Single mother, or ambitious career woman: Padma Lakshmi on the roles of life that are more important
The stunning 47-year-old talks challenges, triumphs and morebrunch Updated: May 13, 2018 02:09 IST
A calm corridor lined with decorative wooden arches leads me to the Rajput Suite of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai. Inside, the drop dead gorgeous Padma Lakshmi, stripped of make-up, greets us in her bathrobe. Even at 47, Padma radiates beauty, and is in Mumbai to attend an event for M.A.C. The supermodel wears many hats. She is an actor, a television host, an author, a food expert, an activist and a single mom.
“I have been lucky to have fashioned a living out of what interests me. It takes you a while to realise what you are and what you want,” says Padma, who started off at 21 with a career in modelling, and married one of the most high profile authors of our times, Salman Rushdie, at 28. From being a glamour girl and one half of a celebrity couple to becoming a multi-hyphenate star, her journey has been long and one of self-discovery.
The role she enjoys the most is, of course, being mother to eight-year-old Krishna Thea Lakshmi-Dell. The tiny tot makes frequent appearances on her Instagram with the cutest hashtags ever – #littlehands!
But while Padma likes to be a fun mom, she also makes sure that she instils the values she holds dear in her daughter. For instance, Padma is part of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Known to be vocal about reproduction rights, immigration rights and women’s rights, she gave young Krishna a first-hand taste of activism when she was just five. The mother-daughter duo walked to school with Krishna holding a picket sign reading “We want books from home”. The bookworm wanted to protest her school’s directive of not allowing her to bring her favourite books to class. It was a token gesture, but that was Padma’s way of teaching her daughter to stand up for what she believes in.
Like every mother, Padma is concerned about the growing intolerance in the world. “Racism was always there in America, but under the Trump administration, the iron fist has lost its velvet glove,” she says. Although New York is a relatively safe city, she wants Krishna to be aware of the political realities.
“Racism was always there in America. but under the Trump administration, the iron fist has lost its velvet glove”
Meanwhile, she’s teaching her daughter to be aware of her Indian roots, travelling with her to India often, letting her great grandmother teach her to make dosas and dressing her in traditional clothes. “She’s still going to be much less exposed to Indian culture than I was, because she’s biracial,” says Padma. “Also, she’s never lived in India for a long stretch. She is just an American kid who eats dal at home and loves to wear bindis. She understands Tamil, but will not reply to me in Tamil. But she also has gaana classes at home every week – a guruji comes every week to teach her Carnatic music.”
The Indian in New York
When Padma was about two years old, her mom, a single parent, moved to the US. Over the next few years, she divided her time between her grandparents in Chennai and her mother in New York, before finally moving to the Big Apple in 1979.
In 1980s New York, when India was mostly perceived as a third-world country, Padma had a tough time. In her memoir, Love, Loss, And What We Ate, she mentions how she gradually learned that for many Americans, her skin colour was associated with stinky food, strange clothes and malaria-infested third world slums. The pressure to fit in made her change her name from Padma to Angelique during the four years of her high school. But she insists that although she faced racism, she never really struggled with her ‘Indianness’.
“I am as much a New Yorker as I am a Madrasi,” she says. “Even today, I speak Tamil when I am in Chennai.” But she will not be upset if Krishna doesn’t take to her Indian backstory. “I don’t really care if she wears jeans or saris. I care more about what kind of human being she grows up to be,” says Padma.
Padma got her first publishing contract when she was still in her 20s, but that was because of a marketing hook. “I had just done a movie (Caraibi) for which I had to gain 20 pounds. Modelling was my full-time career and I needed to lose that extra fat. So I did it in the healthiest way possible,” she says. “Disney had just acquired a publishing arm, and people are always curious to know what a model eats!”
“If you really want to know any city well, cab drivers are your best bet”
But Easy Exotic, a compilation of recipes and short essays, got the best debut award at the 1999 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. And today, Padma has five titles to her credit. “We are raised in a way where you are supposed to know your career path by 23; you should be engaged by 28; married by 30 and have your first kid at 34, and then be set in your ways,” says Padma. “But you are going to live till 80 or 90, so what do you do with the rest of your life?”
The culinary expert
Her stint as the host of the Emmy award-winning food show Top Chef, currently in its 15th season, is Padma’s most popular role. But her food career arose from her modelling career, not a culinary school or restaurant experience.
Travelling all the time, she would explore the local vegetable and spice markets, ask waiters at the five-star restaurants for recommendations, and also ask cab drivers where the best local delicacies were served. “If you really want to know any city well, cab drivers are your best bet,” she says.
...AND The activist
Padma is actively involved in spreading awareness about women’s reproductive health. In 2009, she co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America, which was instrumental in the opening of the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research.
“I suffered from endometriosis all my life and was never treated for it properly,” she says. “When I got better and saw how normal women lived during their periods, it got me terribly angry inside. It made me realise that there is misogyny even in healthcare.”
“I realised the misogyny in healthcare When I suffered from endometriosis. I got better and saw how normal women lived during their periods and it got me angry”
Most women’s health-related problems often go undiagnosed because of lack of knowledge about the symptoms, says Padma. “Most of these symptoms are such that people think you made them up. The disease develops in tandem with your womanhood. So, you get a very warped idea of your own femininity,” she says.
She has often mentioned her condition as one of the reasons why her relationship with Rushdie went south. According to her book, Rushdie accused Padma of using her endometriosis as an excuse not to have sex with him, and he went as far as calling her a “bad investment” because of her condition.
“The basic problem today is that girls have become liberated, but the boys have not caught up!”
It is not easy for a woman to talk about sexual health. “It was not like I wanted to go on national television and talk about my vagina. It is awkward. And not at all sexy. It was like whipping a band aid off. ,” Padma says. “But eight years later I am glad I did it. I didn’t want the next generation of women to go through what I had gone through.”
Her foundation educates boys as well as girls. “They need to understand the disease too. You can’t just educate half the population and expect an overall change. The basic problem today is that girls have become liberated, but the boys have not caught up!” says Padma.
The forever young
Padma Lakshmi is content with her life. At 47, she has got her first makeup contract: she has just designed a M.A.C capsule collection. Even this collaboration has its roots in her personal struggles. “If you are a woman of colour, it is a struggle to find make-up that will have good colour retention on your skin,” she says. “When you are a dark person, most Western make-up artists would put a dark eyeshadow on you. But I wanted to wear light colours too!”
This campaign is a landmark moment for another reason. “As a model in the 1990s, I worked a lot. But I never had a cosmetic campaign that’s considered the gold medal for modelling. So, to finally have one and for something I have designed at that, is kind of very sweet. And the fact that I am doing this at 47 says a lot about how the beauty industry is evolving,” she says.
“Surround yourself with people who have a positive influence on you. that works better than any beauty regime”
Looking the way she does means a lot of effort, Padma admits. “I have to take care of my skin, I have to use sun block, hydrate, exercise, eat right,” she says. “Also, happiness is a big factor in how you look. Surround yourself with people who have a positive influence in your life and that works better than any expensive beauty regime or any personal trainer. I am happier today than ever before. I don’t want to go back to my 20s.”
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From HT Brunch, May 13, 2018
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First Published: May 13, 2018 01:45 IST