Let’s clear this up from the start: Nigella Lawson chafes at her image as a sex symbol. Sitting with the woman they call the Domestic Goddess in a Melbourne hotel room, I can see a flicker of annoyance on her face when I bring up the sex symbol thing.
Maybe it’s because she’s been asked about it so many times before. She’s certainly sensitive about the whole topic. Still, as artless as she might consider the description, I’m not going to avoid the issue.
We all know all TV food shows have a shtick: Jamie Oliver is a cheeky chap; Rick Stein is a genial dag; Poh is a warm and giggling enthusiast; Heston is the scientist; Nigella is sexy. That’s the shorthand. Good on all of them, because viewers have bought into these brands – big time.
But that’s not how the woman herself sees it. When I mention her past comments that she is the least salacious person she knows, she’s quick to agree. “I know,” she says. “People project on to you. When people say I’m doing innuendo, I haven’t got a clue why they think that. I know that it isn’t intended that way.
“I am quite an intimate person and quite intense, but I am not coquettish. But I also do know that sometimes when I’m feeling a bit shy or awkward or embarrassed, sometimes it comes across as a sort of coyness.”
She thinks it might be how she phrases things. “I’m not trying to be like a home economics teacher, not that I could be. I’m not talking down to people. I’m using the sort of language in the way that I would describe the food.”
Anyway, she doesn’t like the whole sex symbol thing. “I’m not comfortable with it. I’m at an age where it feels quite amusing but …” A tiny shrug. “I don’t complain about it. There are a lot of things that feed into what makes us respond to someone on TV. This image you’re talking about is the glamour of TV itself and that isn’t necessarily to do with me.”
Nigella, 56, is a blue-chip star, triple A-list, whatever you want to call it. People are fascinated by her. When I mentioned to friends that I was going to interview Nigella, their reaction was somewhere between envy and amazement. Being granted some one-on-one face-time with the Domestic Goddess is, clearly, no small achievement.
Up close she’s welcoming but seems slightly awkward about doing an interview. It’s as though she is a bit bemused at the notion of celebrity, dismissive of the mythologising of the famous. It’s a disarming quality. She strikes me as someone who would be a great, laid-back lunch companion.
She’s wearing all black: trousers and top and cardigan. It’s just us today (oh, all right, except for a publicist hovering in the corner). Nigella speaks in that charming, upper-crust Hugh Grant style, smart and confident enough to um and ah and take one’s time to gather one’s thoughts and make one’s point. It’s all very English and very conversational, as though she’s just ruminating over a long lunch, which is indeed what she loves to do.
Her speech and poise reflect her privileged start in life (her father Nigel Lawson is a peer of the realm and was Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer) but you could hardly say she has had an easy life. She lost her mother and her first husband, Sunday Times columnist John Diamond, to cancer, both in their 40s, and her beloved sister Thomasina died of breast cancer in her early 30s.
Then in 2013 Nigella made international headlines when she was photographed with her second husband, Charles Saatchi, with his hand around her throat. The couple soon ended their 10-year marriage. Later that year Nigella was embroiled in an ugly court case involving two former assistants, who accused her of using cocaine.
While I’ve been advised by Nigella’s minders not to ask about personal matters, I do inquire whether work has been a solace during the tough times. She pauses for a moment. “Work is necessary because without work you don’t pay the bills. But yes, of course, work is important and it gives a structure.
“But I don’t know that I look for solace in life. Yes I’ve had tough times. Everyone does, but I’ve also got a lot to be very grateful for. But I would say simply that human beings look for purpose in life and I enjoy what I do, and I also enjoy cooking because I’ve got friends coming round.”
I mention that through all her difficulties, she has shown remarkable resilience. “I realised when I was quite young that human beings are much more resilient than they think they are. On the whole, most human beings would rather not find that out.”
Nigella started her career as a newspaper book reviewer and restaurant critic and moved into freelance journalism and then cookbooks which, she says, have become a version of an autobiography. “When I look at my books, the recipes are to me like a diary or a photograph album. They are so much part of what I’d been cooking at that stage of my life.
“In my first book I’ve got a chapter on weaning and feeding infants and toddlers. Another has a section on teen feasts. When I discovered baking I wrote a book about that. I write about what I’m cooking at the time … might be how old my children are, or a sudden enthusiasm I get.”
She didn’t plan to move into television and make cooking shows, the medium that made her a worldwide superstar: “I’m not a planner,” she says.
Did she envisage a life like this? “No, not remotely. I thought I’d stay a journalist. Earlier than that I thought I’d be an academic. I’m not a performer and I’m not really driven to do things publicly. But the thing is – maybe this comes from being a journalist – I have a desire to communicate.”
The demands of TV were different to writing. “I like writing. I get very absorbed, like the feeling I get when I cook. Once I’m in it I like communicating my enthusiasm and my ideas. When I do TV that moment before the director says ‘action!’ is the worst. It’s terrifying but exciting as well. In a way I make it easy for myself because I’m not scripted so I do that, like filling the empty page.”
There’s no doubting Nigella, now worth an estimated ₤15 million ($28.5 million), has created an extraordinary global brand. She’s the untrained “home” cook, moving stylishly around the kitchen (her own for a while), not adhering slavishly to the recipe and gently showing us what to do in that famously mellifluous sing-song voice that could melt a block of dark chocolate at five paces. It was, of course, TV gold.
Why the popularity? “It’s very hard to look at yourself from the outside,” she says. “How I view myself is very much from a different [perspective]. There is something about television where people project things on to you, which aren’t necessarily to do with the person they’re projecting things on to. There’s this strange intimacy of television because you’re coming into people’s homes.
“I think people can see that I am being me. Television gives a slightly glamorised version … but I’m not trying to be someone I’m not. And I cook in the same ways that people at home cook. Every now and again someone will say, ‘Someone should teach her knife skills’. Well you don’t need knife skills to cook your family’s supper. It doesn’t matter if you take a bit longer and it’s a bit clumsy.”
She’s about keeping it real – not easy when you’re uber-glamorous and a worldwide star. “TV is in one sense completely artificial; my programs are half an hour and yet there I am cooking five things that would go on for four hours or whatever.
“Your hair’s done, your make-up’s on, the lighting’s meant to make you look better than you do, and so on. But even if it’s artificial, it’s also quite a good phoniness detector. On the whole I don’t think TV works if people are not [themselves].”
She has been on the quest to keep it real from the beginning. “When I did the first series I did it at home because I didn’t really want to do TV, so I said, ‘Well, if I can do it in my own home and not be scripted, I’ll do it’. That gave it a straightforwardness and intimacy that was different from being behind a counter with a fixed camera just doing the recipes.”
I ask how international recognition sits with her – when she wanders down to the shops does she sometimes wish that people weren’t looking at her? “I walk to the shops very easily. Maybe being short-sighted is also useful.
“Generally speaking if someone wants to come up and say, ‘I love the recipes’ or ‘I love your shows’ that’s a nice thing. I’m grateful. I do think writing or talking about food is a form of communication and people want to communicate back, and I understand that.”
Nigella was in Melbourne to film a series of episodes of MasterChef, which will air later this month, featuring the Domestic Goddess as a guest judge. I ask whether she is a fan of the food-as-reality-TV format?
“The difficulty with a lot of chef-led cooking is that as much as it can be inspiring it can be quite intimidating because it’s difficult. So it’s good to have all sorts of food on TV. It’s a way of understanding the world. How people cook and what they cook is a very intimate part of where they come from. It’s so difficult to separate the food that we eat from the people we are.”
When she was in town, there was little time for leisure. But she says she did enjoy dining at George Calombaris’ Press Club, as well as Andrew McConnell’s Cutler & Co.
Our famous Aussie beaches weren’t a drawcard, though. “I am not a beach person. If I were here on holidays I’d be going round and eating more. I love to see the sky and the sea but I don’t like to be on the beach.”
Our time is up. I finish by asking when she’s at her happiest. “I’m quite fortunate in that I really love company but I also like being by myself and being lazy as well,” she says. “Pottering in the kitchen and lying on the sofa reading.”
For a global superstar, she seems to like the same sort of things as the rest of us.