Everyone knows who she’s seeing, everyone knows that she’s one of the best looking women on the planet. Is there more to her than that? We think so.

So pretty much everyone knows Padma Lakshmi. At least, everybody knows the two things about her that everybody thinks are important.

She’s really very beautiful. And she is, famously, the girlfriend of the heavy-lidded international novelist, who doesn’t really need any plugging here.

Both of these things are true. Which is why we, to be honest, pursued her to be in the mag in the first place.

But there is more to Ms. Lakshmi than the skin she lives in and the man she shares her life with. So let’s talk about that.

What she wants now, is recognition. And part of that, of course, is an actual intellectual appraisal of the person who is Padma Lakshmi. Apart from the beauty—a part of her, no doubt, but as she puts it, how much effort did she put in to being beautiful?—and aside from her famously intellectual partner.

The bald facts of her life are easily told. She’s a model, an actress, a film-producer; has been a variety show host (in Italy) and a cooking show host with Padma’s Passport, on cable TV in the US. She’s written a bestselling cookbook, based on her own recipes (yes, she’s good in the kitchen, as the photos might tell you), and is writing a screenplay. Along the way, she picked up a degree in Theatre Studies, speaks five languages fluently, laughs easily and well, has an appetite like a python, and has achieved the improbable by being that person who has actually already paid off her own college loans. And she isn’t, yet, 30.

So. That for all of you who think you know Padma, because you know she’s cute and you know who she’s going out with. Truth is, if you knew her, you’d want to be going out with her too.

Because she fills out the gaps between the bald facts so well.

The woman tells stories very easily, and she tells them well. As she says in a story she wrote herself for American Vogue, photographers and art directors and choreographers would have her cover the scar on her arm—acquired in a motoring accident while she was still a teenager—until she shot with Helmut Newton, who, by focusing on it, made her comfortable with it. Now, the scar’s almost her trademark.

She speaks easily about putting on weight for a movie she made a while back, weight that was deemed necessary for the part—the mind reels, doesn’t it, at the thought of an even more voluptuous Ms. Lakshmi—weight that had to be shed, post-movie, for modelling is far less permissive of surplus poundage than film is. So she tweaked her own cooking, to make the light food she had to live on palatable. And Easy Exotic, her book of recipes from around the world, was born.

She chats with a friend of mine in Spanish, learnt growing up in a ‘pretty tough neighbourhood of LA’, where she moved with her mother when she was still a child. She became fluent in Italian when she spent a few years in Italy, making movies, modelling, and hosting the most popular Sunday afternoon variety show on TV at the time, Domenica In. She makes the excellent point that one’s own personality changes, when you speak in different languages. You tend to be more voluble, perhaps, in Italian, more reserved in English.

And Tamil makes her innocent.

Hmm?

She was raised by her grandfather, a man who she still has a tremendous bond with; a character in his own right. A Tamil Brahmin in the Civil Service, he became a lawyer, post-retirement, at the age of 60, thereby fulfilling a lifelong dream. He fought and won the one case, and then he called that quits as well. Padma remembers spending time with him, growing up, and spending that time speaking a Tamil from which adult vulgarities, and perhaps, adult obfuscations, were mercifully absent.

Hence, the innocence. The bond between the two remains.

As does a shared thirst for questing. For Padma isn’t quite happy, being the successful model and TV show host. Even the movies she acts in are means to an end. The recent Mariah Carey opus-that-wasn’t, Glitter, had Padma in the role of a slightly evil diva. Even though the movie sank, Padma enjoyed the experience of a big Hollywood production, and the opportunity it gave her to be next to the people that matter in that setup.

For what she really wants, and she is very clear about this, is to be a filmmaker. The roles she does, the money she makes; it all gets ploughed back into her own production company, Lakshmifilms. She has just acquired the rights to a book called Domestic Arrangements, by Norma Klein, a book that Padma says played a huge role in her own early teen years. As Padma describes it, it’s a finely textured, and hugely aware, book about growing up, told from the perspective of a young teenager in New York. Her eyes light up as she tells the story; her excitement at finally owning the property is palpable. Norma Klein is dead now, and Padma had been pursuing the book’s rights with the rights-holders for quite a while. Making some forgettable movies, pursuing a modelling career that she is, she says, bored with, raising the money so she’d have the resources to do the movie right.

And she does, even with the smiles and the repartee and the easy accessibility of her demeanour, give an impression of implacability. There is steel in her, evident on one level when she tells us that this and this shot just isn’t going to cut it; it is evident when she speaks about how she has learned to ignore what the gossip columns say.

Publicity has never been her problem, she points out. She’s been on the cover of various magazines. What she wants now, is recognition. And part of that, of course, is an actual intellectual appraisal of the person who is Padma Lakshmi. Apart from the beauty—a part of her, no doubt, but as she puts it, how much effort did she put in to being beautiful?—and aside from her famously intellectual partner.

She isnʼt in India for very long. And sheʼs very busy, while sheʼs here. Which is a real pity. You could do worse things with your time than get to know her.

So Padma is writing a movie. Set in Kerala, called, for now, Food and Water, a treatment is already in circulation, hoping to find an interested producer. Does she have directorial aspirations? She is non-committal. Sure, she says, when I know enough. Till then, she’s happy just to catalyze the right projects, and make sure they get made the right way.

For it is the subject matter itself—in a sense, the stories—that motivates her. She is clear about that. And in her laidback way, she makes sure I get the point.

Everyone has to justify the space they’re taking up on this planet, she tells me. She laughs when she says it, but it’s clear she means what she says.

She isn’t in India for very long. And she’s very busy, while she’s here. Which is a real pity. You could do worse things with your time than get to know her.

For she is much more than the sum of those two things that I mentioned at the beginning of this story.

Photographed with master chef Danio in the Mezzo Mezzo restaurant kitchen at the JW Marriot Hotel in Mumbai



And all those people who think they know her because they know those two things about her…it’s alright, because she’s learnt to ignore them too.

This article was first published in the June 2002 issue 

Photographs by Harsh Man Rai

Make-up and hair: Michelle Tung