Padma Lakshmi had asked me to meet her at a small Italian café on New York City’s Lower East Side, the neighborhood she calls home. The former model turned culinary icon of the hit US cooking show Top Chef has lived off-and-on in the city since she emigrated from India, nearly 40 years ago.
When I arrived at the café shortly before our 4.30 pm appointment, I was surprised to find it had not yet opened for the day. Inside the intimate space, staff were slowly setting up the bar and wiping down surfaces. Most of the chairs were turned over on tables from the previous night’s cleaning. We were unexpected, so I took two spaces at the otherwise vacant counter.
Lakshmi soon appeared, dressed in the New York uniform of all black, and quickly warned against any physical contact: she was recovering from a bout of bronchitis. (“Still sick in my pajamas. But the meds are kicking in,” and “This is me now … Bronchitis and bed ridden!!! I hate being sick!!!” she had tweeted the previous week.) Despite the illness, she was radiant—skin dewy and smooth, her sculptural cheekbones even more striking atop the pedestal of her long, slim neck. With hardly any makeup on, fluttering black lashes, and her hair in two long braids, she was even more of natural beauty than I had expected. “Nothing makes me happier than an Indian girl who tweets at me, or somebody on the street who stops me and says, ‘Thank you so much, because I really didn’t have people who look like me, no other brown faces that love lipstick and literature too’,” Lakshmi told me. More:
One of India’s most respected fashion photographers, Prabuddha Dasgupta, 58, passed away Sunday while he was at a photo shoot near Mumbai. A self-taught photographer, Dasgupta was known for his ground-breaking black and white imagery which established a new visual style for India’s emerging fashion scene in the Nineties…Dasgupta divided time between Goa and New Delhi. He was in a relationship with top model Lakshmi Menon, 30, who has done shows for Jean Paul Gaultier and Hermès including campaigns for the likes of Max Mara, Givenchy, H&M and Nordstrom, among others. [The Hollywood Reporter]
In April this year, Geoff Dyer did a profile of Prabuddha in The Paris Review: read here in Asian Window
Shobhaa De interviewed on NDTV 24×7 by Shekhar Gupta:
How did the book, Shobhaa at Sixty, happen?
It happened because I felt strongly about women and age and it was important to send a message to women. I feel sixties may turn out to be the most productive decade of my life.
I bet you said the same when you turned 30, 40, 50.
Yes, but 60 is more significant in Indian society. You are meant to alter your personality suitably to confirm to society’s ideals of what a 60-year-old woman ought to be. It is comforting for society to think of women of my age, my vintage, to be harmless creatures. You put them on the shelf and hope they don’t make too much of a noise, mind their own business, preferably pray for many long hours without intruding into family and society. So they are, in a way, excommunicated. And I want to change that. Today’s grandmoms are not the nanis-dadis of old. They are babes and they don’t want to be dismissed with ‘Your life is over honey’.
Tell us one highlight from each decade of your life.
The highlight of one to 10 was my discovery of Delhi. My father was in the Ministry of Law there. The second decade was defined by athletics, being a jock. Between 10 and 20, I was a star athlete, representing my school and my state. I did the 100 metre-dash, the long jump and the decathlon.
At 17, you were a model.
I started modelling. The early 20s were dominated by modelling. It was a kinder, gentler world, not as fiercely competitive as now. You did your own make-up and you pretty much wore your own clothes. I was fortunate to get the top campaigns—Bombay Dyeing, the first few ads of Vimal and I was the Pond’s girl for five years or so. That was also the time I first modelled for Vogue. I think I was the first Indian woman to be on the cover of the French Vogue.
Take us to your 30s, 40s.
The 30s and 40s were a discovery of my potential as an editor and I loved it. More:
Dileep Padgaonkar on Anjali Phyllis Mendes, India’s first supermodel on the international stage who passed away at age 64 on June 17 in a hospital in Aix-en-Provence, France. In The Times of India:
Sometime in early June 1971, a woman called at my home in Paris, where I was posted as this newspaper’s correspondent, introduced herself as Phyllis Mendes, a model from Bombay, and said she had some news which could be of interest to me. She had arrived in the city two days earlier to seek an opening in the Mecca of haute couture. Within twenty-four hours, Pierre Cardin had engaged her, the first ever ‘coloured’ model in the history of France’s fashion business. She was eager to tell me her story down to the last telling detail.
My wife and I asked her over for dinner that very evening. Since she towered over both of us, the first thing I asked her was: ‘How’s the weather up there?’ Without a moment’s hesitation she answered: ‘Very, very cool. And down there?’ The repartee was the beginning of a friendship that remained intact, despite frequent interruptions lasting several years, for over four decades.
Throughout the evening, Phyllis spoke about the turns and twists in her young life: a strict, religious upbringing in a lower middle class Goan Roman Catholic family; a difficult childhood and adolescence in the back lanes of Byculla; indifferent studies in school and college; the initial forays in modelling; the first crushes and so forth. But what caught our attention was her fierce ambition to wow the rich and famous who frequented the salons of Parisian fashion designers. It reflected her deep-seated desire to get even with those who had heaped insults and indignities on her back home because of her class origins, dark skin, ordinary looks, poor eye-sight and, not least, her tall and lanky frame. More:
In 1971, before Parisian ramps had seen women of colour, before Grace Jones and Naomi Campbell, a dark, 6ft- 1-inch tall, sari-clad model waited in French designer Pierre Cardin’s salon for eight hours. Cardin’s assistant called a manager, telling him that an Indian princess had come to buy clothes. When Cardin finally met her, she was hired on the spot. He called her ‘a jolie’ (Anjali), and Phyllis Mendes became Cardin’s muse for a little over 12 years. She also modelled for designers such as Ungaro, Scaperelli and Givenchy. But the former supermodel remained a Goan girl who served her sorpotel with champagne at her apartment in Paris.
Mendes, 64, passed away on Thursday in a hospital in Aix-en-Provence after suffering from an unidentified stomach infection. She had just moved from her apartment in Paris to a chateau in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France.
Her friends from the fashion and advertising fraternity in India are shocked. Several of them met her during her last visit to India about three weeks ago. “She was remarkably healthy and disciplined. She did her yoga and prayers everyday and ate carefully. This is all too surprising,” designer Wendell Rodericks said over the phone from Goa.
Mendes returned to India frequently to visit friends and family. She was the fourth of seven children born to Cajetan and Flo Mendes. While in college, she worked as a secretary to ad guru Bobby Sista. “She was extremely sharp, had thick glasses, long limbs and hair that went down to her knees,” Sista recalls. One day, while on a bus to office, a magazine editor suggested that she apply for a forthcoming fashion show. more