Morning show audiences accustomed to light fare were thrown off when Padma Lakshmi got deep on Today this week.
The model turned Top Chef host was promoting her new memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate. But Lakshmi seemed less interested in selling a book than in making sure we take her seriously now, as an activist and a writer.
“I think we all need to have an open discussion–as women, as immigrants, as women of color, as mothers—about our body, about work, about how sometimes it takes longer to become who you’re going to be,” she told host Tamron Hall.
She made a pact with herself when writing the book “to be truthful and really tell my story in a non-filtered form... to own my history.”
Not that we didn’t take her seriously before, but we’ve rarely seen Lakshmi demand it from us in the way that, well, prominent writers and activists frequently do.
Lakshmi has occasionally advocated for women’s rights. She’s published bestselling cookbooks, as well as fashion and food columns in Vogue and The New York Times. But the memoir is different. Not only is it a deeply revealing and personal book, but an evocative one filled with lovely turns of phrase.
The book leaves little unsaid about her high-profile relationship with the author Salman Rushdie, which ended bitterly in 2007 after eight years together, including three years of marriage. (Rushdie wrote unfavorably about Lakshmi in his 2012 memoir, Joseph Anton, his code name after a fatwa was issued by Iran’s former supreme leader in 1989, calling for Rushdie’s death over his supposedly blasphemous book, The Satanic Verses.)
Lakshmi was in her late twenties when they fell in love—“I was young, starstruck, and lovestruck,” she writes—and moved in together in New York. But as Lakshmi moved beyond modeling to acting, reality TV cooking shows, and eventually Top Chef, she claims life with Rushdie, who was 23 years her senior, became increasingly difficult.
He was jealous, selfish, frosty, childish, and insecure. He was unenthusiastic about her being featured on the cover of Newsweek; annoyed whenever a painful gynecological disorder got in the way of their sex life (he thought she wielded it as an excuse to avoid sleeping together). At one point he called her a “bad investment.”
Rushdie did not dwell much on Lakshmi in his memoir, but her name was never invoked kindly. He referred to her as “the Illusion,” a beautiful but vain and socially ambitious woman who ditched him once her career had taken off—when she no longer needed his social and intellectual prominence.
“Her feelings for him—he would learn—were real, but they were intermittent,” he wrote. “She was ambitious in a way that often obliterated feeling.”
Lakshmi at least writes lovingly of her ex-husband, leavening the bad with the good. She also makes it clear that she was just as insecure as he was.
Early on in their relationship, she was anxious about talking to his intellectual friends at dinner (Susan Sontag and Paul Auster among them), “in constant fear that my English-lit-class knowledge would extinguish itself midsentence.” So she cooked for them because she “felt confident in the kitchen.”
She stroked his ego, and he felt insecure around her own growing success. When she was featured on the cover of Newsweek, she writes that he said, “That’s great, I’m happy for you. The only time Newsweek put me on their cover was when someone was trying to put a bullet in my head.”
On Rushdie’s lack of empathy for Lakshmi’s chronic pain due to endometriosis, she writes: “‘Of course,’ he said. ‘How convenient for you. It’s not your period and it’s not ovulation. What is it this time?’”
Still, she conceded that he “felt justifiably rejected,” and that her “need for reinforcements”—like having her doctor explain the condition—“though I didn’t understand it at the time, reflected a rift in our relationship that grew ever wider.”
She also writes about having “daddy issues” (her father was not present in her childhood) and of wanting desperately to be appreciated and known for more than her beauty, though it’s not always clear if Lakshmi truly believes in herself—even now.
After splitting from Rushdie, she became enamored of another older man, a billionaire named Teddy Forstmann, who was chairman and CEO of IMG when they met.
She admits she sought a mentor figure in him as well, and that he helped her launch her own line of jewelry.
He was less emotionally needy than Rushdie and loved her unconditionally—so much so that he did not cut her out of his life after learning she was pregnant with another man’s child.
That man was Adam Dell, to whom she was briefly romantically linked. He is the father of her daughter, Krishna. She and Forstmann remained together until he passed away in November 2011.
Tamron Hall was right on when she noted during her interview with Lakshmi that Love, Loss, and What We Ate is “relatable in so many ways.”
Perhaps not, however, when it comes to consuming one’s own innards. “The decision to consume my placenta was not an easy one,” she writes. Lakshmi was told that some women resort to this form of cannibalism to quell postpartum depression.
“Now, a couple of years on, I’m quite proud of eating my placenta. Our own bodies can give us a lot. I felt self-reliant and earthy, but of course I had not been the one standing there at the stove watching my flesh boil. I was thankful I had trusted friends and colleagues who would do it for me.”
Even if Lakshmi has led a more charmed life than most of us, she certainly comes off as humble and grateful for it in her memoir. On several occasions, whether writing of Rushdie’s frustration with her as a wife or of Forstmann’s anger at the news that she was pregnant from an affair, she asks rhetorically: “Who could blame him?”
She even credits Rushdie that his “love and support gave me confidence to pursue my writing in a way I might not have without him,” referring to her cookbooks and magazine columns.
Whether or not she believes in her intellect and talent as a writer, it’s clear she wants readers to believe in it. This time, there’s no doubt they will.
Love, Loss, and What We Ate is published by Ecco/HarperCollins.