Nigella and the spectre of tragedy
Published 29/10/2012 | 06:00
Shy, frightened, impractical are hardly words you would ascribe to the globally known glamorous Nigella Lawson. And yet the cookery writer and wife of millionaire art mogul Charles Saatchi insists she's driven by fear. Given she lost her mother, sister and first husband to cancer, maybe it's not so surprising. Julia Molony caught up with her in London
I spot Nigella Lawson through the window of the restaurant in which we have arranged to meet. She's there early, sitting upright at the table, eyes flicking down to check the time, before casting apprehensively around her. Tucked into her chair having afternoon tea, she looks small and delicate. Your glance might pass over her scanning a room. And then she gets up to say hello, drawing herself to her full height, you realise how tall she is, how prepossessing. The global obsession with her appearance makes sense.
It's become a cliche to discuss her in terms of looks, but it's impossible not to. Her own husband, the art dealer mogul Charles Saatchi described her as "sexier than Marilyn Monroe". And the release of her new book, Nigelissima, has been predictably accompanied by reams of coverage poring over her figure.
As much as possible, she takes it in her stride. She has some simple edicts that stop her morphing into the sum of those parts (boobs, bum, lips) that are the subject of such media fixation. She doesn't read the coverage. She doesn't look at the pictures. She never, ever watches her own programme.
"You have to be you, looking out at the world," she says. "You can't become the object to yourself. It's not natural."
With her new book and new television series out, this determination to edit her public image out of her day-to-day life takes some effort. She has to work to avoid herself. As we sit drinking tea, a bus passes with an advert for her new show plastered all over it. "Oh, look, how weird!" she says, pointing as her giant, smiling face cruises by.
"My husband always used to say to me I should watch (the shows) and then he said to me the other day, you know what, I think you're right. Because you'll lose all your naturalness."
She doesn't even look at photos of herself taken during shoots, but gets her make-up artist or whomever to approve them for her.
She prefers someone else to handle it because, "I always zoom in on things I don't like. And everyone is saying 'oh that's great' and I think, Christ that's great is it? What must I look like! And it's embarrassing."
"My little treat is sitting on the loo reading Grazia," she goes on. "And if I suddenly saw a picture of myself I think -- oh NO! Why is she here! I was having a nice relaxing time!"
One sympathises. Like Christina Hendricks, she's become sort of a body icon, always discussed in relation to her shape. But she accepts it graciously. And of course, her looks are irrevocably tied up in what she does, and underpin the luscious maximalism of her foodie manifesto. So she accepts the scrutiny as part of the territory, and chats quite cheerfully about the constant evaluation of her size.
"I always say, I wasn't as fat as everyone thought, and I'm not as thin as everyone thinks."
Of course, she can't always avoid embarrassment. Seeing the infamous (and extremely unflattering shots of her taken last year on a beach wearing a full body swimsuit "was mortifying," she admits. "I was stalked by the Mail while I was in Australia. It was difficult too because I was with my kids and I wasn't working. I was on holiday. I couldn't do anything with them because I was followed. I have to say, I will show you privately what it looked like, and it looked much better than all those pictures of me looking like some sort of hippopotamus.
"And of course everyone thinks I was grotesquely fat. But the real truth is, I'm not a thin person. I've got a thin waist and a thin face ... but I like food, I put on weight under stress and I'm a bit up and down. It's always exaggerated."
Anyway, she's looking fab -- those formidable hour-glass proportions at their best. She's like the Monica Bellucci of the food world, with the plumpest, firmest skin I've ever seen on a woman in her 50s.
Nigelissima is her eighth cookbook -- which accompanies the television series currently airing on BBC. As the name suggests, it's a tribute to Italian cuisine, and though there has been a predictable ruckus about authenticity, this is Italian food according to Nigella, and she knows her stuff. Between school and Oxford, she spent a year in Italy. It was a formative time for a shy 18-year-old growing up under the shadow of her high-profile father, the former British chancellor Nigel Lawson.
"You know how the family script can cast you in a particular way?" She asks. "I was the over-sensitive shy, impractical one. Even though I was the only person apart from my father who could change a plug, nevertheless I was always thought of as the impractical, poetical, oversensitive type. It wasn't entirely easy for me because my father was a politician. He was a journalist when I was younger, but he went into politics when I was 14.
"I was very inhibited. Not just publicly, but at home. I was very quiet at home. When I was naughty at school, for years my parents thought they [the school] had mixed me up with another child. But going to Italy, I shucked a lot of that off. Italy has a lot of resonance for me because it was when I became a person who wasn't that rather bowed down, brooding, unhappy child. That was good for me. I liked the food. I nearly didn't go to Oxford. I just thought why do I want to leave here to go to Oxford?"
She's stayed in regular touch with the source -- going back every year, and all of her books demonstrate a strong Italian influence on her cooking. "When I went back to shoot the scenes in Florence, because my daughter had finished her A-levels she went with me. And she was nearly the same age as I was and I think it was quite interesting to say to her 'look, I stayed here, and I worked here'. It was quite important for me that she was with me. That mattered to me ... there was something very nice about having her there, it felt almost like a rite of passage."
The more she chats, the more it becomes clear is that the spoon-licking glamazon known and loved by the public is only one aspect to the character of Nigella. Driving that idyllic-looking career and lifestyle is quite a lot of anxiety.
"I'm a very fearful person," she says. "I am fear-driven. I am too easily daunted by other people ... I too often take people at their own estimation."
She frets a lot about the expectation of her, and still, despite the longevity of her career, fears being caught out.
"I often get worried that people think I have levels of expertise and technical ability that I don't. When people say, can I freeze this? I don't know! That's why I employ somebody to say whether you can freeze things or not." She says that she catastrophises everything -- always fixated with the worst-case scenario even with professional and personal things.
It's not a surprising response from someone who has, after all, lived through the worst thing happening several times over and survived. Her mother and sister both died of cancer when she was quite young, and then her first husband John Diamond, father to her two children Cosima (Mimi) and Bruno, was diagnosed with throat cancer.
A journalist, he diarised his decline in unsparing detail, the brutal treatment which included having his tongue removed. For some time before he died, Nigella had to be his voice.
"Like a lot of neurotics, I'm quite good in a crisis," she says now. Before adding, "I'll tell you one thing, it [grief] doesn't make you a better person."
Charles sometimes will say to me, "you've gone through enough in your life to know that bad things happen. Please don't keep expecting the bad things to happen, when they are not happening." She seems to find him reassuring and tries to keep that sort of philosophical perspective. "Sometimes if I get upset because someone has said something to me," she says, talking about the slings and arrows her career necessarily invites, "I just think, do you know what -- If that's the worst thing that happens to me this year, I'm very very lucky. But the thing is, as human beings, we mind about the trivial. You can't just keep your file of feelings for the profundities of life. I wish I could, but I can't."
It's a kind of hypersensitivity, basically. But on the other side of the coin, the benefit of being that way is that she can "be cheered up by small things". "I always say to my children. Listen, unless you learn to take pleasure from relatively small things, you are going to have a hard life".
So much of the ethos that underpins her approach to food is informed by the difficult life experiences that she's had, and an emphasis on the value of small pleasures as a retort to all the death she's seen.
"I felt that most strongly -- my sister died 10 days before Mimi was born and it was spring and all the flowers or maybe it was the autumn, and the trees looked beautiful, and I found it very difficult to get over my sister's death. And I felt at first I thought, oh my God, this is so beautiful and she's not here to see it, and then I thought, my God, if I don't take pleasure in it, it's like it makes such a mockery of her death. As if it doesn't matter. It was a feeling, that somehow you do have to enjoy stuff.
"I feel it's like being alive, really, and I feel like you've got to grab on to everything. When I try not to eat as much, I don't want to eat so much that I just feel the urge, but if I'm anywhere and the food looks really great or it's different, I would think, you don't deserve to be alive if you say no, I won't have that."
There's much for her to take pleasure in, after all. She has a lovely life -- a career that is fulfilling but doesn't completely take over everything, and a genuinely close relationship with her two children. She recently went on holiday with a group of "18 teenagers", presumably her daughter's friends. "18 was too much, then it went down to 12 and that was easier. Most of the time they were really happy -- they'd go out at night. We'd eat supper. They'd go out. Charles and I could just hang around.
"I quite like this idea of growing your own tribe, and it also so happens with my children that we find the same things funny -- it's odd that thing. But I do quite like that. I find it easier."
She draws me a Venn diagram to illustrate her formula for a successful romantic relationship, an overlapping centre to represent the things two people have in common, with a large proportion of differences too.
The implication is that it represents too, her relationship with Charles. She is sociable, energised by contact with people, perhaps not great at being alone, whereas he's more fond of his own company.
"It's so odd to be with someone so different, and yet, I do think that if I was with someone both as angsty and voluble as me I would find it exhausting."
"Charles was laughing at me on holiday," she says. A close friend had come to visit and she and Nigella spent hour after hour chatting in the kitchen.
"He said, 'I just don't understand how you can talk for that long to someone. It doesn't matter how fascinating they were, if I had to talk to someone for 24 hours I'd have to kill them or myself.' And I said, 'but I talk all the time to you'. And he said 'yes, that's true, but most often I manage to block you out'," she starts to laugh. "'And, as you know, sometimes I do ask you to be quiet.'"
'Nigellisima' is published by Chatto and Windus priced €22.99 (Easons only, other bookshops will vary)
Nigella will be signing copies of Nigellissima in Easons, Donegall Square, Belfast on Friday November 2 at 12.30pm and at Dubray Books, Grafton Street, Dublin 2 on Saturday November 3 at 10am.
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