PADMA'S THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN
Padma Lakshmi, successful model, UN ambassador, actress and wife of author Salman Rushdie, has landed her ideal role - filming in her native India with time to indulge her love of jewellery shopping.
The Mail on Sunday (London, England); 4/18/2006
Byline: PAULA KERR
IT doesn't begin well. Padma Lakshmi has overslept after taking an afternoon nap. She sinks into a sofa in the lounge of her Jaipur hotel, pulls back her raven-coloured hair into a ponytail, rearranges her enviably long legs, and explains sleepily, 'I'm sorry, I just woke up. I'm completely dazed.' We are meeting to talk about her role as Madhuvanthi, the beautiful female protagonist in Sharpe's Challenge on ITV1, starring Sean Bean as the swashbuckling 19th-century soldier and adventurer, Richard Sharpe. Shot on location in India, it is a massive investment for ITV (some [pounds sterling]4 million) and Padma's biggest acting job to date. But what follows is a series of curt replies to my questions, at the end of which she apologises again for her sleepiness. And then she has an idea - let's meet up the next morning to go jewellery shopping, and try again.
As we jump into the taxi the following day, she's far more animated. She is excited to be heading to Amrapali, an expensive shop 20 minutes away which specialises in beautifully cut precious and semiprecious stones, for which this region of Northwest India is renowned. Padma is a regular customer and the owner greets her like a member of his own family, bringing black tea and patiently producing tray after tray of glittering jewels for our consideration.
Padma, 36, the wife of author Salman Rushdie, 58, says she hadn't heard of Sean Bean before signing up for the ITV production. 'I went online to find out who he was, and when I realised he'd been in The Lord of the Rings [playing Boromir], I wanted to see it. I have an eight-year-old stepson who has a video of it, so he played it for me. Do you think I should buy this?' she asks, threading an antique silver belt through the loops of her skinny Paper Denim & Cloth jeans, which are teamed with a white vest and gold flip-flops.
So does she find her leading man sexy? 'Not really. I don't see him in that way, although I'm pleased to be working with him.' But Padma, it must be said, has a unique take on what sexy means, given that she is generally cast as Beauty to Rushdie's Beast. She smiles politely when asked what attracted her to the egghead novelist, wearily aware of the inference that when the good looks were being handed out, she was far higher in the queue than he was.
'My husband has a great sense of humour. He's charismatic, charming and he's extremely knowledgeable on a variety of subjects. It's nice to have someone near you who is that interesting to talk to.' However, she confides, he did agree to shave off his beard at her request. 'I was lobbying for it for a long time,' she admits. 'It wasn't good for my skin.' They met six years ago at a magazine launch party, swapped phone numbers and called each other while she was on a publicity tour for Easy Exotic, an Asian recipe book she was commissioned to produce by her friend, Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein.
'At our first meeting we spoke for just a little bit. We really got to know each other while I was travelling. It was nice to get to know each other slowly,' she recalls, attaching a large pair of gold hoops to her ears.
Their wedding (her first, his fourth) was a Hindi ceremony held in a Manhattan loft two years ago. She wore an elegant purple sari, while he stood at her side in a black sherwani (an Indian frock coat). Guests included Lou Reed and Steve Martin. 'My wedding was fun. It was just all of our friends and very informal. It wasn't at all stuffy,' she says. 'It was in a photographic loft, a white space. I had done a photo shoot there and remembered what a lovely view it had across the city.' Though she is keen to protect their privacy - 'I don't want to talk too much about my marriage' - she dismisses any notion of their lives being surrounded by secrecy and high security as a result of the notorious fatwa (death sentence) issued against Rushdie following the 1988 publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, which Muslims claimed to be blasphemous. For some time, Scotland Yard provided the author with round-the-clock police protection. 'There is no secrecy around my husband and there is no security ring, either. I don't have it and nor does he. It's a myth,' she maintains. 'All my friends know where I live. All that stuff with my husband is in the past, thank goodness. I know a lot of Hollywood stars who have far more people around them than he does.' Aside from interesting conversation, she says they are also bound together by their shared experience of being raised within two different cultures. 'That's definitely part of it. Neither of us are completely Eastern or Western.'
Rushdie was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) and went reluctantly to Rugby School at the age of 13. After graduating from Cambridge, he moved to Pakistan to work for the national TV service. He says his colleagues became antagonistic about his mixed background, forcing him to return to England, where he got a job as an advertising copywriter.
Padma's early life was split between her home city of Madras (now Chennai) and New York. Her parents divorced when she was two years old and her mother, a nurse, left her in India with her grandparents, while she went off to work in Manhattan. Padma joined her when she was four. 'As a child, I'd do one school year in India and the next in America and it was very hard to fit in.
At college, I'd bring a bowl of curry and rice in a Tupperware bowl, when all the other kids would have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I couldn't imagine eating something sweet with bread. There were racial slurs, too. I remember a kid calling me "nigger". In fifth grade, there was another who would step on the back of my sneakers, so I'd trip over. I would get embarrassed in front of all the other kids.' Now, she says, 'I can move fluidly between both cultures and exist in them quite comfortably.' When she turned 16, she moved to California, where her mother worked for the cancer research centre, City of Hope. Padma went on to study theatre and drama at Clark University, Massachusetts, intending to be an actress, but she was spotted by a talent scout for an Italian model agency and moved to Milan.
There she became a successful fashion model for designers including Roberto Cavalli, Ralph Lauren and Emanuel Ungaro. 'I always saw my career as an actress, but I got lured by the lucrative aspects of modelling. I'm not complaining,' she smiles. 'I got to travel around the world at a very young age and I made a lot of money. I paid off my mother's mortgage, which was a big deal for me.' She succeeded despite a visible three-inch scar on her right arm, which was smashed in a car accident when she was 14. 'I was with my mother and don't remember much, but I needed three operations and a cylindrical plate had to be fitted. It doesn't bother me now. If anything, I'm thankful for my scar. I'm very lucky to have the use of my arm.' While in Italy she also worked for a year as a TV presenter and, in 1998, won a small role in an Italian TV miniseries, The Son of Sandokan with Joss Ackland.
Since then, she has made three films including the critically-panned Glitter with Mariah Carey, and two further TV miniseries, the latest of which, The Ten Commandments starring Omar Sharif, is set to be screened in the US this summer. She is hoping her UK TV debut in Sharpe's Challenge will lead to more work. 'I'd like to do more. What I like about England is that people seem much more open-minded and sophisticated in their casting than is the case in Hollywood. For someone like me, that's obviously very pleasing.' It would be easy to write Padma off as the wannabe actress wife of a famous author, but she was driven to succeed long before they met. Slipping a gold necklace around her elegant neck, she explains that she inherited her work ethic from her mother and her grandparents. 'They all worked very hard to raise me. I never saw any of them sitting idle. My mother is still working. She's now helping people who need psychiatric care. She is a real hero.' In her free time, Padma works as an ambassador for the United Nations Development Fund for Women, promoting equal rights. 'I've visited women's shelters in India and I gave a talk at the UN. I do whatever is asked of me,' she says.
To unwind, she likes to host dinner parties at her homes in London and New York, though her husband isn't so keen.
'I prefer to stay in. My husband prefers to go out. I think the best thing is to spend an evening at home with friends you feel good with, cooking something nice to share, but he spends his days alone in his room with his computer. He wants culture and civilisation. Sometimes he'll go out with friends and I'll stay in, which is fine.' We are in the store for two hours before Padma has enough of all that glitters. She rejects the silver belt but buys two gold necklaces, studded with sapphires and emeralds, and a silver bracelet. But the irony of jewellery shopping in a city rife with poverty is not lost on her and, as we leave, she silently passes some rupees to women beggars who knock at our taxi window. 'I've been able to delve professionally into different things that interest me. That's a very big luxury,' she acknowledges. 'Not everyone is so lucky.' Sharpe's Challenge is on ITV1 on 23 and 24 April at 9pm
COPYRIGHT 2006 Solo Syndication Limited