May 3, 2019

Vogue India Exclusive: Padma Lakshmi on how age has only made her more fearless

Author, former model, television host, mother-of-one…Padma Lakshmi is described in many ways. But it’s her latest role, as a socio-political force, that makes her most compelling. Nick Remsen talks to Lakshmi about raising her voice and raising the next generation.

She spoke at ease and candidly about not necessarily finding her voice as she’s matured but rather raising it to a new decibel level: Lakshmi has become a sociopolitical force in the US, speaking for women’s and immigration rights as an ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union, establishing the Endometriosis Foundation of America (a condition from which she suffered), and shining a spotlight on a problem that is, distressingly, all too common: sexual assault. Earlier, in 2018, Lakshmi wrote a powerful and galvanising op-ed piece for the New York Times, stating that she had been raped over 30 years prior. Her decision to come forward with the disclosure was due to assault accusations surrounding the American judge Brett Kavanaugh, who was ultimately elected to the Supreme Court despite a tumultuously divided public opinion. She surmised her expanded influence candidly and eloquently during her introduction on Today: “Honestly, [before] I wouldn’t have said that I’m a very political person. But when you get older, you have a power you didn’t have when you were young.” In real time and in front of an audience of millions, this woman, a model—whose big break came when she caught the eye of the photographer Helmut Newton—turned actor, author, TV host and activist, voiced in that phrase just how comfortable she now feels in her own skin.

 Lakshmi’s dynamism—and resilience—is impressive. She’s the host of the double Emmy-winning television show, Top Chef. She has also written cookbooks and a memoir, after her modelling and acting careers. She is a mother—her daughter, Krishna Thea Lakshmi-Dell, is nine years old. And she is not hesitant about admitting it: she is an immigrant from Chennai, whose mother arrived in the US with only $100. Lakshmi sees herself as a global citizen, whose values were shaped by her Indian family and then morphed by witnessing and living in the world at large, with New York City being especially formative. The more one listens, and the more one observes, the more extraordinary Lakshmi’s power—newfound or otherwise—becomes. She sets a remarkable (and even ambassadorial) example as an Indian, female or male, on the international stage.

A RECOGNISED IDENTITY

“For so long, there weren’t that many Indians working in the media,” she says. “India is such a big country with so many customs, languages and religions that it’s hard to say any one person or idea applies to all of us. But, thankfully, we are better represented now. There are more Indian faces in the mainstream, like Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj and Mindy Kaling. I feel a lot less lonely.” Lakshmi continues, touching on the balance of her Western upbringing and her Indian heritage: “I never quite felt at ease with being that rare representative of Indian womanhood or culture because I didn’t myself know how to be that, or what exactly that even was. I was not quite Indian enough in India and too exotic in the US for so long. In a way, I feel the world has finally caught up.”

PAYING IT FORWARD

“I want to work on prose,” she says, regarding her next book. “But sometimes I struggle.” She would like “to produce shows for other women to be in. We have to create a culture, as women get more powerful, to help the younger generation of women. I have a handful of girls in their twenties whom I mentor. One is a cookbook author, one is a writer, one is a young entrepreneur in the food space. It’s not formal…it’s not through a programme or anything. Actually, one of these women came up to me, cold, at Bergdorf Goodman in New York when I was there with my mom. She didn’t know me personally, but she said she was a fan and really wanted advice. That was years ago. And we still talk now!”

As projects in the pipeline go, Lakshmi says she has a “couple of things in development. One of them is a food-based show that’s more international. One is also a scripted pilot that has a woman in her late thirties in the centre, who happens to be Indian American. “I don’t want to play that role. I think there’s a great actress out there who should play that role and have a chance. It is written and I’m producing it and I’d love to see that come to fruition. These things take a while, though.”

Lakshmi also received a major accolade in early 2019: “This year, on International Women’s Day, I had the extreme honour of being officially named a United Nations Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador. This wasn’t something that I could have ever planned for, but I think that all my advocacy work has been about equality in some form or another. I’m looking forward to building off of my experience, on an international scale. Also, I was recently appointed a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology! Some of my relatives are finally impressed with that one!”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Lakshmi is that, for her influence and celebrity, she prefers the simpler things that life offers. That, no doubt, links back to the lessons and morals her grandmother in Chennai imparted years ago. Instead of a “fancy, drawn-out haute cuisine meal… despite having analysed food my whole life… I’d prefer to go to a kebab stand in Mumbai late at night,” Lakshmi says. “It’s a better way to get to know people.” She also adds that, speaking to a larger point, she’d like to connect more with India, “to see places I’ve never been.” “Going forward,” she says, “I’d like to have a more consistent grown-up presence in India. I want to have a relationship with the India I don’t yet know.”

Read the complete interview in Vogue India’s May 2019 issue that hits stands on May 6, 2019. Subscribe here

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