Padma Lakshmi has become a household name due to her activism and her work in the food industry. The host of the iconic Top Chef since its second season and the “creator, host, and executive producer” of Hulu’s Taste the Nation (per her official website), Lakshmi is showing no signs of slowing down. She is a successful entrepreneur, author, and scholar, having built an impressive media empire — all while being a single mother. But it wasn’t always guaranteed that she would be successful. In fact, Lakshmi didn’t come from a pedigree of celebrities or even anybody in the entertainment industry.
Instead, she is the product of a split household — her parents divorced when she was just 2 years old, due to an abusive marriage, as reported by CNN. Her mother left Lakshmi in the care of her grandparents while she moved to the United States in search of employment and to escape the stigma of being a divorced woman in India, according to Biography. For two years, Lakshmi lived in Chennai, India, a small coastal town, before moving to the U.S. when she was 8 years old. However, she didn’t leave her Indian family behind, and it was this merging of cultures and identities that led her to be as successful as she is today.
But just how did Lakshmi’s unique upbringing allow her to thrive in such a crowded entertainment world?
Padma Lakshmi credits her unique childhood for her love of food
Although Padma Lakshmi moved to the United States when she was 4 years old, she never fully moved away from her Indian family. When she was 8, she moved back to her grandparents’ home in India as her mother completed her master’s degree in public health, as reported The Wall Street Journal. Lakshmi wrote in the publication that she “became used to shuttling back and forth between two homes and cultures.” She also recounted her living situation in Chennai, India. She wrote that her grandparents’ apartment didn’t have a refrigerator until 1977, so her grandmother “shopped daily, preferring to do everything fresh.” The author wrote that she used to watch her grandmother haggle with the vendors then prepare the food for her various family members that lived with her — there were eight in total.
In 1979, she moved to Manhattan to live with her mother again. She wrote in The Wall Street Journal that she maintained a vegetarian diet as part of her religion but didn’t have a difficult time finding food in the city.
“Even though I was vegetarian, I found I had lots of options — pizza and soda for under a dollar, a bagel with a half-pound of cream cheese on it for 50 cents, or a pretzel for a quarter … Mom cooked spicy vegetarian Indian food at home, which I loved,” Lakshmi wrote.
She also credited her “grandmother or other women in the family” for teaching her “everything” she knew in the kitchen.
Padma Lakshmi says a car crash led to her success as a model
Padma Lakshmi attended Clark University where she graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre Arts and American Literature, according to her official website. However, she almost didn’t get the chance to attend college. When she was just 14 years old, she was in a horrific car accident that broke her pelvis and shattered her upper right arm, as reported by Biography. The injuries required surgery, which left a large scar on her arm. Although she admits she was self-conscious about the mark at first, she said she soon decided to lean into its existence when she began modeling. “The scar became my brand statement,” she said, via Biography.
The publication also describes her discovery as a model, which apparently took place when she was studying abroad in Spain. A scout reportedly discovered her when she was in a bar in Madrid and she began modeling for a variety of fashion houses, including “Armani, Versace, and Ralph Lauren.” She became “India’s first supermodel,” per her website and got to travel extensively throughout Europe and the United States.
Her modeling career exposed her to many different facets of the acting world, and she started getting roles in Bollywood, European, and even Hollywood films, as reported Biography. According to the publication, she had a “bit part” in Mariah Carey’s Glitter and had a role in the Italian miniseries Caraibi, one that inadvertently led to her career in the food industry.
Padma Lakshmi's acting career spawned her food empire
For her role in Caraibi, Padma Lakshmi reportedly had to gain 30 pounds (per Biography). After the role was complete, she then lost the weight again. She published a cookbook that incorporated the recipes she used to slim down, Easy Exotic, which is “a collection of low-calorie recipes incorporating the flavors of Southeast Asia.” The book proved to be a hit, and its success led to Lakshmi’s own shows on the Food Network: Padma’s Passport, where she cooked a variety of food, and a documentary series called Planet Food.
Lakshmi was then tapped to replace Katie Lee as the host of Bravo’s Top Chef, a reality competition show that pitted chefs against one another in a series of increasingly difficult challenges to determine who was the best chef of that particular season. Lakshmi has become synonymous with the show, which has earned her two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Host for A Reality-Competition Program, (via her official website).
She has also recently developed a show for Hulu, Taste the Nation With Padma Lakshmi, which, according to NPR, involves Lakshmi traveling “to a different part of the United States to highlight an immigrant community … [and] discuss the relationships between history and food.” The show was nominated for a 2021 Gotham Award for Breakthrough Series and was tapped for a second season, per her website.
Padma Lakshmi started the foundations she did because they didn't already exist
Aside from being a media personality and author, Padma Lakshmi is also a well-known activist. She co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America in 2009 as a result of living with the disease her whole life, reported The Washington Post. The foundation aims to “help educate the public and the medical community about the disease.” She also is “an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Artist Ambassador for immigrants’ rights and women’s rights,” according to her official website, which also shares she has been “appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).”
The Washington Post also describes Lakshmi as a “serious ally to marginalized communities” on her Twitter, where she often called out former President Donald Trump and racists. She has also taken her activism to her newest show. Taste the Nation is going to focus on immigrant and Native American communities that are often ignored or overlooked. When approached about creating a show like the late Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, Lakshmi says the comparison stops at “traveling and eating.” She says the show focuses on her point of view, which is unique, because she is a mother, a person of color, and a woman “subjected to beauty standards that my male colleagues don’t even know what it’s like to be subjected to.”
Padma Lakshmi is just getting started
The biggest thing to take from Padma Lakshmi’s career and life in general is that she’s just getting started. As reported in The Washington Post, Lakshmi’s first name, which is Sanskrit for “lotus,” embodies who she is. The flower is “associated with spiritual awakening and overcoming obstacles,” which can perfectly describe Lakshmi’s life.
“In Eastern traditions, the lotus is a symbol for life’s struggle: To reach its full potential, the lotus must take root in the muddy bottom of a pond and rise through the muck to find the light,” wrote The Washington Post. Lakshmi herself has gone through many struggles to become the icon she is today. Her unique childhood, growing up without a father, her understanding of both Indian and American culture, and her experiences as a female person of color have all led her to her current position.
“I feel like I’m doing more interesting work in this decade of my life than I have in any other decade of my life, because I’m older, because I’ve seen the world, because I’ve lived a little,” she told the publication.
It seems safe to say that Lakshmi is showing no signs of slowing down and her best is perhaps yet to come.
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