Padma Lakshmi on turning pain into power

Here’s a tip when visiting a farmer’s market with Padma Lakshmi: Follow her lead. “This is a beautiful time at the market,” she told correspondent Faith Salie at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York, “because you have all of these beautiful summer vegetables and fruits.”

Salie pointed out some “white beauty” tomatoes. “What would you use that for?”

“I wouldn’t use those,” Lakshmi laughed.

But she’d say “yes” to the fairy tale eggplants.  “I love these guys. I love frying them.”

“Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi with correspondent Faith Salie at Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. CBS News

When Lakshmi talks food, take note. “I will look at what’s here, and I will make up a recipe based on what I find,” she said.

After all, she is the host, judge, and an executive producer of the hit Bravo show “Top Chef.” And she highlights immigrant culture and cuisine in Hulu’s “Taste the Nation.” She’s also a bestselling author, activist, and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador.

You could say Padma Lakshmi has a lot on her plate. 

“I feel like I’m just finally hitting my stride, and of course it takes a while to fully cook as a person, and to figure out who you are,” she said.

And to know who Lakshmi is, it’s important to understand where she came from, and how much she’s overcome: “In my life, I’ve had a lot of s*** happen, you know?”  

Salie asked, “If people don’t know your story, they might look at you and think you lead a charmed life.”

“I hope I do now. I would like to!” she laughed.

Before bestseller lists, Emmy nominations and magazine covers spiced up her life, Lakshmi’s roots were humble. “I was born in India, and my mother divorced my father when I was two. She came to America. And I came here, I joined her, when I was four.

“I came here on Halloween night. And I thought, America, this beautiful land of plenty, where all you have to do is dress up in a funny costume and they give you candy? Not even, like, money – candy!”

After her arrival in America, Lakshmi found joy and wonder in the melting pot of New York City. It would not last. At seven years old her life was forever changed.

“It happened with a relative of my mother’s second husband. I was sexually molested,” she said. “I was sent back to India for a year-and-a-half. I will say in my mother’s defense, she did the best she could to get me out of there as soon as possible, and that was the quickest way to do that. In retrospect, I’m sure she would not make that decision.”

Lakshmi returned to America, and attended high school in Los Angeles. She also had a part-time job at a mall, where she met a young man: “We were dating, and you know, one night, I was only allowed to stay out so late ’cause it was New Year’s, and I was 16, and, you know, I was sexually assaulted. He raped me.”

Lakshmi kept this secret for more than 30-years, until she penned an op-ed for The New York Times in 2018.

Lakshmi said, “When somebody robs you of your innocence, whether it’s at seven or 16 or whatever, when you don’t have dominion over your own body, it leaves you with a lifelong anxiety that always lingers in some form. And that, to me, is the greatest crime of sexual assault.”

There would be more trauma for the then-teenage Lakshmi, when she was seriously injured in a car accident. “I fractured my hip, and I broke my arm, my right arm, and my metacarpal,” she said.

She showed Salie the seven-inch-long scar on her right arm. Surprisingly, that wound would help launch her modeling career. “I hated it. But then I was, you know, shot by a very great photographer named Helmut Newton. And he liked the scar. I think that your flaws and your scars really make you who you are.”

Padma Lakshmi’s scar, which hasn’t hindered her modeling career.  CBS News

Further shoots led to acting roles. But it was her culinary passion that really put her on the map, when she joined “Top Chef.” The show just wrapped its 18th season.

Salie asked, “What makes it so successful?”

Lakshmi replied, “It’s very compelling to see someone strive to be the best at what they do for a living, no matter what it is. And so, you don’t have to be professional to have really deep, fully-formed opinions about food.”

Lakshmi’s made a name for herself professionally, but her personal life has also made headlines. In 2004 she married one of the most famous authors in the world, Salman Rushdie. They divorced three years later. In her 2016 memoir, “Love, Loss, and What We Ate,” she said Rushdie called her a “bad investment.”

When asked about Rushdie, Lakshmi said, “I wish him well. I care about him. And I really don’t wanna say anything more about him.”

What she will talk about is a painful condition she and millions of women suffer from: endometriosis, a disease where tissue grows outside the uterus and can lead to infertility.

“Because of my experience with endometriosis, you know, once I got the care that I needed, then I started tasting life for a normal woman who doesn’t suffer from chronic pain.” 

She’s co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America. And when not championing a cause or working, she’s with her daughter, Krishna. The single mother co-parents her 11-year-old with Krishna’s father, Adam Dell.

“I always knew I would be a mom,” she said. “I didn’t know I would have this much fun. I’m very lucky.”

“Given the endometriosis, was it fair to say that Krishna is a miracle?” asked Salie.

“Definitely. I call her a miracle. I mean, literally, I don’t know how it happened. I have, like, some tinfoil and rabbit ears holding it all together in here! I am not even kidding!”

That miracle – and that mother-daughter bond – helped inspire her new children’s book, “Tomatoes for Neela.”

Salie surprised the judge of “Top Chef” with a cake that she had made herself. “Have you ever had a Coca-Cola Cake?”

“No,” Lakshmi replied.

Padma Lakshmi judges Faith Salie’s Coca-Cola Cake.  CBS News

No pressure! “I’m kind of nervous,” Salie let slip.

Sampling it, Lakshmi said, “It’s sweet and creamy, and has a lot of give.”

A sweet review from Padma Lakshmi, a woman who’s turned pain into power – and strives to empower others.  

“I am an open book,” she said. “I have lived the life I’ve lived because there’s nothing that I have to hide. And I would like young women to know that, even if you have a late start, or even if you’ve been through stuff, it’s okay. You know, sometimes you just have to get up and dust yourself off and keep walking.”

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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Lauren Barnello.