Feature writing


Nigella Lawson: another chef lands in the soup

The New York Times

December 12, 2013

Last week, the celebrity cook Nigella Lawson admitted in a London court that she had used cocaine and marijuana.

While the case itself was not about her illicit drug use (it was a fraud trial involving two former personal assistants accused of taking £685,000, or more than $1.1 million, from Ms. Lawson and her former husband, the advertising executive Charles Saatchi), Ms. Lawson became the latest TV cooking star to find herself embroiled in a tabloid scandal.

Paula Deen made unwelcome headlines last summer for using racist language in a court deposition, costing her a Food Network show, major endorsements and a book deal. Gordon Ramsay has been accused of infidelity (he has denied it) and was embroiled in a public feud with his father-in-law. Mario Batali and his business partners were accused of illegally confiscating their servers’ tips. And, of course, Martha Stewart was sentenced to five months in jail and fined $30,000 for lying to federal investigators about a stock sale in late 2001. Celebrity chefs, it seems, have become the new rock stars of behaving badly.

“In recent years there has been a Bourdain-shaped perception of the industry: that a chef has a rebellious, pirate lifestyle,” said Chris Ying, editor in chief of the food magazine Lucky Peach. He was referring to Anthony Bourdain, the TV chef whose fame and bad-boy persona rose with his revelations of heroin, cocaine and alcohol abuse. “You’re supposed to do cocaine and smoke pot, be a bad boy, work hard, work late, party hard, party late, sleep late, go to work again,” Mr. Ying said.

So what is a celebrity chef to do in the face of all this?

To Adam Rapoport, editor in chief of Bon Appétit magazine, the Lawson case shows the difference between chefs and celebrity chefs. “No one’s going to raise an eyebrow about the average New York chef going out and drinking and sometimes doing cocaine,” Mr. Rapoport said. “That’s what chefs do. It’s par for the course.

“The issue with Nigella or Paula Deen,” he said, “is the difference between how a celebrity chef presents themselves on the page or on the screen, and what they say or do in public. People don’t like to be deceived. Paula Deen was like your mom or aunt.”

Ms. Lawson’s travails come at a key moment in her career. While a huge star in Britain through her popular TV shows and best-selling cookbooks, she is best known in the United States for being a judge on The Taste, a cooking competition show on ABC that received mixed reviews during its first season earlier this year. The show returns on Jan. 2 with Ms. Lawson as one of the judges.

Some public relations experts say Ms. Lawson has a good chance of weathering the uproar with little lasting damage to her brand.

“Nigella’s situation could not be more different from Paula Deen’s,” Eric Dezenhall, the chief executive of Dezenhall Resources, a communications firm based in Washington that specializes in crisis management, wrote in an email. “Race is the cyanide pill of scandals. Almost no one fully recovers from racial self-implosions.”

That is different, he noted, from marital and other personal struggles. “Messing with drugs during a low period? Plenty of people would find these things defensible in Nigella’s brand demographic,” he wrote. “Sure, things look rough now, but my money is on this thing passing.”

Mark Pasetsky, the chief executive of Mark Allen & Company, a public relations firm based in New York, agreed. “As long as Nigella is honest, she’ll be fine,” he said. “Besides, Americans love a comeback, and a lot of her audience might identify with some of the problems she is speaking about.”

Mr. Rapoport said Americans are forgiving if you are direct and tell the truth. “What they don’t like — and you can see this in the case of shamed sportsmen like Lance Armstrong — is when people dance around something or lie, or are found out to have lied.”

Ms. Lawson is “more Ina Garten than Paula Deen, a high-end home cook,” Mr. Rapoport said. “Paula Deen transcended a whole group of categories: she was mother, aunt, friend, confidante. Rachael Ray has a similar quality. Gordon Ramsay is perceived to be a jerk: that’s his whole shtick. He started out sweary. It’s about presenting yourself honestly.”

What should Ms. Lawson do after the trial to bolster her career and image in the United States? Mr. Pasetsky said she should book a one-on-one live interview with a well-known journalist so she can tell her side of the story. “With her show on ABC, it would be best for her to sit down with either Diane Sawyer or Robin Roberts,” he said. “They would both provide a friendly yet credible environment.”

Mr. Dezenhall recommended a stealthier rehabilitation campaign. “Less is more: media roadshows are overkill,” he wrote in his email. “Go away for a while, let the wave of bad press wash over you, then pick one venue where an interviewer will let you speak, characterize your hardship, and then shut up.”