Padma Lakshmi, Model, Actor And TV Host, Says Above All, She's A Writer

Sep 4, 2020

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. We're devoting this show to revisiting interviews with some of this year's Emmy nominees. Today's guests are competing against each other at the Emmys. Both are nominated for outstanding host for a reality or competition program, and both are executive producers of their shows, which are nominated for outstanding competition program. Our guests are Padma Lakshmi for "Top Chef," the cooking competition show from Bravo, and RuPaul from "RuPaul's Drag Race" from VH1.

We'll start with Padma Lakshmi. She's hosted "Top Chef" for all of its 17 seasons, along with co-host and fellow nominee Tom Colicchio. Lakshmi began her career as a model and actress. She's also a cookbook author and wrote a memoir called "Love, Loss And What We Ate." Recently, she's created and hosted a new series on Hulu called "Taste The Nation," in which she traveled across the U.S., learning how foods from different countries brought here by immigrants contribute to what we think of as American food. Terry spoke to her when that series premiered in July.

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TERRY GROSS: Padma Lakshmi, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your new series.

PADMA LAKSHMI: Thank you.

GROSS: How did you go from being a model and then an actress to food, to writing about food and hosting TV shows about food?

LAKSHMI: I never intended to have a career in food. I didn't know anybody who did, so it never crossed my mind. I always loved to cook. You know, I was a theater major and an American lit major. And afterwards, I modeled because I started doing it for the money, and it allowed me to pay off all my college loans, which were quite significant. And then I started auditioning.

And I - when I did my first movie - it was a costume drama, and I played an Indigenous woman. I was friendly with some actors who had been to my home and had eaten my food and then had a meeting at Miramax, actually. And, you know, then I went to this premiere, and they said, oh, I think I've heard of you. Are you a model? Did you cook? Do you have a scar on your arm? I said, yes. They said, oh, they said you were a really good cook. I just happened to be with these people. And I said, yeah, it's always been a fantasy of mine to write a cookbook. Because I would always carry a spiral notebook when I went to relatives' houses, and I would always jot down recipes.

So - and I always collected. If I had any disposable income, I would use it to buy cookbooks in my teens and 20s. And so I said, OK. And I was terrified 'cause I'd never written anything, you know, beyond an article for my school paper. And so I wrote three recipes. I remember I typed three recipes out. I didn't even have a computer then; I did this on an electric typewriter. I made one of the recipes with my mother, put it in a Tupperware dish, and then I wrote an essay, like, literally a school paper, about why I love cooking.

And I took that, and I flew to New York, and I went straight to the publisher's office, and I presented the publisher with the recipe. I said, you know, just eat this tonight, warm it up in the microwave, and I handed it to her. And that is how I got my publishing contract. You know, I don't think that they thought I was going to make some big splash in publishing or the food world; I think it was a marketing ploy. I think, you know, they wanted to capitalize on the fact that everyone does want to know what a model eats.

And the truth is, models are freaks of nature. We are not normal people, and we're just born this way because of a genetic cocktail that our parents gave to us. You know, most of us have a really high metabolism.

GROSS: So one of the episodes in your new series is devoted to Indian food and to your mother's cooking. What are some of the foods that you grew up with?

LAKSHMI: I grew up eating dosas, which is featured in that episode, which is a rice and lentil crepe with fermented batter. You know, the south of India doesn't really use wheat. That is usually something that's in the north. And so I grew up with Southern Indian foods. But my mother did remarry a North Indian, so we do have North Indian food, too. We ate a lot of beans. We ate a lot of lentils. We ate a lot of vegetables. And then, you know, my mother for a time was a single parent here, and there were things that we couldn't get readily in those days, and so she would make do.

And she would buy cream of wheat, for example, use a box of Cream of Wheat to make a dish called upma, which sort of has the consistency of stuffing, say, but it's made on the stove. And, you know, I love upma. It's an easy thing to make quickly with some sauteed vegetables. But my mother couldn't find the right type of flour, which is called sooji in Hindi or rava in Tamil. And so she would use Cream of Wheat. When I started making upma, you know, when I was in college, I used couscous. And nowadays, I make upma with quinoa.

And I think immigrant foods are really interesting because they're this third thing. You know, they're not traditionally, like, the food in the countries of origin, but they're not totally Westernized. And a lot of that, of course, happens because of necessity. When immigrants come here, typically, for the most part, both parents have to work, and, you know, so they streamline the cooking. I remember my mother used to make spaghetti upma, which was just this weird Frankenstein of a dish, but that I loved.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LAKSHMI: So we grew up eating a lot of that. I grew up as a vegetarian. You know, we're Hindu Brahmins, and I didn't really eat meat until, I would say, I was a teenager.

GROSS: Let's talk about the beginning of your professional life. You started modeling in Europe. When you were an exchange student in Madrid, you were spotted by somebody who thought you'd make a great model, and that's how your career started. When you started modeling, I don't think there were many or maybe even any people of Indian descent modeling in European or American magazines. Were you considered, like, an outsider because of that?

LAKSHMI: I mean, I think that was part of my appeal. You know, I really didn't start to feel attractive until I went to Europe. I knew, you know, I had a pretty face or whatever all growing up, but I didn't feel like I was beautiful or that kind of beautiful until I went to Spain and until this person sort of discovered me and told me that I could model. And that happened a couple of times in my career. You know, it also happened with Helmut Newton.

Because I have a big scar on my arm, which is 7 inches long, from a car accident I had at 14. And so, you know, these - I started modeling before the days of retouching. So I got really good at covering it with makeup, but still, it didn't dawn on me that I could actually make a living from my looks. So the fact that it happened at all was a shock to me.

But I do think that, you know, there weren't any Indian models at all. Maybe there was one here or there. But, you know, I was always the only Indian girl in any casting I went to. Since then, there are many Indian models, and they've, you know, done way more work than I ever did as a model. But I think just being the first gave me a little bit of a cachet.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned Helmut Newton, and, you know, he was famous for his - what can I say? - very, like, sexualized poses, often very S&M. He wanted you to show your scar, I think, as opposed to covering it up. What's one of the more unusual poses that he wanted you to take or unusual clothing or lack of clothing (laughter) that he wanted to shoot you in?

LAKSHMI: It's really interesting because when I got the job with Helmut, you know, everyone in the agency in Italy was so happy. It was like, oh, my God. You got booked with Helmut. And as the days wore on and the shoot was going to happen, I started getting nervous because it was supposed to be a nude shoot, and I just didn't feel comfortable. And so I canceled on Helmut Newton three days before the shoot. And I was - I went from being the most popular girl in the agency to the least likable person (laughter) in the agency because of that.

But I just didn't feel good about it. And then he called back, you know, thankfully. And he said, well, OK, she doesn't have to be totally nude. What if she's just partially nude? And, you know, just - she can keep her knickers on. And I was like, OK. And so he had me leaning back on this beautiful vanity at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo. I was stockinged, and I had a tea cup - or a coffee cup, I suppose - on my knee, and you just saw my - the bottom half of my face and my cleavage.

And then I started feeling comfortable with him. We talked a lot about his wife June, who's also a photographer, who I also shot with. And he just - he has the air of a very kindly grandfather or uncle. It's funny. The atmosphere in the studio was not sexual at all, but he really did like you to arch your body and elongate it. And the pose that he really wanted was me sticking my arm out so that the keloid in my scar - you know, it's a keloid scar, so the texture of the skin is a little more shiny. And he wanted that to catch the light. And you couldn't even see my face in it, which, frankly, was a relief in some ways because, you know, I also have these very conservative relatives all in India. And thank God this was before the Internet because, you know, you could do things and get away with them in Europe, and your family would be none the wiser.

GROSS: Did you think it was odd that he actually wanted your scar to be accentuated in the photograph?

LAKSHMI: At first I found it curious. It was also the moment of grunge, where there were a lot of tattoos and things like that. So, you know, I was happy that he loved my scar. This scar that I always tried to hide, this scar that always made me feel self-conscious all through my adolescence was what this famous fashion photographer thought was really cool and beautiful. And it really changed my opinion of my own body. It was a real lesson in self-esteem, and it was sort of the start of a journey of self-acceptance for me.

You know, it's really funny because when you're a round person and you live in a white world and you see nothing but white images on billboards, on the covers and inside magazines, on TV, you know, you kind of internalize a subconscious self-loathing about your skin color. And, of course, in Indian culture, there's a ton of colorism. You know, I remember my grandmother always admonishing me to take an umbrella outside so that I wouldn't get too much sun. We kids were, especially the girls, were discouraged from going out into the sun to play from the hours of 11:30 to 4:30.

And to this day I still have a problem sitting in the sun, you know, or swimming in the sun because I just feel like it doesn't seem right. I mean, and on the one hand, I think it saved me because they don't have a lot of sun damage, you know, for my age. But on the other hand, you know, those things that get told to you as you're a young girl and a teenager, they stick with you all your life. And now, you know, at almost 50 years of age, I feel so much better about my body, and I feel better about my physical self than I ever have.

BIANCULLI: Padma Lakshmi - Terry Gross spoke to her in July. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from July with Padma Lakshmi, the host and an executive producer of the Bravo cooking competition show, "Top Chef." The show is nominated for four Emmys, and she and co-host Tom Colicchio are nominated for outstanding host for a reality or competition program.

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GROSS: So let's talk more about your early background. Your mother came to the U.S. to escape a difficult marriage. You were 2. She left you behind with your grandparents until she could really get settled here and be confident that she could take care of you and support you. By the time she brought you over, you were 4. Do you remember being 2 years old when she went to America? Because I'm not sure I remember anything when I was 2.

LAKSHMI: I don't remember the day she left, but I remember sitting at the gate of the compound where my grandparent's house was. You know, they lived in a building - in an apartment building, and it had a sort of, you know, big gate. And I remember sitting there, and I remember my grandmother having to keep coming and bring me inside and saying, it's getting late. What are you doing just sitting here by yourself?

And I remember waiting for my mom to come home from the office in Amrica (ph), you know, that she was going to this place to work in Amrica - that's how I pronounced America - and that she would be home like everybody else eventually from work. I don't think I understood that America was a different country that was far away. And so I do remember just that gate. I remember the way that the cement step felt and sitting there because there was this bush with berries, and I remember picking those berries a lot.

GROSS: So when you joined your mother in New York, was she living alone? Had she remarried or anything? What was your family life like?

LAKSHMI: She was living alone. She had a small apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City. And she showed me around the apartment. She showed me how to use bathroom tissue because in India, we use water. So that was a change. The doorbell kept ringing because I arrived on Halloween night. And I saw this big platter of candy that I assumed was in celebration of me coming home. And she explained, you know, the concept of Halloween. And I thought, gosh, what a wonderful country. You know, you just dress up and they give you candy, anybody, even strangers.

GROSS: So when you were 7, at this point, you had a stepfather. And his brother, which was like your step uncle, touched you between your legs. And you told your mother. And then she sent you back to India. What was her reason for sending you away? And what was your interpretation as a child of why you were being sent away?

LAKSHMI: I think my mom just wanted to get me out of this situation quickly. You know, she was also studying for her master's degree at night. And she was a nurse in the daytime. I mean, that was her day job. And, you know, I think now, if you talk to her, she would tell you, I should have kicked him out of our house. But I don't think that my stepfather ever believed me. I remember talking to him about it and being very nervous. But I think that they got divorced because he, you know, didn't believe that this was the case. So I was on a plane very quickly to India, where I stayed for a year and a half. I, you know, did all of third grade and part of fourth grade in India.

And my impression was that I spoke up about what happened to me, and I was sent away. You know, as a 7-year-old, that is what it felt like. That is the evidence I had. You know, if my mother said, I'm sending you away just to keep you safe, it certainly didn't go in in any deep way. And so I think, you know, that went very deep. That experience really left its mark for a whole host of reasons. I think, you know, now my mother carries so much guilt about not only that episode but of having to leave me in India from the ages of 2 and 4, where I didn't see either of my parents. I have no connection to my biological father. They separated when I was 1. And they legally divorced when I was 2.

So, you know, to me, my grandparents functioned and my grandmother still functions as parents more than grandparents. And I'm very close to all my family in India. And I still go back very often. I think my mother, like most parents, did the best she could, but it was hard.

GROSS: Was one of the lessons that you took away from this that if something happens to you, you should keep it a secret?

LAKSHMI: I think one of the lessons that I learned and internalized was that you shouldn't make waves. You know, you'll just make it worse. And I think a lot of women feel like that about this topic. I also think a lot of immigrants don't want to give any excuse or give no quarter for being dismissed or, you know, not having an opportunity or not being able to stay in the country. I think both those things were at work.

GROSS: So did you return to your home in America after your mother divorced?

LAKSHMI: Yes, I did. In fact, when I returned, my mother had moved from Queens into Manhattan. She worked at Sloan Kettering, and at that time they had subsidized housing. So that's where we were.

GROSS: Your memoir from a few years ago ends with you thanking your grandparents for instilling in you the love of books and cooking. Tell us a little bit about that.

LAKSHMI: My grandmother is a very practical woman. She's not very affectionate. She's not, you know, very cuddly like most grandmas are. She grew up in a family with 17 siblings. And so she taught me how to be practical and efficient in the kitchen and how to do things properly. And she had a great, great palate and sense of cooking. And so I hung around her. And at the hem of her sari, I learned about all of these spices and how to use them and what they did.

My grandfather was one of the most well-read people I have ever met in my life to this day. He was somebody who quoted Wadsworth, you know, verbatim by heart. He loved books. He loved Shakespeare. He loved Americana. He had traveled through America in the '50s and '60s for work. And so he had a real affinity for American culture. And so, you know, through her, I have my skill as a cook and love of food. And through him, I have my love of books and of being a writer. You know, if you asked me, you know, of all the things I do, if I could say what am I in one word, I would say I hope I'm a writer.

GROSS: Well, I've enjoyed reading your writing. Padma Lakshmi, thank you very much for talking with us.

LAKSHMI: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure talking with you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Padma Lakshmi speaking to Terry Gross in July. Padma Lakshmi is nominated for Emmys this year as host and an executive producer for Bravo's "Top Chef." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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