Dec 9, 2007

A Taste of Fame

For a brainy model with a hot new cookbook, marriage to a literary superstar creates opportunities—and problems. Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi now has an empire in the making, but Salman Rushdie won’t be part of it.

Padma Lakshmi, model turned foodie, photographed at Freemans, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Photograph by Alexi Lubomirski.

She walked the red carpet that night with Helen Mirren and Queen Latifah and the ladies of Wisteria Lane. It was the 59th Primetime Emmys, and although she wasn’t there for the reason she’d always envisioned—her acting—it was, she said, “a big fucking deal.”

She could laugh over the fact that she was on a nominated reality show—she hated reality shows, except for Bravo’s Top Chef, which she hosted, murmuring alluring “Mmmm”s as she tasted food and delivering the signature ax line, “Please pack your knives and go,” all while looking like an earthly incarnation of Lakshmi, Hindu goddess of prosperity, her namesake.

Padma knew the acting thing would happen—she’d come a long way since appearing with Mariah Carey in Glitter (2001). She’d been in a Bollywood film and a British mini-series, and she had her own media company now, Delicious Entertainment. At 37, she was still one of the most beautiful women on the red carpet that evening, luscious in a white satin Dolce & Gabbana gown with a hint of nipple. She was proud to be the only Indian woman making the paparazzi scream her name—“Padma!” So what if it was because of food. She liked food.

“I never thought that this would be the way,” she told a reporter. “I never thought it would be food. But if you think about it, I’m the kind of girl who thinks about what she’s gonna cook for dinner when she’s finishing her lunch.”

“Padma Lakshmi,” she hoped, might one day be on as many food labels as “Paul Newman”—“a big hero.” Soon there would be Padma jewelry and fashion, “like Jennifer Lopez,” she said, and television and cookware, “like Martha Stewart.” In September, she sealed a major deal with IMG, the sports-and-entertainment marketing giant. “She has a global image and no end of ideas,” said John Steele, a senior V.P., “so we have multiple agreements.” “Like,” Padma said, “Tiger Woods.” How amazing was it that she, the daughter of a single mother who fled India to escape the stigma of divorce, was poised to become the first Indian woman with an American brand—perhaps the first to self-brand. “I’m as American as anyone else,” she has said.

“Everyone was an American now, or at least Americanized.… Even anti-Americanism was Americanism in disguise, conceding, as it did, that America was the only game in town.” So wrote her husband, Salman Rushdie, in Fury (2001), the novel he composed after leaving his third wife and moving to New York to be with Padma. If there was a sadness in her eyes in those pictures from the red carpet that night, it was because “I wish I could have shared this Emmy nomination with him.” Now they were divorcing, and, she said, “I’m really fucking sad.”

‘M mmmm, mmmmm, yummy.” On a summer night at Socialista, a noisy, glammy Cuban restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village, Padma Lakshmi was eating ribs, gnawing them to the bone, sucking the grease off her fingers. “Mmmm,” she said, “aren’t these good?”

She was wearing a diaphanous summer dress, smelling sweet and spicy, of her own bespoke perfume. Her shiny black hair was up in a loose bun which she would shake down and pin back again, kittenish and familiar.

She was drinking champagne, laughing loudly and merrily. She was talking about her breasts. “I got boobs at 17,” she said, remembering herself in high school in La Puente, California—“a pimple on the map between Hollywood and Disneyland where the girls were so mean. They’d say, ‘You look light-skinned, but you don’t be speaking Spanish!’ ” She does now, as well as Italian, Hindi, and Tamil.

“I went to India one summer and I came back with boobs. I don’t know what happened. I went to the boob ration line.” Padma laughed. “Where is it written that a smart woman can’t also be stacked?” she once asked in a column for Harper’s Bazaar entitled “Do You Dress for Men?” “My agenda,” she wrote, “arouse from a distance the object of my longing.”

Padma also writes. Her first book, Easy Exotic—a phrase to make a politically correct Yale professor split his jeans—won the 1999 Versailles World Cookbook Fair award for best cookbook by a first-time writer. Included in it were pictures of Padma which might be described as “foodie porn” (Padma in a lacy, low-cut dress, kneading dough; Padma in a silk slip, frying something up in a pan).

Her latest cookbook, Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet, was named after her preference for a contradiction in flavors, but could also suggest the many contradictions in its author, such as: she’s an educated woman—with a B.A. in theater arts from Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1992—who swears freely: “Finishing the fucking book was like being in labor for two years!”

She is East and West, also East Coast and West Coast, having grown up in India and America, New York and Southern California. In 1972, her mother, Vijaya, a nurse, moved to New York from Madras (now Chennai), after divorcing Padma’s father. (A retired Pfizer executive, he had no relationship with his daughter until recently.) Padma joined her mother two years later on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where they lived until 1983, when Vijaya took a job in Los Angeles. There, she married a plumber.

In 1992, Padma was spending a semester in Spain when she was discovered in a Madrid bar by a fashion agent. Her first runway show, for Ralph Lauren, “was Stephanie Seymour in front of me and Christy Turlington behind me,” she remembers. She wasn’t fully embraced by the fashion world, however, until she was photographed partially nude by Helmut Newton, who saw beauty in her imperfection. Another contradiction: Padma is a beautiful woman who is scarred. An accident on the freeway coming from Malibu when she was 14 shattered her right arm. (The car she and her mother and stepfather were riding in was rear-ended and fell down an embankment.) An operation left a crosshatched scar. She has made it her trademark.

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