Domestic Goddess. That was always how we were meant to see Nigella Lawson. Hell, she even put that helpfully in the title of her second book, How To Be A Domestic Goddess, for those of us who were too thick to get it.
And Domestic Goddess she certainly was. The voluptuous Earth Mother, cleavage quivering like the creamiest blancmange, as she bent over the stove to create one stunning treat after another. She smiled beautifically at the camera, dipped her fingers into chocolate sauce and licked them clean, rustled up amazing three-course meals for her friends in a fairy-light-bedecked living room, while her two young children, Cosima and Bruno, ran around looking absolutely adorable in the background.
Who could possibly resist? Not me. I loved her (and still do) from the moment she first hoved into view in her first TV series, Nigella Bites, cooking in her home kitchen in her London flat and making it all look so easy. By the time the second season was being filmed, though, the idyllic home life portrayed on camera was an elaborate fiction. While Nigella fried and roasted and baked and the kids romped about, her first husband, John Diamond was in the bedroom, battling the throat cancer that first took his tongue and then his life. But you could have never guessed the trauma that Nigella was going through behind the brilliance of that on-camera smile.
In that sense, Nigella was less TV cook and more accomplished fiction writer. Like the best novelists of our times, she created a perfect, rose-tinted world in which it was forever summer and drew us in with its promise of sunshine and double chocolate cake until we wanted nothing more than to be a part of it. As we watched Nigella go shopping for organic meat and vegetables, throw together a superb dinner (“Easy-peasy”, she assured us), pour herself into a cocktail dress and greet her guests with a glass of champagne in hand, we knew that this was the life – and we wanted a part of it, if only as gawping viewers.
But the fiction served a greater purpose than mere TV ratings. The persona of the Domestic Goddess proved to be the perfect cover to hide behind as Nigella endured a third bereavement (she had already lost her mother and her sister to cancer). The second season of Nigella Bites premiered a week or so after her husband’s funeral, and watching those shows now, I can’t help but wonder if Nigella was conjuring up those images of domestic bliss on television in the hope that life may soon imitate art.
If she was, then it worked brilliantly. She found love again with art collector and former adman Charles Saatchi, and the two of them moved in together and then married to play blended families with her two kids and his only daughter, Phoebe. They have been married ten years and in this phase of her life, Nigella has gone from strength to strength (her net worth is now said to be in the range of 20 million pounds). Since her first cookbook How To Eat (the title was suggested by John Diamond) became a best-seller, she has produced nine more books, presented several TV series (Nigella Feasts, Nigella Express, Nigella Kitchen, Nigellissima) and is now going on to conquer America with a new food show, The Taste, in which she is a judge.
But if Nigella was just Superwoman – which she manifestly is – then we would just admire her; and maybe just resent her a teeny tiny bit. The reason we love her is because she is also Everywoman. She has seen loss, suffered through tragedy, wrestled with every challenge life has thrown her and emerged triumphant in the end, gorgeous smile intact. That is the woman that all of us knew and loved. And when that picture-perfect persona was shattered before our very eyes with the publication of those photos of Charles Saatchi’s hands around the throat of our heroine, we felt a very personal sense of betrayal. Shock was followed by outrage, and then with reams of unsolicited advice for Nigella.
Get the hell out of your marriage. Dump that bully of a husband. He doesn’t deserve you. Stand up for yourself. Be a role model for other women. Don’t take this nonsense. Yes, I know that all of us feel for Nigella Lawson right now. But let’s not forget that nobody knows how to live her life better than Nigella herself. Even if the Domestic Goddess has been turned into a Poster Girl for Domestic Violence with those pictures, that is not the image that will come to define her.
If the past has taught us anything it is that Nigella Lawson is The Great Survivor. Today she may be wandering wanly around the streets of London, pale-faced and hollow-eyed, as low-life packs of paparazzi hound her every move, and the tabloids put her on Divorce Watch (her wedding ring is off! It is still off!!). But before we know it, she will be back, having re-invented herself for another stint in the sun. We just need to give her time and space to make sense of this phase of her life – and move into the next.
From HT Brunch, June 30
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