Controversial Crush: Padma Lakshmi
In the series Controversial Crush, we dote on controversial women and tell you why.
Can Padma Lakshmi cook? That’s a very good question, and one which this article will not attempt to answer. According to this very scientific Twitter poll I conducted, most people have no idea. Literally no one is convinced she can cook, and a lot of people vehemently believe she can’t. Padma, her haters argue, should not have been made the host of Top Chef, she shouldn’t have published any of her cookbooks, and she has no authority to tell you what’s what in the food world.
Over the past few days, Padma has been in Mumbai, promoting her new makeup line for MAC (which, you have to admit, looks pretty nice). In this time, Padma has visited famed South Mumbai kebab spot, Bademiya; shopped for mangos at Colaba Causeway (if you don’t live in Mumbai: this is not a thing people do); and posed on her glitzy Taj Mahal Palace Hotel balcony. Throughout her visit, locals have questioned the authority with which she has recommended the “best” of the Indian food world — how much does she really know about either Mumbai or food?
I have never tasted Padma’s cooking, so I can’t tell you if she knows what she’s talking about or whether or not she can cook. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t matter. What Padma can do, amazingly well, is hustle, and that’s why I love her.
Another thing Padma receives a lot of flack about is her choice in men: usually (much) older, and always rich. Her first was high-profile author Salman Rushdie: They married in 2004, and were together for three years. She was his fourth wife; he left his third to be with her (although it’s been years, she’s never quite been able to shake that homewrecker narrative). After that, she was with venture capitalist Adam Dell (brother of Michael, of Dell computers fame), with whom she had a daughter and a bitter custody battle. She was simultaneously dating 80-year old billionaire Teddy Forstmann, who wrote her daughter, Krishna, into his will even though he wasn’t the father.
Evidently, there’s a “gold digger” narrative to be unpacked here. First and foremost, the word “gold digger” is irrevocably gendered. It really only ever refers to women, and when it does refer to men, people preface it with the word “male,” because the word on its own is assumed to describe a female. Think about it: If Padma was, instead, a man with several TV shows and books under his belt, would he be called a gold digger for only dating successful women? Maybe, but probably not as ubiquitously.
Second: What’s so wrong about gold digging? Why shouldn’t I go after rich men, given that they’re making one dollar to my 80 cents? Wouldn’t I just be evening out their unfair advantage? If Padma is indeed going after old, famous, rich men just for their money, my only thought is: more power to her.
Though Known Creep Salman Rushdie is universally reviled for his misogynistic tendencies, he somehow managed to portray himself as the victim in their divorce. This is particularly startling when you look at Padma’s account of the marriage in her 2016 memoir, where she writes about how her endometriosis prevented her from enjoying sex — which Rushdie apparently took personally and made her feel bad about. According to her, he became increasingly absent, until Padma ultimately filed for divorce. Still, she notes that the two are now friends and she affectionately refers to him as “our Hemingway.” In contrast, Rushdie calls her “vapid” and “brattish” in his 2012 memoir. (He also referred to her as “The Illusion.”)
Clearly, Rushdie was not as much of a victim as he would have us believe. In fact, Padma may be seen as a homewrecker for being the woman he left his third wife for, but Rushdie left his second wife for his third in the exact same way. Who’s the real homewrecker here: Padma, or Rushdie? (Hint: It’s Rushdie.)
The other problem with Padma’s marriage to Rushdie is that people attribute it as the sole reason for her fame. Here’s a quick Padma Lakshmi refresher course: Her career as a model launched in the 80s, and before marrying Rushdie in 2004, she’d already published a cookbook and hosted a series on Food Network called Padma’s Passport. She’d also had a terrible cameo in the terrible 2001 Mariah Carey movie, Glitter, but we all make mistakes.
More than anything, being associated with Rushdie has given Padma negative press. In a 2007 New York Times review of Top Chef, Frank Bruni sneeringly called her “Mrs. Salman Rushdie.” He also came up with this whopper, which drips with unbelievable sexism: “As she makes her costume changes you can almost read her thoughts: ‘Does this skirt go with hamachi?’ ‘Is this too much cleavage for a chicken liver canapé?’”
Much of Padma’s career has been plagued with stereotypes. Her Top Chef colleague, Tom Colicchio, told GQ that she didn’t order salads and that she “can eat” — only adding “she actually can cook pretty well, too” as an afterthought. When it’s not sexism, it’s racism. In 2014, protesters disrupted filming for Top Chef, calling Padma a “c***” and a “f****** towel head.”
If you take issue with the fact that she later had more than one boyfriend at one time, I raise you a Hugh Hefner. Padma wrote in her memoir that she regrets dating both Forstmann and Dell at the same time — I do not, however, feel the same regret. Men are constantly juggling women, and are praised for it. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to do the same without any negative judgments on our characters?
Beyond all these supposed shortcomings, in interviews, Padma comes across as eminently reasonable. In an interview with Health magazine, she called Western yoga, in so many words, cultural appropriation. She is unfailingly feminist. She has even experienced her fair share of imposter syndrome about not having a background in food (so she probably doesn’t need you to rub it in).
When I first saw Padma, it was on her Food Network series, Padma’s Passport. I didn’t know she was going to be involved with Salman Rushdie, or Adam Dell, or Teddy Forstmann. I just saw a beautiful fellow Indian woman, eating food in gorgeous locales and getting paid for it — and that’s what I still see. Sure, it might not be the most demanding job in the world, and it doesn’t seem to take much doing. But that might actually be the reason why it’s genius. I leave you with this: Do you know if Anthony Bourdain can actually cook?
This edition of Controversial Girl Crush comes to you courtesy of UB.