Padma Lakshmi on the Powerlessness of Modeling

When it comes to badass women, the theme of InStyle’s February Issue, Padma Lakshmi is no doubt among them. In the fall, the former international model and Top Chef host and executive producer revealed in a New York Times op-ed that she, too, had experienced sexual assault as a teen and kept silent about it for years. Inspired by the courage of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in her testimony against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Lakshmi penned her essay in support of the millions of women who wait to speak up about their experiences with assault or harrassment, or choose not to speak up at all.

Lakshmi says that she didn’t always acknowledge the power of her platform but has recently started to step up to the challenge of speaking up for other women. Now, with Time’s Up and #MeToo galvanizing women worldwide, she’s raising her voice louder than ever. “As I’ve come into my power and have a bigger platform, I feel more confident about speaking my mind and I want to do something positive,” she tells InStyle. “There’s always been this old boy’s network. I want to build a girls’ network so women have an even playing field. No one is going to give us our place at the table if we don’t elbow our way in and make room for others to join us. We need to depend on each other and build the equality we seek.”

RELATED: Padma Lakshmi on Going Public With Her Assault: “I Have Slayed the Dragon by Calling Out its Name”

For Lakshmi, being a badass is all about treating other women with respect and giving them the tools to rise up, as has been the female empowerment theme of the past year. “A badass is someone confident enough to always to lift other people up along the way with her,” she says. “I feel most powerful and like a badass when I can help somebody else.” Lakshmi also says mentorship has become a huge part of life as she tries to give women just starting out in their industries the support she didn’t necessarily have at the start of her career. Time’s Up gives her the perfect opportunity to do just that, but her positive influence on women doesn’t end there.

Below, Lakshmi shares her badass inspirations, how she’s raising her daughter to be confident, how she’s dealt with body-image pressures during her modeling career and beyond, her battle with endometriosis, and more.

Righteous role model: “I really admire all the women who formed Time’s Up and especially Lisa Borders, the new President and CEO,” Lakshmi says, adding that it was Borders’s support from the moment the two women met that helped her get through speaking about her sexual assault at a panel in the fall. As former president of the WNBA, “Lisa is incredibly inspiring. Maybe coming from the world of women’s professional sports makes her a natural coach,” Lakshmi muses. “Lisa makes you feel like she has your back. That’s what I aspire to do for the next generation of young women.”

RELATED: Where We Go From Here, According to Time’s Up President Lisa Borders

Badassery from the beginning: “I tattooed my name on a chef’s arm in New York one time. That felt pretty badass – I don’t know how I was legally allowed to do that, actually, now that I think of it,” Lakshmi jokes when asked about the most badass things she’s ever done. But she names founding the Endometriosis Foundation of America in 2009 as her first major badass moment. “I suffered in silence with this illness for decades not knowing there was treatment, even though I had access to good doctors and insurance and going to regular checkups,” she says. “When I did finally get the treatment, I felt angry that this illness had unnecessarily robbed me of functioning at my full potential for one week out of every month for almost a quarter century of my life.” Through the foundation, Lakshmi has been able to launch an awareness campaign, an educational program for teens, a medical conference, a nurse’s conference, and has given research grants to various related projects so that other people don’t have to suffer like she did.

With the foundation doing well, Lakshmi says she has more time to also devote to her other badass work at the ACLU as its Immigration Ambassador. “We raised over $100,000 for Immigrant Rights’ Project on Giving Tuesday [alone] which will go to support the civil liberties of immigrants and combat discrimination against them.”

Political points of pride: Lakshmi, who’s continued to speak out about her experience with sexual harassment, says that despite Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, there is plenty of reason to have hope in 2019. Kavanaugh’s appointment was a major low-point in an administration that has been filled with low points,” she says. “But inspiring women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez keep me hopeful. The influx of women elected to the House in the midterm elections is such a boon for us as a nation, and it’s amazing to see a political system filled with people who represent the diversity of this nation.”

Body image barriers: Lakshmi recalls back when she was an internationally successful model (in campaigns for Roberto Cavalli and more), she struggled with the pressure of having a “perfect” body. “My life changed very drastically from the time I was 21 to when I was 25: I had graduated from university and was eating a lot of ramen because I was always broke. [Then] I got an opportunity to model, and while I realize I had a job that many would envy, I didn’t feel good inside. I felt very powerless even though I was making money.” She says modeling took its toll on her self-confidence and self-esteem. “When what you do for a living is solely based on what you look like, you have no control and it’s hard as a young woman not to take that personally.” Lakshmi says that her 7-inch-long scar from a car accident she was in as a teen played a part in her waning confidence — but the industry’s diversity issues didn’t help. “I was a brown woman in a field dominated by white women,” she says. “This is still the case for many young women of color in every industry, including entertainment.”

Now, as a TV personality, the exact body issues are different. The toughest part of my job is balancing the opposing needs of everything I do. For instance, I consume more than anyone else on set, but I’m a woman on television and am still expected to fit into a size 4-6, or what we think in entertainment is acceptable for a woman to look like,” Lakshmi says. What then, keeps her going? Bringing her daughter to set and teaching her that there’s more to success than looks.

Teaching her daughter how to be confident: Lakshmi says motherhood has further inspired her to speak up and spread positivity for future generations. “[My daughter] Krishna is a fireball,” Lakshmi says. “She is whip smart and loves to sing. I try to give her the foundations of self-respect and encouragement, and also instill in her that she’ll have to take it from there.”

Overcoming imposter syndrome: Lakshmi says that during the beginning of her career on Top Chef, now in its 15th season, she dealt with imposter syndrome, or feeling like she was a fraud and didn’t belong. I’m not a chef, but I am a food writer who’s traveled extensively and I do bring that knowledge to my profession,” she says. “It was Chef Eric Ripert [a Top Chef guest judge] who taught me to have faith in my body of experience and that my strong palate, instincts about food, and perspective from my roots in India is fresh and valuable to the culinary world.”

Feeling vulnerable: Lakshmi, who earned American literature and theater degrees in college, says writing is her first love. Now, with three cookbooks, a memoir, and another book in the works, Lakshmi is rising to the top of her literary game. I am most proud of my memoir Love Loss And What We Ate,” she says of the book released in 2016 that details her immigrant childhood and time getting into TV. “It was my first chance to tell my story about a difficult period in my life in an authentic way, unfettered by tabloid scrutiny. It felt very vulnerable, but very freeing at the same time.”

For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Jan. 18.

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