Padma Lakshmi is a multihyphenated woman who speaks a global language. She has left a glittering trail of inspiration as she goes about creating new shades and easy exotic recipes.
By Nidhi Raj Singh
Not so long ago Padma Lakshmi would live life out of a suitcase. Madras, New York, Los Angeles, Madrid, Paris and pretty much everywhere her modelling and acting career would take her. Not much has changed. She was on a plane back to New York, the place she calls home now, after launching a capsule collection she created for M.A.C. in India this March.
Not that there isn’t enough to keep her busy — her writing, filming of the 16th season of
Top Chef, her daughter Krishna and her adorable coup of Padma’s playlist — she still finds ways to add another chapter to her life story. Why, you ask. “For so long, our needs have been ignored by makeup companies. To have makeup for brown skinned people, designed by a brown skinned person who uses makeup regularly, was exciting,” Padma says. She excitedly tells us about Mittai Pink lipstick in fuchsia shade, Moon & Shine, a two-toned blush with peach and pink shades, and 70s Sunset with shades called Mumtaz (pearl) and Cardamom (green). She has basically created a dream makeup kit she always wanted for herself since her modelling days.
At a time when Indian fashion scene was opening its naïve eyes to a bright new world, Padma was strutting down the runways half way across the world for Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace and Ralph Lauren. But, it wasn’t all rosy for a 21-year-old with a seven-inch scar on her right arm and a baggage of bullying because of her skin colour.
“I was very good at hiding the scar initially, perfecting a way to cross my arms to disguise it,” she recalls. It wasn’t until Helmut Newton took those hauntingly beautiful photos of her, almost making her scar a celebrity in its own right that she stopped wishing it away. Around the same time, a new kind of recipe was brewing in her mind. She was beginning to add another leaf in her life.
To keep fit, she did not stop eating. She just took the fat out of her favourite recipes. “And that’s precisely how my first cookbook came about. I had no idea that people would be interested in what a model eats,” Padma says. Easy Exotic won the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for Best First Cookbook in 1999. On a book tour, the Food Network offered her a show, catapulting her career as documentary and television show host. The rest might be history, but the beginning was intended differently.
For the girl who grew up inspired by Diana Ross as much as by Paul Newman, acting was her greater love. She studied to become an actor before she took up roles that earned her share of fame, but she still craves for meatier, more meaningful roles. Till then, she is busy with her television shows and books. In the last of her literary outing, a memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate, she gave a peek into her life. While we think it takes guts to put oneself out there, she feels it was cathartic for her. “The process of writing the memoir forced me to look at certain aspects of my life in a way I hadn’t considered before,” Padma says. For her, all relationships are different and have different effects on us. Life has been nothing less than a rollercoaster for her. And we are not just talking about her relationships with author Salman Rushdie, venture capitalist Adam Dell or Teddy Forstmann, former chairman and CEO of IMG.
Raised by a single mother, she shuttled between New York and Madras. Bullying was a part of her life at school in the US. Confused and angered, she turned towards the smells and sights of spices. It was at her grandparent’s place in South India that she picked up her cooking skills, observing her grandmother and aunts. A great cook and celebrated cookbook writer — she has also written Tangy, Tart, Hot and Sweet and Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs — does she find anything difficult to cook? “Baking! There is a comfort in the science of baking, but I rarely have all the ingredients I need. I do bake sometimes for my daughter, Krishna,” she exclaims. Apart from listening to her daughter’s playlist — that includes Camila Cabello, Meghan Trainor and Katy Perry — she also travels with her.
“Krishna is a great traveller, my best travel companion,” Padma says. Having photographed at numerous vacations with her, Padma understands the importance of dressing up well even on the go. “I have often been photographed at the worst possible moments, and so have learnt my lesson the hard way. This is why I carry a pair of Missoni ballerinas that fold up for the plane and chunky heels to get off the plane in style,” she adds. So, there is something called a travel wardrobe, except bikini for beaches, we ask? “I do think it’s nice to wear something super comfortable but it should also look elegant. There’s definitely an art to travel wardrobe.” She tries to dress like the locals when travelling, say, modestly in Jordan or Morocco, and wearing appropriate footwear for hiking in Bhutan. But, a jumpsuit is what she prefers, especially a denim one with zillions of pockets, to keep things handy. “I would live in a jumpsuit if I could,” she says.
But, there was a time when saris fascinated her. A four-year-old Padma would be mesmerised by Air India hostesses who would flutter by in printed silk saris, carrying their beauty cases, dashing off to some place exotic, may be Paris or Rome. “I am still allured by the mystery of travel. I, not only want to be a good traveller, but also want to look like one,” she says.
And as the first step of being a true blue globetrotter, she eats like a local. She not only asks the concierge where to eat, but also makes it a point to also take insider’s tip from the cab drivers on the way in from the airport. “I have had some of the best meals of my life that way,” she says, attributing her travels and attached experiences for teaching her a lot in life. Her recipes are only one of them.
Living in different continents and frequent travels allowed her to experience the way other people live. “It broadened my horizons and taught me, at a young age, how to adapt to unfamiliar situations,” Padma says. Even as a mother, she believes in empowering her daughter over protecting her from strange turn of events or strangers.
“I try to protect my child as much as I can, but one of the most powerful ways to protect her, is to teach her to be her own guardian and protect herself.” Parents need to give their children the language with which to refuse what they know is uncomfortable and inappropriate from any kind of predator, especially an authoritative figure. “My job as her parent is to equip her with tools she can use to protect herself when I am not with her,” Padma adds. She has been an active supporter of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements too. “I think the revolution has started. It was long overdue,” Padma says.
Seems being a multitasker is part of her personality… a supermodel, a passionate cook, an actor, writer, television show host (did we miss something?). Is that her instinct to satisfy her creative side or are these a line-up of backup plans? “Both. I get bored easily. And I am lucky to find professional outlets that are inherently of interest.” She considers herself a writer first though.
Her life has been an open book, having been written about in global media, but it feels that there is something we don’t know about her. “I am, sincerely, hard pressed to think of something that no one already knows about me — from my midnight snacking habit to my workouts. Maybe that I have taken up salsa dancing recently?” And there, she goes again, to explore (and conquer) a new territory.