Padma Lakshmi's Tragic Story

Padma Lakshmi is one the most influential women in reality TV and perhaps all of Hollywood. She is arguably one of the most popular judges in the history of Bravo's "Top Chef" and a woman of intelligence, grace, and poise who's used her culinary talents to become one of the entertainment industry's most powerful women. She's written a memoir, several cookbooks, and even a children's book. She is the creator, host and executive producer of the award-winning Hulu show "Taste the Nation," which explores food cultures across the United States. She's also appeared in a smattering of movies and TV shows as she tried her hand at acting on several occasions. 

For Lakshmi, though, the life of a TV cooking queen hasn't always been sunshine and rainbows. Long before she was dishing out wisdom in the kitchen, she was going through some of life's biggest hardships, and fame didn't make things much easier for her. She's had a turbulent romantic life punctuated by a curious love triangle, bitter heartbreak, and even death. If all you've ever known about her is how good she is with food, you might be surprised to learn some of the tragic details in her life.  

She's dealt with racism that created deep insecurities

Born in 1970, Padma Lakshmi faced tragedy with the breakup of her parents when she was 2 years old. With divorce a taboo in her native India, Lakshmi's mother relocated to the United States. Lakshmi joined her two years later. But even though America is often seen as a melting pot of diversity, Lakshmi's reality wasn't one of unceasing tolerance. She's regularly witnessed firsthand the injustices of racism. In a 2019 opinion piece for The Washington Post, she wrote, "Regardless of what we do, regardless of how much we assimilate and contribute, we are never truly American enough because our names sound funny, our skin isn't white, or our grandmothers live in a different country."

The persistent racist gaze of Hollywood also contributed to her internal challenges. "I liked who I was," Lakshmi said in her 2016 memoir, "Love, Loss, and What We Ate," "but I also wished I could be a more salable color, a better commodity, a toothpaste-commercial-worthy girl. It took years for this internalized self-loathing to fade." 

Eventually becoming a parent to a mixed-race daughter made her even more appreciative of her differences. "When I look at my daughter, with her green eyes and light skin but with my bone structure, I see the strange reflection of the 'me' I had long wanted to be," she wrote. "The funny thing is, when she looks back at me, she covets all the features I once wanted gone."

She detailed a traumatic incident at a young age

Growing up, Padma Lakshmi says she often had to share her home with extended family. Back in her native India, sharing rooms with older relatives was common so no one thought much about the sleeping arrangements in the family's apartment in Queens. But it was during this time — at age 7 — that Lakshmi says she was sexually assaulted by one of those relatives. She had been sharing a bed with a male member of the family in his mid-20s when the abuse happened, as she described in her memoir.

When Lakshmi told her mother, she says she was forced to reenact the traumatic moment to show other adults in the family what had happened. Shortly after that, she was sent back to India to live with her grandparents, as Lakshmi told The New York Times in a 2018 interview. 

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

Injuries from a car crash devastated her family

At age 14, Padma Lakshmi was involved in a debilitating crash that scarred her for life in more ways than one. The family's car skidded off the freeway and fell more than 40 feet down an embankment. "There was a loud bang, and I looked out the windshield and saw nothing but the prettiest blue sky," she wrote in Vogue. "Our red Ford Mercury sedan was airborne." 

Lakshmi and her parents sustained serious injuries. The eventual "Top Chef" judge suffered a broken hip as well as a shattered right arm that left a seven-inch scar. More severely injured, though, was her mother, who was also pregnant at the time. "My mother had broken bones, had a cardiac contusion," she told PEOPLE years later. "Her heart would not have sustained that pregnancy." 

So, her mother opted to end her pregnancy. Lakshmi went with her mother to Planned Parenthood, where they endured the abuse of anti-abortion protestors as they entered the building. "I remember how hard it was to even drive there and get out of the car, and then to be met with the jeering mob that we were met with was really excruciating," Lakshmi told PEOPLE.

She was diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson syndrome

Lakshmi's recovery and rehab from a near-fatal car crash was the second time in as many months she was in the hospital. Mere weeks before, she'd been diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a serious skin condition that, according to the Mayo Clinic doesn't just have long-term effects, but it is potentially fatal and often an emergency that requires immediate life-saving treatment.

Often stemming from reactions to medication, Stevens-Johnson manifests with flu-like symptoms and a blistering rash. "Ulcers and lesions attacked and scalded my eyes, mouth, and throat," Lakshmi wrote in her memoir. "I'd first gone to a local hospital, but even the electric ice bed they put me on couldn't lower my fever." Things got so bad for her that Lakshmi's mother had her moved by private ambulance to another hospital where the older woman worked as an oncology nurse. Before long, Lakshmi lost her sight and couldn't speak for weeks. She was all but incapacitated, unable to even sleep lying down. Though she hasn't discussed exactly when or how she recovered, the now highly-active Lakshmi appears to have done so or at least managed her condition over the years.

She was sexually assaulted as a teen

Lakshmi has always been open and frank about an incident where she was sexually assaulted when she was just 16 years old. She gave a detailed account of the experience in The New York Times  in 2018, noting that it began with a night out with her 23-year-old date, who brought her back to his apartment.

"While we were talking, I was so tired that I lay on the bed and fell asleep," she recalled, going on to describe the brutal assault. For years she avoided telling anyone — even her closest family — about what happened, first out of shock, and then out of shame and guilt. "I began to feel that it was my fault. We had no language in the 1980s for date rape," she said.

In time, though, Lakshmi understood that she wasn't to blame and now looks back wondering if she could have been spared years of suffering if she'd come forward sooner. That's why she spoke to The New York Times, telling others to "Get out of there and tell somebody. Nobody is allowed to put their hands on you. Your body is yours."

Her husband was nearly killed in a politically motivated attack

Unless you're a huge fan of Padma Lakshmi there's probably a lot you don't know about her, from her appearance in an episode of "Star Trek: Enterprise" to her charitable endeavors. But in addition to her media fame, Lakshmi was also known for her marriage to acclaimed novelist and activist Salman Rushdie. They were married for three years, divorcing in 2007. During that time, Lakshmi has said that she was concerned about a fatwā edict demanding his execution, issued in 1989 by Iran's then-leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Iranian officials placed a $6 million dollar bounty on his head for his novel "The Satanic Verses" which they believed disparaged Islam. 

After evading attacks for decades, in 2022 Rushdie found himself critically wounded when a man stabbed him while Rushie was speaking at the Chautauqua Institution in New York — ironically following a talk on free speech and censorship.

Though they had been divorced for quite some time, Lakshmi remained concerned for her former husband. "Relieved @SalmanRushdie is pulling through after Friday's nightmare," she wrote on Twitter. "Worried and wordless, can finally exhale. Now hoping for swift healing." Rushdie struggled through recovery, but eventually healed, though he permanently lost his right eye.

She claims endometriosis contributed to the end of her marriage

Endometriosis is a serious medical condition that includes excessive scar tissue that often builds up around the ovaries and fallopian tubes. It's a condition that Padma Lakshmi has dealt with all her life, and she's talked about the many problems the disorder has created for her.

Lakshmi has acknowledged the seriousness of her condition, recognizing the health problems it can create and its effect on fertility. In fact, endometriosis is the real reason Lakshmi never thought she'd have children. But the issues that endometriosis created touched every corner of her life, from chronic fatigue on the set of "Top Chef" to tension in her marriage to Salman Rushdie. According to Lakshmi, the couple's lack of intimacy — which Lakshmi attributed to her endometriosis — became an increasing problem for Rushdie. She also acknowledged that she may have used it as an excuse, too.

"I was free to wallow in my malaise, and nurse myself without seeing the disappointment in his face," she wrote in her memoir. "I needed to deal fully with what was happening to me. And I could only do that when I was alone."

She endured public backlash during pregnancy

Two years after she divorced Salman Rushdie, Lakshmi began quietly seeing noted venture capitalist Adam Dell, around the same time she was also in a relationship with billionaire businessman Theodore "Teddy" Forstmann. During a break with Forrestman, Lakshmi was told by her doctor that she was pregnant. Because she was technically single at the time and had recently been seeing two different men, the identity of her unborn child's father wasn't certain. The media soon pounced on the situated.

"It was just about as horrible as is possible to be," Lakshmi told The New Yorker in 2024, noting that she was unfairly shamed. Mere weeks after the birth of her daughter Krishna in early 2010 it was announced that the father was Dell, whose 2009 relationship with Lakshmi had been surprisingly low profile. Though Lakshmi asked for privacy and gave few details, the pair reportedly never entered into a long-term relationship but did agree on visitation rights.

Lakshmi's pregnancy was difficult

It wasn't just public commentary that made things hard for Padma Lakshmi surrounding the birth of her daughter. While she was pregnant with Krishna, she went through a particularly difficult third trimester, as she explained in 2021. "It was very scary," Lakshmi said in a 2021 episode of the PEOPLE podcast "Me Becoming Mom," where she revealed that she was bedridden for months towards the end of her pregnancy. The cause was placenta previa, where the placenta obstructs the opening of the cervix and practically guarantees a caesarean section, as per the National Library of Medicine

"It was December, January, and February. So it was very cold," she said. Concerned for the health of her unborn child, Lakshmi had to follow strict instructions to ease her symptoms, manage fatigue, and avoid a more serious complication. "[My doctor] told me I could take a shower every third day, and I would just be going to the bathroom twice a day, and my mom had to walk me," she said in the interview. "And if I cheated or if he saw anything then he would take me to the hospital."

Lakshmi attempted to continue her work, though she had to take meetings from her bed and cut back her schedule. Thankfully, under the care of doctors, she was able to make it through her pregnancy and give birth to a healthy baby.

She has experienced controversy regarding her stance on Israel

In late 2023, the world was rocked by a renewed hostilities between Israel and terrorist group Hamas, kicking off a protracted war in Gaza that has polarized supporters on both sides of the issue. As Israel faces international condemnation for its reactions, many celebrities have decided to stay quiet on the geopolitical crisis. But some have spoken up in defense of Palestinians, of which more than 35,000 (mostly civilians) have died (via Reuters).

On April 4th, Lakshmi took to Instagram to demand a permanent ceasefire. Posting a video that spoke to Israel's alleged war crimes — including sabotaging aid convoys and targeting journalists and children – Lakshmi said that she only wanted to see an end to the slaughter of civilians.

Some commenters were quick to rake Lakshmi over the coals for what they perceived to be a lack of support for Israel. However, it's worth noting that Lakshmi isn't entirely disconnected from the conflict, as her daughter's family on her father's side is Jewish. Since her initial post, Lakshmi has seemingly piped down, perhaps fearing further backlash.

She fought a bitter custody battle over her daughter

In January 2011, a year after daughter Krishna was born, Lakshmi found herself the target of a lawsuit filed by Adam Dell over custodial rights to their child. The suit alleged that Lakshmi made a deliberate attempt to cut Dell out of Krishna's life, using her reluctance to publicly reveal the identity of Krishna's father as evidence. The subsequent parental rights and custody battle lasted for over a year.

When March 2012 rolled around, the case was settled. Lakshmi won full parental rights, while Dell received increased custody and added visitation rights. He also won the fight for recognition as Krishna's father; she now carries the surname of Lakshmi-Dell.

Shortly after the decision was made PEOPLE magazine spoke to someone who was reportedly close to Lakshmi and who made clear that it was a win. "Padma basically said it was fine to add his name, but she retains all decision-making power, which is really what matters most to her," the source claimed. 

She faced anxiety as her fame grew

For some, the attention of the media can be too much to bear — as eventually became the case for Lakshmi, who has talked about the struggle of being a food personality. After beginning her relationship with Salman Rushdie, the press hounded the new power couple, causing real anxiety. Despite having done big media tours before, walking the red carpet with Rushdie was different, as Lakshmi described in her memoir

"For some reason now, with cameras going off like automatic weapons, my worried thoughts ... became a physical presence," she wrote. "I couldn't breathe. Salman sensed something was wrong and I found comfort in his hand steady around my waist. For the next few years, until we divorced, I had panic attacks on the red carpet."

It wasn't until 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic that Lakshmi finally had a breakthrough with her anxiety. "I made it through much of the quarantine keeping my s*** together," she told The Hollywood Reporter, noting that she threw herself into her work as a distraction, "but six months later a dam broke inside me." Ultimately, Lakshmi chose regular therapy and positive self-care routines to ease her struggle. "The one thing COVID taught me is that all those things I thought I absolutely had to do? I don't," she said.

She lost her partner in 2011

For years, Padma Lakshmi had an on-again, off-again relationship with high-powered business mogul Teddy Forstmann. It was during a break with Forstmann that Lakshmi conceived her daughter Krishna, but despite the difficulties between them, their bond remained strong. Forstmann even reportedly wanted to raise Krishna as his own daughter.

Sadly, Forstmann died of brain cancer in 2011, shattering the nascent family and Lakshmi most of all. "I wrapped my grief around me like a cloak," she wrote in her memoir. "He had entered my life and in so doing had altered it completely and ineradicably, and now his death, his exit, altered it anew." 

While she was dealing with the sudden passing of her partner, Lakshmi was still managing a bitter custody battle over Krishna with Adam Dell. To cope, she focused on taking care of her daughter. "My cocoon of grief became so familiar to me, so safe, so cozy, that I did not want to venture out." Forstmann left behind a hefty trust fund for Lakshmi's daughter.