With the onslaught of cooking shows that have overtaken televisions airwaves, online platforms and streaming services, it’s hard to decipher and distinguish which one is which and who is who. This only makes Padma Lakshmi’s transformation even more impressive.
The Top Chef host and judge has become a household name and a recognizable face around the world. That’s no easy feat at any point in time, let alone in today’s content blitz. For those who just became familiar with her in recent years, Lakshmi’s fame may have seemed like fait accompli. But there’s little about her upbringing — in India and the U.S. — that would have suggested she would wind up where she is now. Instead, it took a great deal of brains, some determination, a signature scar and helpful genetics to get Lakshmi to the top of the fashion and cooking worlds.
So how did Padma Lakshmi become the face of television cooking, let alone her numerous other personal and professional endeavors? Let’s dig in and find out.
Padma Lakshmi was born in India and raised in the United States
Padma Lakshmi was born in Chennai, India and had quite the unique upbringing. When Lakshmi was just two years old, her parents divorced. At the time, divorce was stigmatized in India. In order to get away from that hostility, Lakshmi’s mother moved to the United States, where she eventually worked as a nurse.
For the next two years of her life, Lakshmi stayed behind in India to be cared for by her maternal grandparents. But at only four years of age, she flew halfway around the world to join her mother. The pair settled in New York City, a move that would prove extremely beneficial to Lakshmi’s future. While growing up in her new melting pot of a home, Lakshmi regularly ate foods she had never tried before. This broadened her palate and created a lifelong love affair with food.
Lakshmi would eventually move to Los Angeles with her mother and stepfather, but she visited India each year to see her family.
Padma Lakshmi was raised vegetarian
It’s hard to believe now that we’ve see her enjoying every type of meat under the sun on Top Chef, but Padma Lakshmi was raised on a strict vegetarian diet, or as she describes it, a "lacto-vegetarian Hindu Brahmin diet." While a child living in India, and even after she moved to the United States, Lakshmi’s diet consisted of plenty of beans, lentils and vegetables. In fact, she didn’t start eating meat until she was a teenager, she told NPR.
Although she is no longer a vegetarian, Lakshmi does try to stick to a plant-based diet — whenever she’s not eating Top Chef contestant’s dishes, of course. The former model told HuffPost that such a diet "makes your skin more beautiful" and affects "your hair, your eyesight. All of those things."
A car crash changed Padma Lakshmi’s life
One of the most transformational moments in Padma Lakshmi’s life occurred when she was just 14, when during a car ride with her parents, the vehicle suddenly drove off a freeway and 40 feet into an embankment. All three passengers survived, but Lakshmi suffered a fractured hip and "shattered" right arm. The surgeries after the accident left her with a large scar — seven inches long and half an inch wide — on her upper arm.
For a long time, Lakshmi was self-conscious about the scar. She would often cover it with makeup and even perfected a cross-arm pose that hid it. In an essay she penned for The Guardian, Lakshmi details how she was sure the scar would ruin any chance she had at becoming a model. "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," she wrote.
Ironically, the scar would actually help Lakshmi elevate her modeling. It was the scar that helped her get noticed by famous photographer Helmut Newton, who helped take Lakshmi’s career to another level. "He loved my scar, and by extension he made me think differently about myself. All of a sudden it was something to celebrate or at least not to be ashamed of. Everything in life shapes you," she told Playboy.
Padma Lakshmi began her career as a successful model
After she caught the eye of legendary photographer Helmut Newton, Padma Lakshmi’s modeling career quickly took off. She began modeling for well known luxury brands like Armani, Versace and Ralph Lauren and worked in the fashion capitals of the world, including New York, Milan and Paris. Lakshmi also became known as "India’s first supermodel."
Lakshmi has mixed feelings about her time in modeling, PBS News Hour reports. It allowed her to travel and see the world, make money, and pay off student debt from her time at Clark University on the one hand, but her modeling career never felt personally rewarding. "I know that my looks are really the alchemy of my parents’ genetics and have little to do with me or any accomplishment of my own," Lakshmi said.
Padma Lakshmi tried her hand at acting
Padma Lakshmi’s modeling career eventually led to auditioning for acting roles. It seems like a natural next step, considering she studied theater and American literature in college, after all.
Lakshmi appeared on a couple of Italian television series before nabbing a role in Mariah Carey’s Glitter. Though it’s widely considered one of the worst movies in recent times, Lakshmi has no shame — and no pretense — about why she took the job. "Oh, the money. Had Steven Spielberg called me with the script to a modern Citizen Kane, I’d have done that, but as an actress starting out, you don’t get to choose," she said. "The thing is, it was fun. What’s important to know about Mariah Carey is that nobody can sing the way she does."
Lakshmi had bit parts in a few other movies and television shows after that, but eventually, she left acting behind for greener pastures.
Padma Lakshmi’s relationship with Salman Rushdie put her in the media spotlight
While Padma Lakshmi had already become a well-known model, she became a tabloid star when she began a relationship with author Salman Rushdie. The pairing’s story raised the public’s eyebrows. The two first met in 1999, and at the time, Lakshmi was just 28 while Rushdie was nearly twice her age. Not to mention the author was married at the time -– to his third wife.
Regardless of their differences, Lakshmi was immediately hooked. "For us Indians, he’s like Hemingway," she told People of Rushdie, who was born in India and raised in Great Britain. "The fact that somebody of that stature and caliber was even interested remotely enough in me to want to take me to lunch was kind of unbelievable."
By 2000 Lakshmi and Rushdie were living together, and just a few years later they married. Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t last and the pair divorced in 2007.
Padma Lakshmi kicked off her food career with a best-selling cookbook
Padma Lakshmi entered the field that would eventually make her a household name when she published her first cookbook, Easy Exotic: A Model’s Low-Fat Recipes from Around the World, in 1999.
The transition from modeling to cookbook author may have seemed like an odd one, but Lakshmi had been preparing for it most her life. Always a fan of cooking, she would often carry a notebook with her and "jot down recipes" of relatives’ dishes and spent any extra money she had on cookbooks, she told NPR. Lakshmi ultimately secured a book deal by proving she also knew what she was doing in the kitchen. One day, she cooked one of her recipes, put it in a Tupperware dish, took a flight to New York to her publisher’s office and told the executive to eat it that night. The rest is history.
The cookbook would become a bestseller and win the "Best First Book" award at the 1999 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. In 2007, Lakshmi released her second book, Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet, a collection of simple, sophisticated international recipes.
Padma Lakshmi took over hosting Top Chef in 2006
Although she had built a successful career as a model, author and host, Padma Lakshmi didn’t quite reach her current level of fame until 2006, when she took over hosting duties on Top Chef during its second season, replacing original host Katie Lee Joel. Lakshmi was actually offered the job in season one but declined due to scheduling conflict.
Although she had hosted food shows before, Lakshmi suffered from a case of "imposter syndrome" when he first joined the cooking competition show. After all, she wasn’t a chef or food critic. It was a world-famous chef that gave her a confidence boost. "I heard Eric Ripert say to another chef, ‘No, Padma has a really sensitive palate, like one of the most sensitive palates of anyone I’ve ever met!’" she said. "Any time I felt insecure or insufficient, which I did a lot on that set, all I had to do was rely on what I did know rather than what I didn’t know."
Padma Lakshmi is an outspoken activist
Padma Lakshmi may have a large platform to speak her mind on Top Chef, but she is determined to have her voice heard as far as it can travel when it comes to fighting for causes she believes in.
Lakshmi, who emigrated to the U.S. from India, has never been shy of throwing her support behind those she feels have been disenfranchised, including immigrants and refugees. But much of the self-described feminist’s activism has centered around women’s rights. "She is 100 percent about supporting women, and she’s been doing it since before everyone woke up to that," Lakshmi’s friend told Glamour. "She’s never been afraid to tackle painful subjects. I think it’s because she faced so much growing up. It’s almost like she’s speaking up for the young Padmas out there."
Lakshmi’s efforts include walking in the 2017 Women’s March on Washington and working with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights.
A medical diagnosis gave Padma Lakshmi a newfound focus
If there’s anything we’ve learned about Padma Lakshmi, it’s that she is far more than a pretty face — she has the brains and business savvy to match. In fact, it’s hard to keep track of just how many business ventures Lakshmi has on her resume. But let’s give it a try.
In the culinary world, Lakshmi has continued to write about her life and food. In 2016, she published a food memoir entitled Love, Loss and What We Ate, which became a New York Times bestseller and won the "Best Lifestyle, Body & Soul" award at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. That same year she also released The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs. In addition to books, Lakshmi owns Padma’s Easy Exotic, a line of frozen rices, lentils and other international foods.
Lakshmi has been pretty busy outside of the kitchen as well. She started her own home décor line called The Padma Collection, created a capsule collection with MAC Cosmetics, and introduced her own jewelry line for HSN. And to add to her TV credits, Lakshmi launched a Hulu show, Taste the Nation, in 2019.
Padma Lakshmi is now a happy mother
The biggest transformation in Padma Lakshmi’s adult life was when she gave birth to daughter Krishna Thea Lakshmi in February 2010.
Krishna’s father, Adam Dell, the brother of Dell Inc. founder Michael Dell, and Lakshmi have had their ups and downs. The year after Krishna was born, Dell sued Lakshmi for full custody. Fast forward a few years and the couple are now reconciled and share custody of their daughter.
The younger Lakshmi takes after her mother in the kitchen. "Krishna has her own mortar and pestle. She just sits on the counter with me and actually helps," Lakshmi told People. "She is much better than me at rolling out dough. Because she has these little delicate fingers and she can get the dough really nice and even and flat. She’s a great cook."
Another thing mom and daughter have in common? An attraction to the limelight. Krishna takes music lessons several times per week and wants to be a pop star. But Lakshmi, like a true mom, says she wants her daughter to go to college first.
Padma Lakshmi continues to grow as an accomplished businesswoman
Beginning when she was just a teenager, Padma Lakshmi suffered from a painful condition that she later learned was endometriosis, a disorder that affects the uterus and pelvis organs. But for decades, her pain went undiagnosed, and it wasn’t until she was 36 that she was finally able to get effective treatment.
The painful ordeal inspired Lakshmi to help others. "Too many people avoid talking about difficult subjects in women’s health," Lakshmi said. "Endometriosis is an incredibly private subject for women but if I had been diagnosed and received proper treatment earlier in my life, I’d have gained valuable time. I would have been more present for my family and friends and had a greater capacity to advance professionally."
She eventually co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America, which funds important research, and in 2018, Lakshmi was named a visiting scholar at the country’s first gynepathology research center at MIT, which she helped launch back in 2009.