"I grew up shuttling between India and America—specifically Chennai and Manhattan and Queens, New York. I came to this country when I was four—my mother was a single mom, so I wound up going to India every summer so that I wouldn’t lose my culture and my language, but I think also to give my mom a break. When I was young, I don’t think I could conceptualize how far America was, but I thought there were only two countries in the world.
I would love to tell you I had this grand plan [for my career], but I really didn’t. I started modeling my last semester in college when I was studying abroad in Madrid. An agent came up to me in a café and asked me if I wanted to model. I said that I was in school until 1PM and that I could only model after 1. At first I didn’t work that much, because of the scar on my arm. This is of course before retouching and all that. And then I had an agent take pictures of me and send them to Helmut Newton. He saw those pictures, and he really liked my scar. So I booked Helmut—but I actually canceled the first shoot because it was a nude, and I had never done a nude. My agents were really mad at me, but I just didn’t feel comfortable! And I don’t think that I would’ve done a good job, because I wouldn’t have been relaxed. And then about six or seven weeks later, he called again.
Then I started acting—a lot of costume dramas and foreign productions. For one movie I shot in Cuba, the director wanted me to be a bit rounder. So I gained 20 pounds. After that, I wanted to continue to model—and to lose the weight. But I had never really tried to lose weight, so I had to think about how. I’d always been passionate about cooking, so I just took the fat out of everything I cooked, and tried to limit the carbs. My first cookbook came out of that process. Then the Food Network called and I eventually got a development deal with them. From there, I did some documentaries on food—and then I got the call from Top Chef. But by the time they got their ducks in a row for the first season, I was off doing another movie with a British company in India. But by the time they did the second season, I was free. I’ve been with them ever since. Eleven years!
I’m much more simple about my food choices as I’ve gotten older and become a mother. It’s also just what’s happening in food, right? We’re all eating more whole, less processed foods. I’ve actually gone back to eating a lot like I ate when I was a child, which is really mostly plant-based. Once in a while some bacon or veal, but mostly it’s just poultry and fish. A lot of lentils, a lot of beans—50% of my diet is fruits and vegetables. For breakfast today I had a big bowl of pomegranate, and then I had a big bowl of avocado. I had one egg, and one piece of sourdough toast. So, there is protein and starch, but it’s mostly fruit and vegetables. I try to do that every meal. Like, last night we had spaghetti pie for dinner—it was a very decadent evening! But I made sure that we had a salad, too. Regardless, I think that if you make a point to have 50% fruits and vegetables, then it’s easier. And eat those first—the order you eat your food matters, not just what you eat.
I do everything. If I think it’ll help, I do it. I box, I jump rope, I do calisthenics—old-school pushups, and mountain climbers, and sit ups. Things you can do on the floor without any help. But I also go to the gym—the grungier the gym, I find, the better, because they’re the ones that have the real machines. I also do a lot of Pilates. I’ve found that in the way that boxing transformed my body 15 years ago, Pilates has really done that for me now. Because I have some lower-back issues, I can’t do certain things that are higher impact. Like, I no longer am able to hit a heavy bag, but I can do a speed bag. So, the boxing is really for me to burn as many calories as I can, because of all the food I’m consuming. The Pilates started out as a way to make my back stronger, but has really transformed my body.
I do acupuncture—[my acupuncturist’s] name is . She’s been my acupuncturist, gosh, I would say for at least a dozen years. She was with me in the hospital when I gave birth, because I wanted to have acupuncture for pain control. I had a very difficult pregnancy, and I wanted to be lucid when my child was born. It is not a substitute for something that is chemically imbalanced—it’s not going to revolutionize your life. But it can help something like a stiff back, or menstrual cramps, or insomnia. It can help if you have a headache—things like that. I’m not a professional, so I encourage you to talk to Maryanne... [Laughs] She’s wonderful, she’s very nurturing. Very calm, and gentle, and, you know, there’ll be times where she’ll say to me, ‘I think you need a Western doctor.’
I do go to a chiropractor—I have scoliosis, and I was diagnosed with it when I was in eighth grade. I try to get massages as often as I can, about twice a month. [For shoots] I get a lymphatic drainage massage that’s really great if you’re preparing for an event and a dress that has a high slit, or being in a bikini, and things like that.
I also use a lot of natural remedies. It’s my Indian heritage coming out. I will use jojoba oil—either to do a treatment for my hair, and I just put a little cup of it in the microwave for 30 seconds. Or I use it on my skin, in the bath, or after for massage. I make my own tinctures in that oil, depending on what I need. If I’m retaining water, or if I have a big shoot coming up and I want to slim down, I use topical diuretics, which are available at any health food store. I also just use plain old honey in the shower to draw out any impurities in my face. It’s antibacterial, but it’s also a smoothing agent. You cleanse your skin, and then put the honey on a dry face—if you put honey on a wet face, it’ll slide. Then you just play the piano on your skin. If I break out, I also use tea tree oil. I put it in a pot of water, and I literally just steam, like you would if you had a cold. Or I carry a little thing of the essential oil in my makeup case so I can put a little bit on—just a little bit, because it will burn you.
I don’t really use a lot of big-brand skincare. I use a combination of two facialists that I’m very loyal to here in New York City. They serve different purposes. One is Christine Chin, and one is . I have a facial every six weeks. If I have a big event like the Emmys or something, then I’ll get a Red Carpet Facial from Tracie, and I’ll also use her red light. I don’t know what she does, but it’s great. I’ll use , and then . And then I would use serums that Christine has given me, and then moisturizer depending on how I’m feeling. —I’ll actually use that on my thighs before a lingerie shoot, or if we’re doing something that’s very exposed. It just makes your skin firmer. I have combination skin—I have oily skin on my face, and then I have dry skin neck-down. It’s weird! Tracie also has an that’s fantastic. In my work, I have to wear makeup every day for TV, so this just sucks everything out of it. I do use because I’m one of those models who plucked all their eyebrows out in the ‘90s!
I wear an SPF called , which I love. My doctor gave it to me. I use the 46 SPF because I have hyperpigmentation issues. I really don’t wrinkle much—my mother is 73 and she doesn’t have many wrinkles. I don’t pick the sun. If I’m walking five blocks, and there’s half a block that’s shaded, I will cross the street to go there. And I’ll keep crossing back and forth to chase the shade. I don’t go on the beach from 11AM-4PM, unless it’s under an umbrella. Part of that is not for a very good reason—I was raised not to go in the sun because, you know, in India, like in many Asian countries, they don’t want you to get dark. So, that practice has been ingrained in me. I don’t want to be such a ninny about it. But I do use that sunblock.
I can’t do hair to save my life—in fact, my hair routine is very simple. Over the last two years, my hair just got trashed, because it was being blow-dried every day. That’s another reason why I chopped it off in September. I just needed to triage my hair! So, I started using and they really work for me—my hair stylist, Jeanie Syfu, recommended them to me. I use , and also a , but that’s about it. I also really like Oribe products—the smell is really good, but I like the because it just gives me that root lift. I also love the . I won’t use them unless I’m going on a red carpet, though, or doing something public.
But I also think a lot of beauty comes from within. You get from your body what you feed it. And I think my diet has a lot to do with how I look. I take a supplement called . Actually I use the men’s formula because it’s better for [hair growth]. I do take vitamin B and vitamin C. I also will do extra Biotin.
I made my favorite all-time makeup collection with MAC. It’s a bigger collection than most of their collaborations, and I had to cut a lot. They were like, ‘You should probably shoot for like, a dozen,’ so I did 17. [Laughs] These are the colors I’ve always wanted! My thing is all about the eyes. We do have —three are kind of natural lipsticks, which I wear if I do a big, beautiful eye. I love navy blue eyeliner instead of black eyeliner. I feel like black can be a little harsh and two-dimensional, whereas a navy, especially on brown eyes, makes them stand out. It gives you a profundity and a depth of color—rich color that’s a bit more vibrant. For me, I don’t want my makeup bag to be too big, so I did dual-ended eyeliners. I have the purple, , on right now. People don’t think of wearing purple eyeliner, but it’s beautiful, especially on medium skin tones. I like the brown we made, too, because it’s not a red-brown. A red-brown eyeliner on brown people will not do the trick like it will on fair people. That’s why this has a green-y undertone. You can use them separately—sometimes I use one on the top with a little wing, and the other just under the lashes, and I smudge it—or you can mix the two to make a variety of peacock shades. I’m not particular about mascara, really. But I am particular about curling my lashes. They grow down, so my face completely changes once you curl my eyelashes.
Right now I have on the gloss, . I’m also wearing both blushes, because nobody blushes just one color. If you go out for a run, you have rosy tones, peachier tones, and yellow undertones. I wanted a universal blush that would work for everybody, so is just a really lovely, bright pink with another side that is more melon, like a cantaloupe. They’re designed to use alone or to mix, and I like mixing them. And as far as actual foundation, I really just do it in spots where I need it. I also use Bobbi Brown or .
I don’t really use bronzer because I’m brown, but I use this as a contour and a highlighter. When I go on a TV appearance or a shoot, I don’t like to cover my scar. It took years for me to make peace with it. Now I’m known for it—I get a lot of letters from other young women who have scars. But my trick is to take my highlighter and just brush it on [my scar], because it just reflects the light. I’m not really camouflaging it, and the skin texture of the keloid is a little taut and shiny anyway. I don’t mind people seeing the scar, but I don’t want people to be distracted from me because of it. Because my life is not about the scar, you know?"
—as told to ITG
Padma Lakshmi photographed by Tom Newton in New York on February 21, 2018.