Tuesday, May 21, 2024

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.

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.”



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