It’s hard to argue that the past few months have been pivotal ones for Padma Lakshmi.
A jaw-dropping Sports Illustrated spread and a spot on the Time 100: The Most Influential People of 2023 list kicked off summer, while a difficult career decision to leave Bravo’s Top Chef after 19 seasons helped “make some space for herself, both personally and professionally.”
Today, that space involves a bit of the physical, as the 53-year-old arrives to our photo shoot in New York with her teenage daughter, Krishna. The sweeping city and river views from the open studio are spectacular, but the mom-of-one is more focused on her daughter’s latest beauty accessory.
“Those long nails just make you look so grown up!” she jokes, as she leans on her “mini me” to tell her if an outfit is working, when a pose is not, and to serve as an extra set of eyes to mark which shots are winners.
“I’m really excited to be on a beauty cover,” Lakshmi shares as the pair prep to wrap the day. “But it’s important to me that it’s beauty with substance.”
You’ve had a big year. How do you feel?
“I feel a little bit exhausted from the surreal nature of the last few months. I’ve personally been through a bit, but at 53, I feel much better today, physically and emotionally, than I did 20 or 30 years ago. I think there are a lot of myths about aging—especially around women and aging—that no longer hold true. And that’s pretty amazing to experience.”
Looking back at your life and your career, what advice would you tell that woman starting out 30 years ago?
As women, we are expected to be great and accomplished in every aspect of our lives—at every moment of our lives. That’s a lot of pressure.
“That nothing is permanent—good or bad. And that you really have to be a little kinder and easier on yourself, and be a little bit more patient, both with your body and with your spirit. As women, we are expected to be great and accomplished in every aspect of our lives—at every moment of our lives. That’s a lot of pressure.”
And now you have a teenager daughter. Is that the advice you share with her?
“Well, like many mothers, I see a lot of myself in my daughter. I see the struggles she goes through, which are a very normal part of adolescence and being a young girl in society. I have a lot of empathy for these kids growing up today. In many ways, they’re dealing with so many issues that you or I didn’t really have…social media being one, cell phones being another, and just the gazillion other forms of media out there. We had some of it, but it’s exponentially grown in pressure and complexity.
I try my hardest to tell her that she’s not done becoming who she’s going to be. Many girls her age—regardless of the cultural differences, I did this as well when I was her age—put an extraordinary amount of pressure on themselves. We think we have to be perfect and great and fully formed at everything right away, because that’s what we see in the media.
Even with this magazine cover, it’s beautiful, but I had two hours of hair and makeup. I had a stylist who gathered the best clothes, and then we edited those outfits down and chose a very select few, which looked the best. We had lighting, we had a wind machine, we had a very talented photographer, and then we had four or five sets of eyes looking at the monitor to make sure we selected the best shots.”
The biggest, most important thing I can do toward my own wellness is to understand that on no given day am I going to get everything done.
A filtered reality….
“Yes. It can be daunting when you’re a young girl or woman, and you look at all those polished images in our media, and you think, why don’t I look like that? Well, because nobody looks like that! I mean, I think I look pretty good when I get up in the morning—as long as I have a good night’s sleep—but there’s a lot that goes into the end result.
Sometimes, we only get served the end result, and that’s not reality. That’s why I think, as women like me age—especially women who are in the media—it’s very important not only for our peers, but also for everyone else who see us on TV or in magazines, to understand the truth behind the image.”
It is important. What does your own beauty and wellness look like day to day?
“The biggest, most important thing I can do toward my own wellness is to understand that on no given day am I going to be exactly how I want to be, nor will I have done all the things that I’m supposed to do in between. Maybe there wasn’t time that day to do a deep condition on my hair or get an immaculate pedicure, or go to the gym, or put on moisturizer after I get out of bed. All of those things are only possible in one day if I don’t do anything else. But, I run an office with employees, I have my show, I have my child, I have my mother, I have my friends. I have all these things.
The expectations we have for women in our world today, and specifically for ourselves, is just impossible. We can’t be everything we’re told we’re supposed to be. Some days I go to the gym and I get all my work done after, but I don’t bathe until I go to bed and I’m sitting in the sweats I put on at 8:30 in the morning when I ran to my Pilates class. You know what I mean? There are many, many days where I just go directly from the gym to my desk at the office, and I haven’t even changed out of my gym clothes—unless I have a meeting or I’m doing something public facing. And that’s OK! My employees can see my hair greasy and my T-shirt from 1978. What’s most important to me are my priorities.”
It’s safe to say fitness and moving your body is a big priority?
“It is a big priority of mine to always go to the gym regularly, whether I’m in town or not, and just make space for that. As much as exercising has given me physically, it’s given me way more emotionally and mentally. I started boxing when I was 30, and it revolutionized my life. A poet named Mary Carr introduced me to it and gave me a lesson for my 30th birthday, and 05 I have never looked back. I love it so much. I didn’t really start doing Pilates until after I had a baby. I’m not a professional dancer. I didn’t know about it, to be honest. That’s also given me a physique I never had in my 20s. I only gained that in my 40s.”
That’s amazing. What are you looking forward to project-wise for the fall?
“Last year was all about going out on the road. I was filming for eight months, and it really took a toll on me. That’s one of the big reasons why I decided to cut back and only do one show. There were other complex reasons for leaving Top Chef. I had been doing it a long time, and there are other things that we don’t have time for in this interview, but that was one of the reasons I had to leave. I needed to make more space for me. I needed to spend more quality time with my family, specifically my daughter, but also make space for creative growth and intellectual challenge.
The expectations we have for women in our world today, and specifically for ourselves, is just impossible. We can’t be everything we’re told we’re supposed to be.
I think as human beings, we always want to be productive; we always want to create. That is also a big part of beauty because a lot of my self-confidence doesn’t necessarily come from the way I look, although I’m very thankful for my metabolism and my parents’ genetics. When I feel good, it comes from the things I’ve accomplished in my advocacy and in my professional life. That is where I have my greatest source of confidence.
That is something I have today that I didn’t have in my 20s and 30s. I hadn’t published six books. I hadn’t done these shows. I hadn’t been able to work with the UN and the ACLU as an ambassador. I hadn’t started the Endometriosis Foundation of America.
I do think that taking care of yourself and wellness is integral to having a serene and fruitful life, but the way we define wellness can be expanded to more than just beauty treatments and matcha tea.”