Padma Lakshmi is the Biggest Indian American Celebrity Ever. If You Don’t Agree, ‘Please Pack Your Knives and Go’
- Supermodel, author, and activist returns as the host of “Top Chef” for its 20th season making her one of the most successful global media personalities.
She was an Indian American celebrity before Indian Americans were a thing in American public perception. She was the world’s first supermodel of Indian descent. She was a staple in the Bold Face columns of celebrity magazines when they were still a thing on newsstands. She was in the crosshairs of paparazzi lenses long before she married and hurriedly divorced Salman Rushdie (one can imagine her telling him to “Please pack your knives and go,” her signature line in “Top Chef.”) Her Indian name recognition among Americans probably exceeds that of Kamala Harris. Yes, Padma Lakshmi has been an author, celebrity chef, television host, and activist for at least the last quarter century. And she is shining brighter than ever, putting paid to the notion that women over 50 are past their prime.
Padma Lakshmi is the reigning queen of TV ratings as the host of “Top Chef,” which began its 20th season this week. The reality series is one of the most popular shows not just in America but across the world garnering tens of millions of viewers. She has been hosting the show since its second season nearly 17 years ago. She also hosts another popular show “Taste the Nation,” which showcases her other compelling interests, particularly her liberal political views on matters of race and immigration. Speaking to The Guardian she said that the show was conceived as a creative, tangential response to the prevailing narratives, the othering of migrants, and to forward the agenda of people like Trump.” The second season of “Taste the Nation” is scheduled to start in early May.
As Gotham magazine puts it, “the secret sauce that explains Lakshmi’s legendary success: equal parts brilliance, beauty and charisma—with a dash of championing communities and a heavy, heavy roux of hustle and hard work.”
Unlike other Indian Americans who lately made it in showbiz, including Priyanka Chopra, Mindy Kailing, etc., benefiting from the onset of the era of diversity and representation, Padma Lakshmi never resorted to her ethnicity to succeed in her myriad careers. She was a successful model at a time when racism was common in the 90s fashion industry. And so she added many other qualifications to her resume to make it in a white, white world, as it were.
And her successes did not come as a result of a PR-driven cultivated image either, if anything, she defied norms of success baring her soul — personal, professional and political. In 2018, for instance, when President Trump was vilifying Christine Blasey Ford’s revelations about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, she wrote a shocking article detailing how she was a victim of date rape when she was just 16 and like Blasey Ford did not come out then itself.
“I didn’t report it. Not to my mother, not to my friends and certainly not to the police,” she wrote, adding “I began to feel that it was my fault. We had no language in the 1980s for date rape. I imagined that adults would say: “What the hell were you doing in his apartment? Why were you dating someone so much older?” In the same article, she explained her reasoning about why women remain silent with an even more shocking revelation.
“When I was 7 years old,” she wrote, “my stepfather’s relative touched me between my legs and put my hand on his erect penis. Shortly after I told my mother and stepfather, they sent me to India for a year to live with my grandparents. The lesson was: If you speak up, you will be cast out.”
Those experiences have influenced the way she raises her 13-year-old daughter, Krishna Thea Lakshmi-Dell, she had with Dell Computers founder Adam Bell. She told The Guardian, “I always tried to give her the language to defend herself so that she’s got two or three sentences in her pocket. When she went to preschool, right away, I said if anybody touches you, or makes you feel uncomfortable, or makes you touch them, just say ‘no’, really loud. I think most of us are so unaware that we’re kind of shocked that it’s even happening to us.”
In her 2016 memoir “Love, Loss and What We Ate,” Padma Lakshmi also revealed how she suffered from an ailment that led to the break up of her marriage to Rushdie (who was reportedly unsympathetic to her illness and called her “bad investment”). She revealed that from the age of 13, she suffered from endometriosis, “a disorder in which tissue that normally lines the uterus grows outside the uterus,” which went undiagnosed for over 20 years, mostly because of gender bias in medicine. “If I had erectile dysfunction, there would be many drugs for me. But for endometriosis, not one,” she told The Guardian.
Padma Lakshmi is the cofounder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America. In fact, all the humanitarian and political causes she is associated with have a personal connection — from campaigning for ACLU issues to being a Goodwill Ambassador to the UNDP. “All the things that I support are things that I have a natural affinity toward or some personal connection with,” she told Gotham. That explains her devotion to the cause of women’s right to choose. She recently told People magazine how a car crash left her mom Vijaya with injuries that were so severe she needed to seek an abortion because her body was unable to sustain the child she was carrying. “I felt very sorry for my mother, but I thought she was making the right decision,” she recalled saying the walk to the Planned Parenthood center proved traumatic as it meant passing a group of anti-abortion activists gathered outside.”
As The Guardian eloquently says, Padma Lakshmi’s “career is a balance of light and shade, a subtle, imaginative answer to the question of how to contest the bigotry that is so prevalent in the current discourse. You start with a burrito, meet the guy who made it and see where you land.”
I like Padma Lakshmi (indeed, my own daughter is called Padma, although not in PL’s honour), but if she’s the best we have to offer the US, I’m a bit disappointed!