(August 26, 2021) The 80s was a different era for a teenager of Indian origin to find a footing in America. With deep-rooted colorism and cultural bigotry, things weren’t too rosy. But Padma Lakshmi wasn’t the one to bow down to any of it. She not only became the first Indian supermodel to walk for some of the biggest names in the fashion industry across the globe but also authored her first book in her 20s.
In the following years, the 50-year-old maneuvered from modelling, acting, and writing to hosting, and the multi-hyphenate has become a brand of sorts in herself in the last few decades. Here’s the story of this Global Indian who stood against racism and made peace with her scar that finally led her to a life of vanity.
Chennai-New York-Chennai: A childhood between two cultures
Born in Chennai in 1970 into a Tamil Brahmin family, Lakshmi’s parents divorced when she was just 2. To escape the stigma and hostility, her mother Vijaya moved to the US, while Lakshmi stayed behind under the care of her maternal grandparents for two years. At four, when she reunited with her mom in New York, little did this kid know that her baby steps into a new country would open up a world of possibilities. She spent most of her young life traveling between the US and India, existing between two cultures.
However, growing up as an Indian in a white country in the 80s wasn’t easy for a young Lakshmi. In her memoir, Love, Loss, and Where We Ate, she mentions that India was mostly perceived as a third-world country back then and she gradually learned that for many Americans her skin color was associated with stinky food, strange clothes and malaria-infested third-world slums. Such was the pressure to fit in that it made her change her name temporarily from Padma to Angelique during the four years of her high school.
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In a conversation with the People, Lakshmi said,
“I think everyone has experienced feeling like an outsider. And it’s something that I’ve carried with me – it’s like this invisible shadow that’s there because I was always flitting between cultures, so I was never really at home in one, and never really an outsider in the other.”
The accident that left a scar
At 14, she underwent a life-changing moment when her family found itself in a horrific car accident. Though the three of them survived but not without scars. With a fractured hip and a shattered right arm, the accident left a seven inch long scar on her arm. For the longest time, Lakshmi harbored the dreams of becoming a model but the scar cast a shadow on her goal, or at least she thought so.
“Now that I had a caterpillar of scarred skin crawling down my arm, it seemed ridiculous to imagine that any agency would be interested in such an imperfect specimen. It angered me that people saw me as a ruined beauty,” she told The Guardian.
Lakshmi was so conscious of the scar that she would often cover it up with makeup.
It was while studying in Spain in the 90s that she caught the eye of a modelling agent at a Madrid bar. He made her meet celebrated photographer Helmut Newton, and that was beginning of her modelling career. Newton was someone who helped Lakshmi get comfortable in her skin, and especially with her scar. It was the same scar that singled her out and made her a star in the modeling business.
Modelling: The new beginning
Lakshmi was among the first Indian faces to model for big brands like Armani, Versace, Roberto Cavalli and Ralph Lauren. She soon found herself on the covers of Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar and Allure. “I was the first Indian model to have a career in Paris, Milan and New York. I’m the first one to admit that I was a novelty,” she told Evening Standard Magazine. Modelling assignments took her around the world and helped her pay off her student debt from her time at Clark University. While her popularity grew with each of her modelling projects, she felt that her career wasn’t personally rewarding. “I know that my looks are really the alchemy of my parents’ genetics and have little to do with me or my accomplishment of my own,” she said.
The branching out of a fledgling
It was then that she branched out into writing when she got her first publishing contract in her 20s. It was the inquisitiveness of the people about what a model eats that led to her first cookbook, Easy Exotic: A Model’s Low-Fat Recipes from Around The World. A compilation of recipes and short essays, the book got Lakshmi the best debut award at the 1999 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.
For someone who was already modelling and had a book to her credit, Lakshmi dipped her toes into acting with Italian pirate movies like The Son of Sandokan and Caraibi. In 2002, she made a special appearance as a princess in TV series Star Trek: Enterprise and a few years later, she appeared in ABC’s Biblical TV series The Ten Commandments.
Along with her acting career, Lakshmi donned the hat of a host for shows like Padma’s Passport and Planet Food where she whipped up dishes from across the world. But it was Top Chef that changed the game for Lakshmi. In 2006, Lakshmi replaced host Katie Lee Joel, and the show’s ratings shot through the roof helping Top Chef earn an Emmy nomination. The very next year, she cemented her position as a chef when she came out with her second cookbook, Tangy, Tart, Hot and Sweet. Interestingly, Lakshmi’s food career arose from her modelling career and not a culinary school. On her travels, she would often explore the local vegetable markets and ask waiters at the five-star restaurants for recommendations. That’s how she fell in love with food.
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Lakshmi is more than a brand that’s about glamor and gloss. The 50-year-old is also an activist who is involved in spreading awareness about women’s reproductive health. In 2009, she co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America, a non-profit organization that’s focused on increasing awareness, education, research and advocacy against the disease. Her foundation was instrumental in the opening of the Centre for Gynepathology Research.
“I suffered from endometriosis all my life and was never treated for it properly. When I got better and saw how normal women lived during the periods, it got me terribly angry inside. It made me realize that there is misogyny even in healthcare,” she told Hindustan Times. Her foundation educates boys as well as girls.
“They need to understand the disease too, You cannot just educate half the population and expect overall change. The basic problem today is that girls have become liberated, but boys have not caught up,” she added.
Apart from this, Lakshmi is also the American Civil Liberties Union ambassador for immigration and women’s rights. In 2019, she was appointed United Nations Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador to shine a spotlight on inequality that can affect the people in rich and poor countries alike.
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From being a glamor girl to a multi-hyphenate star, Lakhsmi’s journey has been one of self-discovery. From someone who hated her scar as a teenager to making it big in the world of fashion to authoring books to hosting an Emmy-nominated reality series, Lakshmi has come a long way. The model, actor, author and host is a perfect example of anything is possible till you follow your dreams and take every chance that comes your way.