposition, she’d admitted to using an ugly racial slur. She was ousted from the Food Network chan­nel, lost a lucrative book deal, and major chain stores stopped selling her products, severing ties with her.

The 66-year-old TV cook recently chose Houston to begin her comeback because as she told the cheering crowd: “Y’all’s hearts are as big as your state.”

But her fans, who gave her a two-minute standing ovation, never dreamed that the show of support by her 57-year-old tugboat captain husband was fake, an insider says. In real­ity, said the source, he is furi­ous that Paula “had soiled his name” when she revealed in the deposition that he liked to tell racial jokes.

The bombshell deposition came during a discrimination lawsuit filed by a former employee. The lawsuit was dismissed in August, but an insider says the legal action marked the death knell for Paula’s marital relationship.

“Her marriage has been struggling for well over a year,” said a source, who predicted that it would end in a multimillion-dollar “divorce nightmare in the near future.”

The source added that, in the source’s opinion: “The overwhelming sadness that Paula’s been carrying around has finally been surfacing in uncontrollable crying fits. While the marriage has been showing signs of weakness for quite some time, the stress of the racial scandal really took its toll.

“Paula nearly became a recluse. She insisted on spending her days alone and withdrew from almost every­one, including Michael.

“And when Paula lost her endorsement deals, there were new issues facing the marriage, mostly having to do with finan­cial fears.

“Rather than let the smallest issues roll off their backs like they were able to do early on in their marriage, Paula and Michael got into heated arguments, and during these nasty bust-ups they bick­ered over the most trivial matters. It was devastating for Paula. Their friends are convinced the marriage won’t survive all this turmoil and in the end Michael will walk away and file for divorce. Paula knows it can’t go on like this much longer – some­thing in the marriage has got to give!”