Padma Lakshmi has spent much of her career in the public eye, in fashion magazines, bookshelves, and, most recently, in movies and television. But now, Lakshmi goes One on 1 with Budd Mishkin.
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A boxing lesson is not what I expected when going to meet model, cookbook author, and host of "Top Chef" Padma Lakshmi.
"Bend your knees, turn, if you are square to me, it's easy for me to hit you,” said Lakshmi. “But if you're squared to the side, and I punch, [I can't hit you]. So then you just try to block. Did I hurt you? I hope I didn't hurt you?”
Ok, maybe a little, perhaps because Lakshmi's workouts are serious business.
"I'm talking about kick boxing, no fancy yuppie class, which I'm sure is wonderful,” she said. “I'm talking about being in a big room with a bunch of sweaty people hitting a heavy speed bag, jumping rope, sparring, real kind of down low stuff.”
The image of Padma Lakshmi in a sweaty gym might raise eyebrows, a reaction she often gets as a former supermodel who writes and hosts a television show about food.
"Sometimes, because of the way I look, people don't think I’m a serious gastronome and anyone who spends any time with me will tell you that that's not true,” she said.
Her latest cookbook is called "Tangy Tart, Hot and Sweet," a follow up to her best-selling debut "Easy Exotic: A Model's Low-fat Recipes from Around the World," which won her a prize at the International Versailles Event for the best cookbook by a first-time author. It’s filled with traditional recipes and some other elements that are not as traditional.
"Food is a very emotional thing, sensual thing,” said Lakshmi. “It has a lot to do with family and identity and very important thing. Breaking bread with someone is the most intimate and nurturing thing we can do for our friends and family and loved ones."
Now, hosting an Emmy-nominated television show, this self-proclaimed gastronome can break bread all over town.
"I don't have any trouble getting into any restaurants, that's for sure,” said Lakshmi. “That's the cool thing. It's a little added perk, also has its drawbacks. If chef is there, and they're a fan of the show, often they bring out lots of stuff that I don't order. So I wind up rolling home overstuffed. It's a nice problem to have.”
Many people know Lakshmi from “Top Chef,” while others know her from her relationship with author Salman Rushdie, who she met in 1999. Rushdie had been marked for death by Islamic fundamentalists who considered his book Satanic Verses to be blasphemous.
Lakshmi says at no time when they were together did she feel that her security was at risk.
The couple married in 2004, and were divorced this year.
"At the end of the day, we were two people who kind of were like any other couple with our joys and our problems,” she said. “It was amazing to be with him, just couldn't believe that somebody like that could be interested in somebody like me. We had a long relationship. I love Salman, will always love Salman. He was the greatest love of my life and I don't think that's going to stop.”
Lakshmi grew up in Queens and then Manhattan. But she would return to her native India every summer to visit family.
"People look at me or hear my name they see something exotic,” she said. “Here in New York City, I'm not that exotic.”
Lakshmi says she grew up in a strict Brahmin household, with a diet she calls lacto-vegetarian.
It was not the easiest situation back then in a New York lunchroom.
"Indian food was not as groovy as it is now,” she said. “All these kids with beautiful little peanut and butter and jelly sandwiches with the crust cut off, and it's different. Kids can be cruel but I’m laughing now.”
In her modeling and television work, we often see a prominent scar on her right arm. It's the result of a car accident Lakshmi was in when she was 14.
"It had a big effect on me, one of the most traumatic things that ever happened to me,” she said. “I was 14 at time. My arm had to be reconstructed. I was very lucky that nothing else major happened to me. Everybody at school was very cautious about not making me feel self conscious about it. When I started modeling, I became very adept at covering it with makeup myself."
But that changed, largely because of timing.
“I started modeling when that grunge period came into existence, so everybody had tattoos so it became a part of me,” said Lakshmi. “It is a symbol of survival for me. And I think it's very important for young girls to see women who are not afraid to show their imperfections."
Lakshmi studied theater arts at Clark University in Massachusetts. She was in Spain spending her final semester abroad, when she landed her first modeling gig.
"I thought, yes I'm tall and pretty, but I never sort of saw myself like the women in magazines," she said.
Suddenly, she was getting calls to work in Milan and Paris.
"I went from eating spaghetti with onions and parmesan cheese at the beginning of every semester so that I could afford my books, to making a lot of money and traveling the world and meeting people I wouldn't have normally met,” said Lakshmi.
Lakshmi became known as the first Indian super model, and she used that forum to smash any kind of preconceived notions of who and what she is: author, actress and most recently television host. It started with modeling, and it's led to what she calls a fortunate life.
But Lakshmi is aware of the downside of the business.
"I know that I look the way I do because of the way I was born,” she said. “I know that 15-year-old girls when they look at magazines may not always realize that, may do things to their own bodies to be like that. It's very important to speak out and just be vocal about that.”
Her pursuits seem glamorous: modeling, acting, television. This is a different world from her mother's, who worked as a nurse at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and her grandmother who served rural Indian villages in a mobile inoculation unit.
And so, Lakshmi has spoken at a United Nations conference on violence against women. She also does work for Keep a Child Alive, which brings medication to children with AIDS in Africa and India.
While the world celebrated the new millennium, Lakshmi was visiting an orphanage in India. It was, she says, the best New Year's eve of her life.
“I know that just by luck of the draw, my life has turned out the way it has,” she said. “But I'm this Indian woman today, sitting on this bench with you, but I could have been any one of those Indian children with AIDS or with an abusive father, and it does really make you look at your life and say, God, how lucky am I?'”
- Padma Lakshmi