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2000s Archive

England’s It Girl

Originally Published April 2001
She cooks. She writes. She looks like a movie star. It’s no wonder Nigella Lawson has the whole country talking.

In Britain, food is the new sex. Culinary magazines photograph food so intimately, you feel as if you’re almost up inside that fleshy pepper. Each month, a new cookbook is born, or a new television program with a new food star. Londoners used to define themselves by which designers they wore or which music they listened to; today, it’s which restaurants they frequent, whose recipes they’re trying. Last year, food spawned two especially attractive headliners—both with plump, kissable lips—who command the same adulation Mick Jagger once did.

Okay, maybe food isn’t quite as exciting as sex, and maybe Mick still draws a bigger crowd. But food is causing a stir in this country, where until recently eating was considered an ordeal and a vine-ripened tomato an exotic delicacy. It’s one way of explaining the 300 people lined up on a Sunday afternoon to have a cookbook autographed by its author, Nigella Lawson.

As the two of us descend the escalator into the books department at Selfridges, we are greeted by a beaming Trevor Corfield, the store’s book buyer. “I’ve had relationships that haven’t lasted as long as this queue,” he says, nodding at the men and women, young and old, jamming the floor. Nigella takes a seat at a large table and rolls up her sleeves, baring six oven burns on her forearms. After about ten minutes, she squirms in her chair, then reaches for a silk pillow from a display and smushes it beneath her much-discussed bottom.

“That cushion sells for 500 pounds,” Corfield tells me. “But she’s worth it. She’s our best seller this season. The only other people who attract such a crowd are sports stars and Jamie.” That’s Jamie Oliver, the season’s other headliner, a.k.a. the Naked Chef. The queue for Jamie’s signing, Corfield tells me, was more rambunctious, filled with overexcited girls screaming his name in true Britpop fashion. “This crowd is more serious.”

Given the crush, the mood on line is polite, respectful. Each face is full of admiration.

“You’re as beautiful as you are on the telly,” one woman tells Nigella. “Is your husband well? We think of you all the time.”

A rotund woman bounds toward the table, two books in hand. “What I like about you is that you eat. I know you enjoy food, because you’re not like those other cooks who never touch it. You eat and you enjoy it and I believe you!”

After two hours, 400 books have sold. I ask Corfield how he explains this outpouring of goodwill. “The television series,” he says. “People were instantly talking about it. You know, most people feel guilty about raiding the fridge. Nigella gives them permission to enjoy themselves.”

“So, she’s hit the zeitgeist?” I ask.

“I prefer to think she is the zeitgeist.”

When I first met Nigella, about four years ago, she was a journalist who wrote about a postmodern mix of topics including the arts, social issues, and food. She had two kids, Cosima and Bruno, and a husband who had just been diagnosed with throat cancer. She was articulate, beautiful, shy, concerned about her weight, and burdened. I sensed there was a star inside of her, but as with many women caught up in the swirl of trying to have it all, that star would probably never find a means of escape.

I got that wrong. Today, Nigella is an icon: a smart, sexy woman who promulgates the idea that it might be fun or even relaxing to make time to cook again. Her two books, How to Eat and How to Be a Domestic Goddess, are both best-sellers, and her television show, Nigella Bites, was such a smash that a follow-up series is already in the works. Her face appears on the front pages of newspapers nearly every day; Martha Stewart attended her U.S. book launch; Julia Child sends her mash notes. While women may love her approach to food, men also love her, perhaps for different reasons. “Nice bit o’ crumpet,” the immigration official at Gatwick Airport remarks when I explain that she is my reason for entering the U.K. “But she’s crumpet with brains.”

Unlike most modern media stars, Nigella is not an overnight sensation. Peculiar though her first name may be, her surname indicates to her countrymen that she was born to the media purple. As the daughter of Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and the second most powerful person in her government, Nigella was pressed into the spotlight as an adolescent. Her parents separated early on, so she, an outspoken leftist even then, was often seen on the arm of her archconservative father. She remembers herself as a moody, depressive adolescent and characterizes her relationship with her father as difficult, which it remains to this day.

After studying modern languages at Oxford and a brief stint in book publishing, Nigella began writing a restaurant review column for The Spectator while on staff at The Sunday Times, where she later became deputy literary editor. Many thought restaurant reviewing a frivolous career move for such a promising young talent, but Nigella’s ripe prose style drew a devoted following. “She described food in a sensual, touch-it, feel-it way,” says Jonathan Burnham, president and editor in chief of Talk Miramax Books and her former editor and Oxford pal. “It was slightly pretentious, but it was the kind of pretentiousness that could be defended as evocative and oddly subversive. It is unusual for a restaurant review to get lip-smacking enthrallment to a nubbly piece of cheese or the smell of a sauce.”

In 1985, serious illness debuted as a running theme in Nigella’s life when her mother, Vanessa, died of liver cancer at age 48. Five years later, her younger sister, Thomasina, was diagnosed with breast cancer. After three years of struggle, she died in 1993, two weeks before Nigella’s daughter was born. It had fallen to Nigella to break the news to her mother about her diagnosis, and that role was reprised in 1996, when her husband, television host and journalist John Diamond, discovered a lump on his neck.

The lump was woody and fleshy and, the doctor reassured them, nothing to worry about. Still, eight months later they decided to remove it. It was then, in March 1997, that Nigella got The Call. John was watching his favorite evening soap opera, East Enders, she says. “I debated waiting till the end of the program, then decided I couldn’t. So I made a cup of tea and marched in and grabbed John’s hands and told him. His first reaction was, ‘I’m taking an overdose.’ But we stayed up all night drinking gin, and after the dark thoughts, he decided to live with the reality.”

Then the operations, ten at last count. First, the lump was excised. Then, in their search for the primary source of the cancer, surgeons had to cut out bits of John’s tongue. Eventually, he had his entire tongue removed and also underwent a tracheotomy.

The unmistakable irony is that in the four years Nigella has been cooking and writing about it, John has tasted very little of her food. Many presume that the kitchen has provided her with consolation, and that the cooking helps her forget the horror in her life. “That’s not how I would put it,” she says. “It’s true that I wouldn’t have written the first book had my sister and mother been alive. It was my way of continuing our conversation. It’s also this Jewish thing of naming and remembering people, and I think there is a sense of keeping that side of life going. I’m not a good person because John is ill, nor is my life a tragedy. I like my life.”

These days, John is often in pain, but radiation therapy, to every doctor’s astonishment, has controlled the cancer. He pumps out four weekly newspaper columns plus occasional pieces for other publications. He’s looking relatively well: His hair is bleached platinum, and he’s spending tons of money, as he always has, on clothes—this fall he’s featuring roll-neck shirts to obscure the white plastic tracheostomy tube in his throat. He is unable to speak; for those times when he must make himself understood, he carries a pad. Most remarkably, he’s never lost his sense of humor. Having chronicled his illness in a book, C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too, and in a BBC documentary, he calls himself Mr. Celebrity Cancer and refers to his role in Nigella’s career as that of a “bossy showbiz Jewish mother.”

It was just before John’s diagnosis that Nigella dreamed up the idea for How to Eat. At a dinner party, she’d slipped into the kitchen only to find her host in tears because her crème caramel hadn’t set. It was then that she decided that cooking should not be about tears, and that dinner parties shouldn’t be tense, formal rituals. Long an admirer of the writing of Jane Grigson and Claudia Roden, she wrote How to Eat as a series of essays interspersed with clever recipes and hints about preparation (do the pastry the night before), saving time (frozen peas are easier and better than most fresh), and storage (freeze meats in their marinades). In the book, Nigella’s heated prose conveys her passion, or, as she prefers, “her greed,” for food. And though some of her critics would say that her recipes lack inspiration—and in some cases don’t even work—few would deny that the book is a fantastic read.

Last October, Nigella followed up How to Eat with How to Be a Domestic Goddess, a baking book that ensconced her as a modern girl with an old-fashioned touch. “The trouble with much modern cooking is not that the food it produces isn’t good, but that the mood it induces in the cook is one of skin-of-the-teeth efficiency, all briskness and little pleasure. Sometimes ... we don’t want to feel like a post-modern, post-feminist, overstretched woman but, rather, a domestic goddess, trailing nutmeggy fumes of baking pie in our languorous wake.”

Speak for yourself, said certain feminists, castigating her for wanting to send women out of the boardroom and back to kitchen servitude. Others slammed her for portraying herself as Everywoman; one tabloid journalist declared that nothing about her was “as ordinary as she pretends—she has been blessed with looks, money and contacts.”

Few sisters observed that the title or the inside photos of women in forced smiles and aprons in 1950s kitchens might have been intended ironically; they assumed that Nigella was “chasing some dubious ideal of fifties femininity.” (In fact, the only retro aspect about Nigella is the thick black eyeliner she wears.)

In the words of Liberace, her favorite camp icon, Nigella is laughing all the way to the bank. In four months, Goddess has sold 180,000 copies in the U.K. (that’s the equivalent of 900,000 copies in the States), and sales for How to Eat are upwards of a staggering 300,000. Alison Samuel of Chatto & Windus, which published both books, gets giddy when looking at the ballooning numbers. “In my office, you’ll find people stroking and licking the pages,” she says. “Nigella is a wonder.”

The shorthand explanation of Nigella’s success is to call her the U.K.’s Martha Stewart, but that would be missing the point. Most cookbooks and food shows are about control, precision, and fear of doing something incorrectly. In Nigellaworld, the kitchen is not a science lab with rigid rules and formulas to follow. It’s a place to play, sometimes with your friends and kids.

Whereas Martha sets the perfect table, Nigella slaps a few plates of mezedes on the breakfast counter and uses paper towels for napkins. Whereas Martha projects an aura of prim domesticity, Nigella drinks Taittinger and eats bacon sandwiches (made with white bread)—and sometimes licks her fingers when she’s done. Whereas Martha is concerned with perfection, Nigella is unbothered by mess and clutter. Says John: “The truth is, Nigella cannot wrap a present to save her life, any more than she can pack a suitcase, arrange a bunch of flowers, or use a vacuum cleaner. Her office is like the books section of an ancient pawnshop in one of the poorer Indian cities, and were it not that I throw a fit every so often, our bedroom would look like the transit department of a clothes-for-refugees charity.”

Indeed, when one of her more sanitary viewers criticized Nigella for not tying back her hair, she simply said: “It’s my house and I’ll do what I like. What people like about my program is that it is not clinical. Who wants to live in such a purified world?”

As the burn marks on her arms indicate, Nigella is also a klutz. “About nine years ago, she was having a dinner party and managed, while taking the meat out of the oven, to set her hair on fire,” recalls author Salman Rushdie, who was notoriously photographed dancing with Nigella while suffering the deprivations of fatwa. “It was spectacular. Luckily, I managed to cover her head with my jacket before she was seriously burned. Afterwards she looked a little pink, but otherwise continued to eat and chat as if nothing much had happened.”

The kitchen of this Domestic Goddess is divided into two areas. In the workspace, dish racks are bowed from the weight of too many plates, and the shelves are packed with appliances, some crusty with use, others gleaming new. The other area contains a large table surrounded by three walls of books. Two white cats, Tom and Miuccia, lick each other inside their Burberry-plaid cat box.

It’s 9 a.m., and John is whizzing up a high-fat liquid meal in the blender while the production team for Nigella’s new television series is waiting for the star to arrive. Nigella breezes in carrying three bags of croissants, sticky pastries, and cheese. “I’m not a girl known to be undercatered,” she says, laying out the pastry and then sitting down with three plum-size chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which she offers to no one else.

The producer talks about lighting and camera angles. Nigella nods respectfully. “Say ‘T-shirt’ to me when this is over,” she says to no one in particular.

The new programs, the producer says, need more personality. Stronger themes. More anecdotes about how she comes upon recipes. Nigella nods in agreement, wiping her perfect lips on her sleeve. “The tone is what I want to work on. There’s too much of this modern idea of spending less time in the kitchen, that it’s a depressing place, that real life is lived outside of it. My point is that the kitchen isn’t a place to escape from, it’s a place to escape to.”

The first series worked hard at making her approachable. Cooking segments were intercut with snippets of Nigella dropping the kids at school or visiting the butcher. Though she says she felt “cringy and slightly embarrassed” about those segments, they allowed viewers a peek into her coveted West London life.

The team checks off the themes for the next series: The Lazy Cook’s Guide to Dinner, All-Day Breakfast, and Temple Food. Nigella insists that this last show, a segment on dieting, not be the first in the series, lest viewers get the wrong idea. “The other thing,” she says, “is that we should do the familiar. For Slow-Cook Weekend, I can do a standard roast pork but give tips on making the crackling.” Nods of agreement all around, followed by lengthy debates on the virtues of mashed potatoes with the peels, and on whether Leftovers is worthy of its own show. When they reach the topic of Trashy Food, Nigella lights up.

“Everyone is such a purist about using only the best and simplest ingredients, but different types of food also taste good. Butterscotch pie, for example, will never be chic, but it is delicious. It has to be playful.” She insists on including one of her favorite recipes: Ham and Coca-Cola.

As the meeting winds down, one producer remembers her original request and says, “T-shirt.”

“Oh yes, darling, do me a favor and pass that tape measure.”

From a Tiffany pouch, Nigella removes a sterling silver tape and stretches it across her bust. “Eight and a half inches,” she announces, explaining that she’s appearing on the popular TV quiz show Have I Got News for You. She’s nervous because the presenters are quick wits and she’s just not funny. To lighten the mood, she’s ordered a tight black T-shirt with the word “delia” in gold sequins on the front, just as Madonna recently did with Britney. She’s pleased with this small touch of pop self-reference. “The stylist needs to know the size of my bust so the entire name falls between my nipples.”

Which brings me back to sex and food and the other reason that Nigella works: For the past 20 years, Britain’s reigning food goddess has been Delia Smith. Delia is a very popular and wonderful cook who was the first to invite viewers into her country kitchen, where she’d hold up a green sprig and pain­stakingly explain to the British masses that this grassy herb is called tarragon and it goes well with chicken. Her recipes are infallible, and her style is matronly, lacking anything resembling sex appeal.

The British airwaves have since been populated with greater and lesser personalities. Some are restaurant chefs; some are TV cooks; some are amusing and have spiked hair; others are deadly serious. Almost all are men.

So along comes a raven-haired beauty with a posh accent who speaks in complete sentences, who fearlessly proclaims her age (she’s 41) and her weight fluctuations (all praise to the Atkins Diet!!), who doesn’t parody herself à la Two Fat Ladies, who tells you that turbinado sugar is the best you can buy but that in a pinch white will do, and who invites you into her grunge-deluxe home, where you see a refrigerator plastered with kids’ drawings and PTA schedules, and Nigella rushing around whipping up great meals and inviting her well-connected friends to dinner. If you’re a woman, this is the life you’d like to be living. If you’re a straight man, this is the woman you’d like to be living it with. If you’re a gay man, you know she’ll get your jokes.

A few mornings later, Nigella and John are having a spat. He thinks it would be hilarious if she were to bring some cakes to the taping of Have I Got News for You.

“No, darling,” she says, her tone indicating irritation. “I don’t want that. It’s not what I’m about.”


“Thank you.”

John presses his case. “But it’s such a boys’ club—have a little fun with it.”

“I’ll think about it,” she says, turning to the stove and addressing me. “I didn’t have breakfast, and I’m not a girl suited to going without meals.”

Conversation over.

In a taxi to 11 Downing Street, the residence of Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (where she’s been pressed into service to deliver 60 cupcakes to a children’s charity), Nigella explains that she’s tired because John came home at 4 a.m. and woke her up. “I cannot not fight with John because he has a terminal illness. That’s one of the good things about our relationship. Everything is expressed.”

I take this opening to get personal.

Me: How is it knowing you’re doing some of the things John would like to have been doing if he hadn’t gotten ill?

Nigella: Sometimes I feel guilty. John was always the open, noisy one, and I was the anxious, introverted one. But suddenly, from being John’s voice and having to translate for him, I’ve had to become more voluble. John says he feels covetous rather than jealous. I think that’s natural.

Me: Do you ever feel guilty about spending so much time away from the kids?

Nigella:John and I have always worked from home, so we still see the kids much more than other parents. It became difficult when the taping started. The kids couldn’t run a bath because the microphone picks up the water running through the pipes. But I asked them if they wanted to be in the first series, because I want them to be a part of what I’m doing. Of course, the only part they were interested in watching was the part they were in.

Me: Are you surprised that Goddess could inspire such controversy?

Nigella: Food isn’t just food. I wouldn’t have written this book if it were just about two eggs and a cup of sugar. Food is crucial to how we see ourselves and how we live. Recipes are a form of social history. How you eat says more about culture than other, more highfalutin things. It does annoy me when people think I’m saying you have to spin sugar for ten hours and then put on your party dress.

Me: How do you answer your critics?

Nigella: I take the charitable view that I’ve been willfully misunderstood. It’s not about getting the woman out of the workplace and into the kitchen. People want balance in their lives. In cooking, the rewards are high compared to the effort expended. I would never advocate reinventing yourself as a kitchen-bound vision of womanhood.

Me: What about the photos of women in aprons on the inside of the book?

Nigella: How can those photos not be considered ironic? Wasn’t it Mencken who said there should be a typeface slanting left for irony?

Me: How do you feel when your defenders imply that you’re the next Diana?

Nigella: I preferred it when I was being attacked. I don’t like it when they try to make me sound like a good person because of John’s illness. John’s illness is nothing to do with my work.

At which point the phone rings. It’s her pal, advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, informing her that some poll has voted her the third most beautiful woman in the world, just after teen singer Andrea Corrs and actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. “Liz will be gutted,” he says, referring to Elizabeth Hurley, and for the first time, I see Nigella really let loose and cackle.

The cupcakes at 11 Downing Street are a big hit, but Nigella fizzles on Have I Got News for You. No one understands the Delia T-shirt. No matter. The next few days are crammed with more book signings, another television taping, requests to lend her name to some new range of garlic tweezers for some exorbitant amount of cash. There’s dinner at The Ivy; planning Cosima’s “Come As Your Favorite Pop Star” birthday party; and the emergency appointment with Vaishaly, the one woman in London Nigella allows to thread (as opposed to wax) her bushy eyebrows. Two publishing companies have called about Nigella, the magazine. There’s serious talk of a tabletop line, called Nigellaware, for the stolid British retailer Asprey’s, and negotiations are in the works for selling her show to a network in the U.S.

Ed Victor, Nigella’s book agent, is worried about overexposing her; some of her friends are getting tetchy because she hasn’t made time for them. The irony, of course, is not lost on Nigella: What started out as a food column for women who were pressed for time has grown into a juggernaut that commands all of her time.

As I watch her remain gracious while being pulled in many directions, I wonder if her brainy, busty, messy beauty will play in the land of Emeril and Martha. “People will respond to the whole package: the looks, the personality, the food,” says Victor. “Women that beautiful or brainy are usually removed. Nigella is totally approachable, and because of that, she will cut across borders. She’s the perfect export.”

As her agent, Victor is paid to believe. Nigella, of course, is more sanguine. “I don’t want to have to live up to my own image. I don’t care about being the third most beautiful woman in the world. Nor do I want to be turned into some super-duper domestic personality. I want to grow in a slow way. I don’t want this to eat me up.”

I mention that yesterday I spotted, in a magazine that writes about her regularly, an ad featuring a buxom, lustrous, dark-haired model who could have been her twin. There are now Nigella wannabes.

“I can’t control these things.” The phone rings, and she lets it. “I can take responsibility for my presentation, but I can’t control everything. If there’s one thing in my life I’ve learned, it’s that.”