Padma Lakshmi Walks Into a Bar

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In art history, the odalisque is a female figure in repose, her body splayed out for the viewer’s eye to devour. Ingres’s “Grande Odalisque,” from 1814, bestows her with an anatomically impossible number of vertebrae to elongate the languorous curve of her back. In Matisse’s “Odalisque, Harmony in Red,” from 1926, she wears heavy jewelry around her ankles, like a pair of exquisite shackles. The odalisque is always sultry, frequently nude, and often blatantly Orientalized. Rarely is she streaked with whipped cream, or perilously close to squashing a glazed fruit tart with her knee, though that is exactly the state in which I found Padma Lakshmi one morning last June, during a photo shoot with the artist Marilyn Minter.

The shoot, for a series of paintings Minter was calling “21st-Century Odalisques,” took place at Minter’s studio in SoHo. The National was blasting from a sound system. Minter, an auburn-haired septuagenarian wearing Converse sneakers, clutched her camera and leaned forward in a rolling office chair. Lakshmi, in black lingerie and a pink feather-trimmed boudoir robe, was draped over a chaise longue like an unfurled bolt of silk. The space around her was strewn with pastel macarons, tartlets, and bonbons. Between Lakshmi and Minter was a scrim of glass, which an assistant periodically fogged up using a clothing steamer and then wiped down, per Minter’s instructions, to create a streaky effect.

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Minter lifted her head. “We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to use the cakes,” she said. Someone produced a white-on-white confection, frosted with whipped cream and studded with glazed berries. After some negotiation, the cake was positioned in front of Lakshmi—which Minter disliked. “It blocks her foot,” she said.

“If we want more toes, I can do this,” Lakshmi said, gracefully lifting the hidden foot and pivoting her ankle. Other desserts were considered: a box of frilly petits fours, a plate of sugar-dusted pastries. The cake was removed and replaced with a luridly glazed berry tart. The tart was taken away. The cake returned.

“We have to make it surreal. Put the cake in your lap,” Minter directed. Lakshmi did, and Minter considered the tableau. “That looks sort of absurd!” she said, delighted. “If it’s absurd, it works.”

“It looks like I’m giving birth to a cake,” Lakshmi said.

Lakshmi had initially considered posing nude, but decided against it shortly before the shoot. A week earlier, she had appeared in the 2023 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, photographed in an array of tiny bikinis; at fifty-two, she was the second-oldest model in the magazine, behind the cover girl, an eighty-one-year-old Martha Stewart. Lakshmi had spent the subsequent days watching social media obsess over every detail of her stomach, her thighs, her arms. “I just think it’s been enough focus on my body,” she told me. The shoot happened to coincide with another kind of recalibration. Three days earlier, Lakshmi had announced that she would be leaving her role as the host of the Bravo cooking-competition show “Top Chef” after twenty seasons and seventeen years.

“Top Chef” is an elder statesman of reality-TV competitions, one of the only shows from the genre’s first wave, in the early two-thousands, to not just survive to the present day but remain uncomplicatedly beloved. It has made Lakshmi a household name in a way that’s increasingly rare in the ever more decentralized world of television. “People are obsessed with her,” the comedian Punkie Johnson, a friend of Lakshmi’s, told me. “And I think she knows it, but she doesn’t go around acting like she knows it.” Speculation about Lakshmi’s departure was rampant: Was it her health? Was there behind-the-scenes drama? Was something big in the works? In her announcement, she’d merely expressed a desire to focus on other creative projects. She told me, “I wouldn’t say that I grew up wanting to be a food-competition-show host.”

For Lakshmi, who is universally considered—as another comedian friend, Ali Wong, put it to me—“just unbelievably hot,” food imagery has often been used to reinforce her sex appeal. “If you look on the Internet, you’ll find photos of me with ribs, with pasta, with chocolate, covered in peppercorns,” she told me. “It’s a male fantasy.” Minter was going for something less obvious. She is known for works that are sensual and high femme, with a forceful point of view on sex and power, and a preoccupation with the visceral. (Her painting series “100 Food Porn” comprises closeups of hands slicing, plucking, crushing, squeezing, or otherwise fondling ingredients.) With “21st-Century Odalisques,” she planned to disassemble the trope of the passive concubine and rebuild her in a more assertive mode. Pinned to the wall behind Minter was a photo printout from one of her other shoots, with the musician Lizzo, who wears a black bustier and points the lens of her cell-phone camera back at the viewer.

The crew dispersed for a short break. Lakshmi, trapped in her supine pose by the precarious arrangement of pâtisserie, remained on the chaise. When work resumed, she held the cake in one hand and a massive strawberry in the other. She lifted the berry to her mouth and cocked an eyebrow.

“That’s perfect! That’s goofy!” Minter cried, clicking away. “It doesn’t look like a cliché.” She asked an assistant to spray Lakshmi’s hand with Reddi-wip. “I want it to melt all down her arm. Let it all just fall down.” She then instructed Lakshmi to lick the whipped cream: “Get some in your mouth! Get too much in your mouth—so it doesn’t look sexy, it looks ridiculous. Too much frosting!”

“I don’t know how to not make that look sexy,” Lakshmi said.

“I know,” Minter said. “But if it’s too much, if you have a big fucking blob of it? That’s not sexy at all.”

When Lakshmi left “Top Chef,” she thought that she was giving up one beloved television show to, among other things, focus on building another. Her Hulu travel series, “Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi,” had just débuted a second season, and Lakshmi was already doing research for a third. Instead, in spite of strong reviews (plus an Emmy nomination), the show ended up “on the bubble”—neither green-lighted for renewal nor cancelled outright. When I met Lakshmi last month at Sartiano’s, a swanky Italian restaurant below the Mercer Hotel, in SoHo, she told me frankly that she’d found herself in a period of professional uncertainty. A “Taste the Nation” cookbook was moving ahead, and she was designing a collection of lingerie for the online retailer Bare Necessities, but those weren’t enough to sustain a career. Movie and TV projects that she was working on through her production company were still largely in the realm of the hypothetical. For the first time in seventeen years, she wasn’t sure where her next paycheck would come from. “I have to be mindful of not overspending,” she told me, adding, “I could wind up doing another show that’s not exactly what I would pick for myself, but it would be a business decision, because I have a production company to run, and I have a household to maintain.”

In conversation, Lakshmi speaks slowly, with the considered cadence of a person who’s spent years appearing on camera; she rarely uses filler “likes” and “ums,” though she does pepper her sentences with swear words. She told me that she was trying to sell a scripted series she’d been developing with the director Paul Feig; she was also producing and planned to star. Feig, one of Hollywood’s leading comedy filmmakers, is known for raunchy, female-led hits such as “Spy” and “Bridesmaids.” Lakshmi wouldn’t disclose much about the project but told me, “It’s hard comedy.”

She ordered a cup of jasmine tea and an appetizer portion of meatballs in red sauce. “These look incredible,” she said when they arrived. She speared one on her fork and angled it toward me. “Do you want a little?”

Lakshmi’s interest in comedy is not new, nor is her desire to shake up her public perception. She immigrated to the U.S. at the age of four; her mother, a nurse, had gone a couple of years ahead of her to find work, leaving her in the care of her grandparents. She spent her adolescence in the San Gabriel Valley, a multiethnic enclave outside Los Angeles where she and her mom were nevertheless one of the few South Asian families. Lakshmi felt a profound sense of outsiderness. When she was fourteen, disenchanted by the overt Indianness of the name Padma, she declared that she wanted to be called Angelique, which stuck all through high school. “I still wanted to be a little exotic, clearly,” Lakshmi told me. “My poor mother was such a good sport about it, but I know it must have broken her heart—I was named after her mother, who passed away.” Lakshmi recalled receiving an LP of Joan Rivers’s standup one year for her birthday and relishing the comedian’s defensive bite. “It was the kind of comedy that a girl who was bullied at school would find funny,” Lakshmi said, adding, “I listened to that record until I wore it out.”

We tend to speak of the path to becoming a model in passive terms: a beautiful young person is “discovered,” plucked out of everyday life and dropped into the pages of magazines. For Lakshmi, this moment came when she was a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate studying abroad in Madrid. At a bar, she met a friend of a friend, who turned out to be a booker for a modelling agency; Lakshmi was signed the next day. Her first job was for Spanish Elle, working as a fitting model, an off-camera stand-in for a woman with a similar silhouette. She returned to the L.A. area after graduation, where she lived in her childhood bedroom and booked unremarkable commercial work until an Italian scout suggested that she move to Italy, where her complexion might have more high-fashion appeal. Lakshmi arrived in Milan in 1992; within a year, she had landed a shoot with the legendary photographer Helmut Newton. Known for creating hard-edged, erotic imagery, Newton was especially transfixed by the long scar on Lakshmi’s right arm, the result of a car crash during her teen years. At their first shoot, he scolded her for an earlier attempt to have it medically reduced, and instructed a makeup artist to shade in an area that Lakshmi had already minimized.

Lakshmi had studied theatre in college, at Clark University, and she thought of modelling primarily as a way to pay off her student loans. In 1997, she was invited to become a co-host of an Italian variety show called “Domenica In,” which featured interviews and zany skits. Lakshmi’s job was to play a caricaturish foreigner, exotic and fun-loving, whose not quite fluent grasp of the Italian language was exaggerated for laughs. Over the years, both before and during “Top Chef,” she found more opportunities to play oblivious beauties. She had a small role in the 2001 Mariah Carey vehicle “Glitter,” as a slinky pop star whose spectacularly off-key warbling gets dubbed over, “Singin’ in the Rain” style, by Carey’s powerhouse vocals. The movie was widely considered disastrous—“an unintentionally hilarious compendium of time-tested cinematic clichés,” as the Times put it—but one can spy in Lakshmi’s performance a talent for skewering the delusional self-confidence of the extremely good-looking. In an appearance on “30 Rock,” in 2009, playing what she described to me as a “heightened, ridiculous version of myself,” she says to Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, “Men always tell me I’m very funny” and proceeds to tell a joke: “Have you heard this one? Knock knock!” Then, with no punch line, she tilts her head and waits for him to laugh.

Lakshmi lives not far from the Comedy Cellar, a storied Greenwich Village standup venue, and when she’s not travelling she’s a regular there. (“What attracts me to comedy is the same thing that attracts me to men who are witty,” she said. “It’s the matter of how you want to spend your time.”) In September of 2018, the comedian Louis C.K. performed a surprise set at the Cellar, after a period of self-imposed exile following revelations that he had a pattern of masturbating in front of women without their consent. Lakshmi tweeted a rant directed at the venue. “Why don’t we give our attention to people who are actually funny,” she wrote, and listed a slew of comedians—all of them queer, nonwhite, or non-male—who hadn’t quite hit the mainstream at the time: Joel Kim Booster, Patti Harrison, Ana Fabrega, Ziwe, among many others.

Jesse David Fox, a senior writer at Vulture and the author of “Comedy Book: How Comedy Conquered Culture–and the Magic That Makes It Work,” recalled seeing the tweets and feeling shocked to realize that Padma Lakshmi was a bona-fide comedy nerd. “She was naming comedians that I think a more casual fan might only come to know two, three years later than she did,” he said. Fox reached out to Lakshmi with a proposal: What if she hosted her own standup show—with Fox’s help behind the scenes—to highlight the very comedians she believed deserved more attention? “I was thinking, I bet people would show up out of curiosity, because people don’t associate Padma with comedy in that way,” Fox told me. “And I bet comedians would do it, because they’d think it was cool to hang out with Padma.”

“Padma Puts On a Comedy Show” débuted that October with a lineup including Larry Owens, John Early, Jo Firestone, Nikki Glaser, and Michelle Wolf. A few days before the event, Lakshmi texted Chris Rock, who agreed to drop in for a surprise appearance. Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers m.c.’d. The comedians worked for free; proceeds from tickets and merch went to charity. Lakshmi kicked off the evening with a short welcome speech. “I’ll make this brief: fuck Louis C.K.,” she began. In the following years, Lakshmi and Fox mounted two more shows, including a Zoom broadcast during the first year of the pandemic. “They’d run out of tickets before most of the comedians in the show got the chance to share it to their followers,” Fox said. “Which confirmed to me: these are Padma fans. It’s a great lineup, but they were here for her.”

Lately, Lakshmi has begun to think of comedy as potentially more than a hobby. Last October, she did a cameo on “Saturday Night Live,” playing herself in a sketch about a “Top Chef”-esque reality show in which she congratulated, with precisely titrated horror, a white chef who outcooks a Black chef in a soul-food competition. “I got really great feedback,” she told me. “And I didn’t get any feedback from Lorne”—Michaels, “S.N.L.” ’s famously no-bullshit boss—“which, from him, is great feedback.” Her next goal, she added, is to return to the show as a host. Years ago, she’d taken a class at the renowned comedy school Upright Citizens Brigade, but she’d recently reënrolled, taking Improv 101 alongside a group of relatively normal New Yorkers who were, one has to assume, fairly gobsmacked to find Padma Lakshmi as their scene partner. (“They probably can’t even focus because they’re, like, ‘I ain’t never seen a bitch so beautiful like this in my life up close and personal,’ ” Punkie Johnson said.) Lakshmi and Fox had announced a new installment of “Padma Puts On,” and this time, to open the show, Lakshmi was planning to try a real comedy set, something between an improvised monologue and a standup routine. She seemed strikingly unfazed by the possibility that she would bomb.

“Are you good at improv?” I asked her.

“Yes, because I enjoy it,” she said. “There’s no failure in improv—there’s comedy even in that tension or that discomfort. At least, that’s my attitude right now.”

Lakshmi drew a comparison between doing comedy and hosting. “It’s about facilitating the conversation, and you want to move the scene,” she said. Still, being engaged and agreeable isn’t the same thing as getting a laugh. In comedy, a form built on underdog relatability and the cathartic pleasures of both self-deprecation and punching up, being gorgeous can be a professional liability. “Doing comedy is being vulnerable,” Paul Feig told me. “You can’t have vanity and comedy.” He recalled that, in an early cut of “Bridesmaids,” he’d introduced the movie’s antagonist, a passive-aggressive Little Miss Perfect played by the Australian actress Rose Byrne, by having her deliver a barrage of snide remarks to Kristen Wiig’s Everywoman heroine. “We realized after a few test screenings that we didn’t need any of that,” he said. “The minute Rose turned around in that dress and was so beautiful, everybody in the theatre hated her guts.” In “Always Be My Maybe,” Ali Wong’s 2019 rom-com, Wong’s character is devastated to discover, through online snooping, that her ex-boyfriend is now dating Lakshmi. “She’s smart, she’s cultured, she’s gorgeous,” Wong, who co-wrote the movie, told me. “She’s your worst nightmare.” Playing hotness as funny and likable requires special finesse, Feig said: “It’s harder to pull off. But when you can it’s really a chef’s kiss.”

Last year, Lakshmi voiced a role on “Big Mouth,” an animated comedy series on Netflix about teens navigating the mortifying impulses of pubescence. Her character, Priya, drawn with a willowy figure and bedroom eyes, is the mother of a new kid in town. Their neighbor Andrew, a nerdy adolescent voiced by John Mulaney, develops a lustful fixation on her. In a daydream, he fantasizes that the two are tootling through the Italian countryside in a convertible when Priya turns to him and purrs, “Shall we pull over so I can ravish you in a field of poppies?”

Over the summer, I joined Lakshmi at an audio-production studio in Manhattan as she rerecorded a few of Priya’s lines that the writers had reworked. Lakshmi was standing in a spacious glass-walled booth; she had tissue paper woven between her toes from a pedicure earlier that day. On a large screen, Abe Forman-Greenwald, a producer of the show, was giving her direction via video chat from Los Angeles.

“This was a rare moment for ‘Big Mouth,’ ” he told her, of her initial recording. “Some of this stuff—Priya’s seduction of Andrew—felt a little too extreme, so we actually toned it down a touch, which is probably a first for us.”

“Really?” Lakshmi said, sounding surprised.

“Big Mouth” is among the most colossally vulgar shows on television. It has featured, among many other story lines and sight gags, talking genitals, masturbation with a Glo Worm, and a game known as Cum on a Cracker. But somehow Lakshmi’s hot mom had taken things too far. It might have had to do less with the dialogue than with Lakshmi’s distinctively voluptuous way of speaking. Even without her body attached to it, her voice was unavoidably seductive.

“With some of the lines, we felt like, ‘Wait, is there a chance that she’s actually into this?’ ” Forman-Greenwald said.

Lakshmi said, dryly, “Is it weird that I’m taking that as a compliment?”

Lakshmi’s first real experience of fame came when she was hosting “Domenica In.” She learned to look both ways when leaving a building, to check for paparazzi, and to keep her knees held tight when sitting down in a short skirt. “But that was all very innocent,” she recalled. “It was nothing like what I experienced with Salman.” She met Salman Rushdie, the novelist, in 1999, at a party hosted by Tina Brown, the former editor of The New Yorker. He was fifty-one and she was twenty-eight. Soon after, Rushdie divorced his third wife, and he and Lakshmi became a couple. They were a very specific kind of tabloid catnip, fascinating in their perceived mismatch: he the middle-aged intellectual, she the sexpot ingénue; he the brain and she the body. Rushdie had recently reëmerged into public life from nearly a decade in hiding after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him for his novel “The Satanic Verses.” Now he was everywhere, not only at literary events but at fashion shows, night clubs, and society galas with Lakshmi by his side.

Before meeting Rushdie, Lakshmi had published a cookbook and appeared in small parts in a few TV shows, but she was still trying to establish herself as a writer and an actor. She thrilled to find herself at dinner parties with Susan Sontag and Don DeLillo, but she chafed at the press’s gleeful habit of reducing her to little more than Rushdie’s arm candy; in 2006, in the Times of London, Giles Hattersley described her as “a nasal valley girl” who was “fun, albeit in an adolescent way.” (Lakshmi was thirty-five.) “What the tabloids never said was the truth: We really loved each other,” she told me. She and Rushdie married in 2004 and divorced in 2007. In her memoir, “Love, Loss, and What We Ate,” Lakshmi writes candidly of the relationship’s decline—the periods of frosty distance punctuated by agonizing fights, and Rushdie’s frustration at her diminished sexual availability, which she attributes to a severe case of endometriosis that was diagnosed only a year before the marriage ended. Rushdie agreed to her private request for a divorce via a public statement issued by his literary agent.

“I think I’m now at peace with it,” Lakshmi told me, of that heavily scrutinized era of her life. “I wasn’t at peace with it for a long time—I felt that the narrative of my life had been stolen from me, because of who I was standing next to.” By the twisted logic of celebrity, the antidote to this unpleasant exposure was more exposure. “I needed to give up even more of my privacy with the memoir in order to take my narrative back,” she said.

When Lakshmi was approached about “Top Chef,” by the TV production company Magical Elves, she had just been cast in a British period piece, as a scheming Indian concubine, and couldn’t make the shooting schedule work. “Top Chef” ’s first season featured Katie Lee, at the time the wife of the musician Billy Joel, as the host; after the season ended, Bravo announced that Lakshmi would replace her as the host and would also serve as a judge. As with “Project Runway,” another Magical Elves production that had become a huge hit, the fun in watching “Top Chef” lay only partly in the drama of creative combat. Equally important were the show’s recurring personalities: Tom Colicchio, a chef’s chef who ran some of New York City’s sharpest restaurants, was the gruff, no-nonsense industry veteran; Gail Simmons, from the magazine Food & Wine, was the polished, critically insightful diner. In the opening credits of the second season, Lakshmi greets viewers in a body-skimming, off-the-shoulder cocktail dress. She was perhaps initially intended to be little more than an m.c., timekeeping challenges and telling losing contestants to “pack your knives and go.” Frank Bruni, then the Times’ restaurant critic, wrote that her “epicurean musings” were “less riveting than her sluggish, mouth-full-of-molasses style of speech and strenuously come-hither poses.” But it became evident within a few episodes that Lakshmi was a bankable personality in her own right. (Lakshmi told me that, years later, Bruni interviewed her onstage at a live event: “When he entered the room, I said, ‘I am the mouthful of molasses, Padma Lakshmi. Nice to meet you.’ He turned beet-red and said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ ”)

As a judge, Lakshmi brought the perspective of a worldly but down-to-earth home cook. She was warm and empathetic but allergic to grandstanding or cheffy pretension. “Such a bullshitter, such a bullshitter!” she said, in a Season 10 episode, when a European contestant claimed not to know about American fried chicken. Jesse David Fox, who considers himself a “Top Chef” superfan, told me, “There was a stuffiness to the world of the show, and she wanted to puncture it. We all have to pretend that this thing we’re taking seriously is actually serious, and she’s willing to call that out.” She delivered critiques of dishes in a withering deadpan (a shrivelled oyster looked like “snot on a rock”) and didn’t shy away from disagreeing with her fellow-judges—especially Colicchio, with whom she often sparred on questions of technique versus flavor. Their clashes were generally edited into tight verbal conflicts, though one of her finest moments came in the finale of Season 11, when Colicchio raved about a scallop dish that Lakshmi found flavorless and she responded by simply rolling her eyes, telegraphing nuclear-grade disdain. Ariel Boles, a director of “Top Chef,” told me, “At a certain point, I think it became clear that a food-competition show is weird. There’s a fatal flaw: the audience will never be able to taste the food. I think Padma, over the years, recognized that she was the spokesman for the food and what it felt like to experience it.”

The director Paul Feig, who is developing a project with Lakshmi, said that it's hard to pull off being both beautiful and likable in comedy, “but when you can it’s really a chef’s kiss.”

One day in June, I visited Lakshmi for lunch at her home, a penthouse duplex with views across the rooftops of N.Y.U. The apartment is high-ceilinged and full of rich colors and textures. The spacious rooms of the lower level—a living room with a curvaceous green velvet sofa, a blue-walled dining room dominated by a Francesco Clemente portrait of Lakshmi—are lined with bookshelves, art, and souvenirs from her travels. At the center of the layout is an enormous burgundy kitchen. With evident pleasure, Lakshmi showed me around: commodious spice drawers, an island of burnished wood and, within it, a seven-burner Lacanche stove—“my Maserati,” she said—custom-fitted to hold a kadai, the heavy cast-iron wok used often in South Asian cooking. An imposing exhaust hood hung from the ceiling like a canopy. She pressed a button and it roared to life, seeming to suck all the air out of the room.

“Obviously Indian food is pungent, to say the least,” Lakshmi said, clicking the hood off again. “I was always afraid to bring people over when I was growing up, because my house always smelled like curry. And now I just always make sure it doesn’t.” She laughed. “My insecurity is showing!”

For lunch, she was preparing meen moilee, a coconut-milk fish stew from Kerala, in southern India. She had learned how to make the dish in 2000, while hosting a travel series on the Food Network called “Planet Food.” Growing up, Lakshmi’s family was lacto-vegetarian, a diet followed by many Hindus. “To this day, when I eat meat in India, I feel a little guilty,” she told me.

She pulled out a long Craftstone chef’s knife with “Padma” etched in script on the flat of the blade. The butt of the wooden handle was set with a luminous purple gem. “I feel like a sorceress when I use this, cooking up all sorts of magic in her cauldron,” she said. Lakshmi’s friend the novelist Michael Cunningham told me that he sees her approach to food as “more about a sense of abundance than about fixation.” She often has large groups over and cooks hearty, unfussy dishes in great quantities: steamy pilaf, towering green salads, a big pot of ribollita, the Italian bread-and-vegetable stew. While our fish simmered, Lakshmi offered me tastes of homemade pickles and relishes from spindly, hand-carved tasting spoons: lemon pickle, hot peppers in vinegar, a crunchy-oily condiment of lentils and sesame seeds which she called “Indian chili crisp,” a kumquat chutney made with fruits from her mother’s garden in California and fragrant with curry leaves grown on her stepfather’s farm. She matched me bite for bite, closing her eyes and inhaling through her nose to take in the heat and perfume.

There is no effortless way to be both a person who eats with gusto and a person whose body shows no visible evidence of indulgence. “It’s in great tension with itself,” Lakshmi told me, of the persona on which she has built her career. She’s well aware that some of her Instagram posts—old lingerie-modelling shots, say, or pictures in which she’s wearing especially low-cut dresses—tend to get considerably more engagement than those which focus on a plate of food or bear thoughtful captions addressing social issues she cares about. “It’s a visual medium,” she said, with a sigh. “And it’s hard not to be cognizant of that when you’re a woman.” She told me that she tries to be sanguine about her dress size—she would often fluctuate three or four sizes in the course of filming a season of “Top Chef”—but nevertheless works out ferociously. “I won’t miss eating eight thousand calories a day,” she told me, about leaving the show.

“Taste the Nation,” Lakshmi’s Hulu series, seems calibrated to counteract the image of her as a stiletto-clad glamazon. She wears well-worn jeans and minimal makeup; in one Season 2 episode, set in a Greek community in Tarpon Springs, Florida, she pauses to remove her gold Rolex before shoving an arm elbow-deep into a lamb carcass. Lakshmi is an ambassador for the A.C.L.U., and she has spoken of how “Taste the Nation” grew out of her work with that organization during the early years of the Trump Administration. She conceived of the show as a way to not only bring attention to underappreciated foods and the people who cook and eat them but to humanize divisive issues of immigration and social justice. In a review for The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert called “Taste the Nation” a “Trojan horse” that used the culinary-tourism format as a disguise for “a ruthless indictment of how a nation’s cultural heritage has been constructed out of the people and traditions that it has consistently and brutally rejected.” Lakshmi told me, of a second-season episode in which she visits Lowell, Massachusetts, where a large number of Cambodian residents arrived in the mid-nineteen-eighties as refugees from the Khmer Rouge, “I’m competing against shows like ‘The Kardashians,’ but I’m trying to sneak in that Pol Pot would not have been possible if Kissinger and Nixon did not secretly bomb that part of the world.” The show was rejected by six other networks before being picked up by Hulu. Lakshmi said that her experience doing political advocacy—including as a founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America—trained her not to be easily demoralized. “You get up in front of a crowd and talk about your vagina, you learn real fast,” she said.

Lakshmi’s only filmed food content lately has been home-cooking videos on Instagram. She is sometimes joined by her teen-age daughter, Krishna, whom she protectively refers to on social media as Littlehands. Since her divorce, Lakshmi has tried to keep her personal life private, though she endured another harrowing round of tabloid scrutiny in 2010, regarding her daughter’s paternity. “It was just about as horrible as is possible to be,” Lakshmi recalled. “I mean, talk about slut shaming.” (She’s been linked in recent years to the poet Terrance Hayes, but she told me that the demands of two shows plus motherhood left little time for romantic relationships.) In her home videos, Lakshmi is charmingly low-key and goofy as she gathers ingredients and works the stove. One segment shows her and Krishna each preparing a special toast with toppings for the other to try. Another features Lakshmi making a sautéed noodle dish with items from her pantry, including some goat broth for “a little funk.” When she opens her fridge, she playfully blocks the camera’s view of the (only moderately crowded) interior and says, “Don’t shame!”

A half-wall in Lakshmi’s kitchen is crowded with cookbooks, organized mostly by region, with a few of her own books tucked into the far end of one of the shelves. Beyond her memoir, she has published two cookbooks, a spice-and-herb encyclopedia, and a children’s picture book, “Tomatoes for Neela,” about a girl who connects with her heritage by cooking with her mother. She pulled out a copy of her first book, “Easy Exotic: A Model’s Low-Fat Recipes from Around the World,” which includes recipes for mushroom couscous, tandoori-chicken salad, and a creamless creamy carrot soup garnished with fat-free yogurt.

“It makes me cringe now,” she said, looking at the cover, which shows her in a black slip dress, gazing into the camera in front of a moody backdrop of tropical fruit. Even this early project was in a kind of tension with itself. The book’s health-conscious conceit was little more than a “marketing hook,” Lakshmi explained—she realized early in her modelling career that people are always fascinated by the eating habits of the professionally attractive—but she told me that her underlying aim was to “de-exoticize” certain foods for the mainstream American public and to teach her audience things they didn’t know: “In my defense, what I was trying to do there is still, today, over twenty years later, what I’m trying to do.”

The latest installment of “Padma Puts On a Comedy Show,” in March, was a back-to-back pair of shows at the Bell House, a venue in Brooklyn. The bill included Phoebe Robinson, Michelle Buteau, Jaboukie Young-White, and Zarna Garg, a Mumbai transplant whose sardonic, Borscht Belt-esque routines about being a middle-aged wife and mother take on an off-kilter freshness thanks to her rapid-fire, Hindi-accented patter. Mike Birbiglia was going to do a surprise set at the early show; Punkie Johnson would be closing the later one. Both sold out within hours. “Literally, I could not get tickets for my friends,” Lakshmi told me a few days before the event. In preparation for her own set, she’d half-seriously asked Johnson to help her write a joke or two: “She said, ‘Look, we could write you jokes, but then you’d be worried about hitting the jokes. You’re funny naturally.’ ” Lakshmi felt that the set was a chance for her to practice being a less “regimented, structured” public figure. “I’m starting from scratch. I don’t do it on Instagram, because I could fuck my career in a second. But among my friends and in safe spaces, I’m learning how to be more of my wilder, wackier, zanier self.”

Compared with social media, or national television, a three-hundred-and-fifty person audience at the Bell House qualified as an intimate gathering. When the lights went down, Roy Wood, Jr., the evening’s m.c., introduced Lakshmi, who burst out from behind a side curtain. In what may have been a subtle bit of foreshadowing, her entrance music was “WAP,” Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s unapologetically vaginal anthem. Lakshmi wore a T-shirt tucked into high-waisted black jeans. The cheering of the crowd was rapturous. (“She’s wearing white boots!” a woman standing near me cried to her friend. “She wore white boots on her first episode of ‘Top Chef’!”)

“Thank you so much for being here,” Lakshmi said, as the room settled. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” She caught sight of a group of people sitting front and center and waving wildly. “Oh, my God, hi! You guys, this is my improv class!” she said. “In improv, we do this thing called a monologue,” she continued. She needed a word to kick things off. “Can I have a suggestion from the audience?”

A voice shouted, “Lesbians!”

“Lesbians?” said Lakshmi. She waggled her eyebrows.

“O.K., lesbians, who all have pussies—usually, or at least like them a lot,” she began, haltingly. “And this show is indirectly about pussies, I will tell you that.” The evening was raising money for the National Network of Abortion Funds. “All these men are trying so hard to get into our pussies, but never let us take anything out of it,” Lakshmi said. “These creationist motherfuckers!” The audience cheered. She riffed about I.V.F. in Alabama, which was maybe a little in the weeds. The crowd was mostly silent.

“I’m going to sit down here, a minute,” she said. She perched on the edge of the requisite onstage stool and began to tell a story. “I had dinner once with the actress Rachel Weisz,” she said, and the energy in the room began to pick up again. “You know her, she’s English, and she told me about this phenomenon of”—Lakshmi affected a posh British accent—“the front bottom. Does anyone know what ‘front bottom’ is? I think you can kind of figure it out, right? Front? Bottom?” She gestured to her groin, in case anybody was unsure.

“The other day, I was getting out of the shower, and I dropped my towel, and I turned around to pick it up. I have this long mirror, and I’m picking this up—” Lakshmi turned her back to the room, planted her legs shoulder-width apart, and pantomimed bending forward to reach for her towel, so that her rear end was facing the audience and her long hair fell down almost to the stage floor. Then she stuck one hand back through her legs and pointed. The audience roared.

“And I’m, like, Holy shit!” Lakshmi said, still upside down. “I don’t think that’s a ‘front bottom,’ because it’s not in the front. It’s my. . .” Here, standing up again, she paused, as if to clear the landing for the punch line. “Back pussy!” she said. People laughed, but at half-strength, seeming not totally clear on the joke.

Per Paul Feig’s rule of comedic hotness, Lakshmi was the last person on Earth who should have been making self-deprecating jokes about her bodily imperfections, even if—as she clarified in her next lines—the tragedy of sagging skin comes, in time, for us all. Feig’s corollary: You can pull off pretty much any joke as long as people like you. Lakshmi wasn’t just liked in this room; she was adored. Even when there were no laughs, the audience remained squarely on her side. “The only thing you can do is find a way to be valuable without your pussy,” she concluded, somewhat ambiguously, to a fresh round of cheers.

Lakshmi stayed backstage through most of the show but slipped out into a reserved seat, next to her friend Susan Sarandon, to watch certain sets. (“I can’t think of anything more challenging and more horrifying, except maybe going out of a space capsule in space, than standing on a stage and trying to do standup,” Sarandon told me later.) When Lakshmi took the stage at the top of the second show, she seemed more at ease. She skipped the improv-exercise setup, ditched the Alabama bit, and moved more naturally into standup choreography: looking down, smiling a little private smile, kicking the mike cord off to the side. This time, the word “pussy” became an almost absurdist recurring bit, and the crowd started chorusing along whenever Lakshmi returned to it. Her earlier set had felt, in a way, like an audition: a plea to the audience for their laughter. Now she tripped over her words a little more and missed the timing on a few setups, but the shift in confidence made the stumbles immaterial. “I’m new at this,” she said at one point, after garbling a punch line. She looked up, grinned, and got the biggest laugh of the night: “I usually have heavy editing.”

A few days later, Lakshmi and I spoke on the phone. “You saw me on one of the best nights of my performing life, you really did,” she said. She was still exhilarated; her voice was unusually staccato and intense. “It felt incredible, like no other feeling I’ve ever had in the world.” The show seemed to have given her a different kind of fulfillment, a new way of being seen. “I don’t care about being the most beautiful woman in the room—I want to be the funniest person in the room,” she said. “That’s who stays with you. Beauty is not an accomplishment, but wit is.” ♦


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