October 2001

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The ground beneath her feet

One could argue whether Salman Rushdie fell in love with Padma Lakshmi for her looks or her personality. We may never know — but I’m willing to bet he fell in love watching her make a batch of Spanish olives.

On location in southern Spain for a recent installment of her cooking show Planet Food, Lakshmi dips her fingers gracefully into a wooden bowl and tosses plump black and green olives in a bath of salt water, hand-cut fresh fennel and other herbs.

Padma Lakshmi is tall and fine-boned, with caramel-coloured skin and waist-length wavy black hair. Her voice runs half a beat slower than most mortals’ — forcing the listener to slow down and pay attention. She’s as irresistible as her cooking.

Her appearances on Planet Food and another cooking show, Melting Pot, now seen on American cable television’s Food Network, have made hers a familiar face on TV. She’s in Mariah Carey’s debut film, Glitter, playing a would-be disco singer. And until September 11, Lakshmi was a familiar sight on New York society pages as well, seen on the arm of her companion, acclaimed and controversial author Salman Rushdie.

But the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the US Pentagon changed all that. Rushdie is lying low these days, and Lakshmi is refusing to talk about him to the press as a matter of security. “I just feel like that is a part of my life which is somewhat private,” Lakshmi says. “It’s important for me to keep something to myself.”

Lakshmi’s office had us sign an agreement before granting the interview. “You will not ask or discuss the recent and tragic events that occurred in New York with Padma,” it read. “You will not ask about the Middle East. You will not ask her any questions about her personal life in reference to her companion Salman Rushdie.”

“Frankly, I think we’re kind of old news,” says Lakshmi. “It’s nothing complicated. That’s the thing — I was somewhat known before I met him, because of my attributes. If someone is interested in me, then they’ll be interested in me for the right reasons — or else they weren’t really interested in me in the first place!”

Lakshmi was in Los Angeles on September 11 and saw the devastation in New York on her television. “It’s very sad, and very weird, and it didn’t seem real,” she says. “I grew up half in Chennai and half in Manhattan. When I was a little girl, my mother used to say, ‘If you ever get lost, look up, and when you see those twin towers you will know that is south. You can orient yourself from there. It’s like someone bombed my childhood playground.”

Before becoming a cookbook author of Easy Exotic and cooking show hostess, Lakshmi worked as a fashion model for some of Europe’s top houses, and appeared in a couple of Italian films.

In Glitter, Lakshmi adds an understated but aware comic presence as Sylk, a gorgeous but untalented disco singer who lip syncs to Carey’s flawless vocals. Seems Sylk is being groomed for stardom by a record-producing boyfriend, and until Carey’s vocal tracks are laid in over hers, we can hear Sylk’s wobbly and slightly off-key voice in all its splendour.

“I didn’t want to make it so burlesque that it was unbelievable,” she says. “So I made it bad, but not too bad.” And strangely enough, Lakshmi isn’t that bad a singer to begin with. “I grew up in a musical household, so I can sing a little bit. I don’t have an operatic range like Mariah does, but I can carry a tune.”

These days, she divides her time between New York and Los Angeles, where she started a production company, Lakshmi Films, six months ago. “It’s very small,” she says, but one of its projects will be a film she wrote and plans to direct, set in her native South India.

“I don’t want to make it seem bigger than it is!” she says with a laugh. “But I’m excited about it, and it allows me to exercise my love of movies in other avenues, instead of just waiting for someone else to decide that I’m perfect in this way or that way.”

All this focus on acting and producing has meant that she’s too busy to do the cooking shows any more — “I think I was sort of cooked out, anyway” — but since the shows are still airing, she still gets stopped on the street by fans. “People from all walks of life watch the Food Network,” she says. “Just half an hour ago, I went to the grocery store to get some ready-made food — some cold poached salmon, and I thought I would make a salad with that. I was tired and didn’t feel like cooking. And this guy looked at me and said, ‘Oh, so is this where you get your food?’ I thought, ‘Why is he saying that?’ and it took me five minutes to realise he had recognised me; I’m still getting used to people knowing who I am.”
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