Food personality Padma Lakshmi chatted with us about her new MAC Cosmetics line, Top Chef's 16th season, and her role as an ACLU ambassador, at the James Beard Foundation's annual Chefs & Champagne outing at the Wölffer Estate this past weekend.
You're this year's James Beard Foundation Chefs & Champagne honoree, you've recently released a new beauty line with MAC Cosmetics, and, if I'm not wrong, did I also see you on RuPaul's Drag Race? PADMA LAKSHMI: Yes! It's been quite a year. We took a very active role in reaching out on social media to a lot of trans teenagers and to many in the LGBT community. I didn’t know it at the time, but the time I was on RuPaul’s show coincided beautifully and since then we’ve become quite friendly. It was all a perfect storm.
I think there were a lot of people of color who just didn’t have that much choice in pigments and MAC has always been great about offering really rich pigments to a variety of complexions. It was a dream come true. I love makeup. I’m a makeup hoarder. I don’t know anything about hair, but I will stay up all night doing makeup. I am that girl.
For someone like me, who's both a foodie and a fan of Drag Race, you were the perfect judge. It must have been exciting to be there, no? Because the show is really a cultural phenomena. PL: I’m so happy for RuPaul. To have this kind of recognition finally, it’s very well deserved. I’m a huge fan of his. The show has so much heart. It’s not just about doing drag, it’s about so much more as you see in so many of the interviews that come out across the season. It’s a hugely positive thing for young people across the country who don’t really have any other outlet, to see that, to see that there exists a world where they can feel good about who they are and be accepted and let their wings unfurl. Obviously, I’m not a drag queen although I act like one at the makeup counter sometimes, but I think that I’m definitely very much on the sidelines of that world because of the people who I love and been in my life. So I feel very proud to be a teeny part of it on that episode.
You’ve also been a part of another amazing series, Top Chef, which is in its 16th season. PL: I know! I wouldn’t have thought that it would have been on air all these years later. I’m so lucky. Most people don’t have a show that lasts this long, so I don’t take that for granted at all.
I imagine you've done a ton of eating on the show, but is there a meal on the program that you enjoyed the most? PL: I have to say that they’re been many fabulous meals. One meal that comes to mind, not only for how glorious the food was, but just how beautifully the chefs told the narrative.
We had a fairy tale challenge because Charlize Theron was on, and so in order to help her promote a new movie she was in, we did this fairy tale challenge. And Paul Qui, who wound up winning that season, just put a handprint that looked like a bloody handprint done with beet juice and weird, beautiful flowers around it. Every piece of art, whether it’s writing or painting or cooking, tells a story and it was a great challenge to do that.
There's so much you've accomplished, but in the back of your mind are there particular things you still want to go out and do? PL: I love what I do and I’m very focused and fortunate to be able to do all these things. As I grow older, I’d like to do more general writing, nonfiction publishing. I used to write a lot for magazines and newspapers about fashion and food. I want to produce more books. And I’m also really excited about my new role for the ACLU, for immigration rights and women’s rights, and that work is pushing me deeper and deeper into that world. It’s very fulfilling. We’re having a moment in our culture where it’s become increasingly difficult to stay silent, and, so, to have a voice, let’s be honest, from Top Chef and from my writing, is a real joy. It’s very stimulating and it’s the only antidote to feeling impotent against these really dark forces that seem to be taking over our policy and lawmaking. Whether it’s immigration, whether it’s the environment, whether it’s reproductive rights, whether it’s marriage equality, all of these things are being threatened.
I follow you on Twitter and have seen you tweet about some of those issues, but how do you deal with the immediate, whether good or bad, response? PL: I think it’s important to have the dialogue as difficult as it is, unless they’re just trolls and not interested in having the conversation. It’s very easy to anonymously open an account on social media and spew all this venom. Those people I just have to block out. That’s part of being in the public eye. But I want to talk to those right wing people, I want to talk to those supremacists, because I think at the root of most prejudice is fear, fear of the unknown and fear of losing your own position in life even if there’s no reason for that. It’s important to have those difficult discussions.