British Prime Minister David Cameron has stepped into the saga of Nigella Lawson, the cooking-show diva and TV personality, who is defending herself against allegations that she is a cocaine addict who paid two of her assistants hush money to keep news of her drug abuse from her ex-husband, advertising guru Charles Saatchi.
Although Nigella is not the defendant in the sensational case at Isleworth Crown Court in London – indeed, her two Italian aides, sisters Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo, are facing serious charges of credit card fraud – it seems that Nigella is herself the one on trial. That is because the Grillos -- who are accused of having spent £685,000 ($1.1 million) on credit cards that belonged to Lawson and Saatchi -- claim that Nigella “allowed” them to abuse her credit cards in exchange for keeping quiet about her alleged fondness for cocaine.
The Grillos allegedly bought designer goods, luxury holidays and beauty treatments during a four-year period from 2008 2012 through the use of embezzled funds (charges which they deny). But they are not really on trial – Nigella is, and her future hangs in the balance as much as the Grillo ragazze. For, if it is indeed proved that Nigella is a chronic drug abuser (including allegations that she snorted cocaine in front of her children), her image will be permanently shattered and future job prospects jeopardized.
However, Nigella has at least one very prominent supporter – in an episode that may be unprecedented in modern British history, David Cameron expressed his unequivocal support and admiration for Lawson. The prime minister told a journalist for British magazine The Spectator that he is a member of “Team Nigella” and a “massive fan” of the TV chef, which earned him a sharp rebuke from Robin Johnson, the judge presiding over the Grillos' trial.
Cameron also gushed: "I've had the great pleasure of meeting her [Nigella] a couple of times, and she always strikes me as a very funny and warm person, but I'm also an amateur cook and I like her recipes. Nancy [my 9-year-old daughter] and I sometimes watch a bit of Nigella on telly. Not in court, I hasten to add."
Jurors in the case have been ordered by the judge to “ignore” the favorable comments made by the most powerful man in the country. "It is of regret when people in public office comment about a person who is involved in a trial which is in progress," the judge told the jury, concurrently sniping at Cameron. "It is inconceivable that some of [the jury] may not have seen these comments. The defendants [Grillo sisters] feel aggrieved as the comments, although they do not specifically deal with matters in the trial, are favorable to Ms. Lawson. The fact they may feel aggrieved is not without justification.”
In a final slam against Cameron, the judge declared: "You will realize that what public figures may feel about this case or a witness in this case can have no bearing on the issues that you have to decide."
For the record, Nigella has denied chronic drug abuse, admitting that she took cocaine only twice in her life – once many years ago when she found out her first husband, journalist John Diamond, had terminal cancer; and the other time, three years ago, during another crisis in her stormy marriage to Saatchi. Also admitting to having smoked cannabis, she claimed that the idea that she is a “drug addict or habitual user of cocaine is absolutely ridiculous.” (The Grillos allege she is lying and that she is a big-time cokehead.)
Whether Nigella is telling the truth or not does not matter – she will forever be known as a druggie celebrity (and also the woman whose ill-tempered husband choked her around the throat during a meal at London’s famed Scott’s restaurant earlier this year). Now, the ugly details of their troubled relationship have been exposed in Britain’s tabloids and even in the more "respectable" papers.
To echo David Cameron, I am also a “massive fan” of Nigella Lawson and have been for many years, despite the fact that I have virtually no interest in cooking shows. Not only is she extraordinarily beautiful, glamorous, sexy and voluptuous, she also comes across (as Cameron stated) warm, down-to-earth and funny. To feign shock over revelations that a wealthy celebrity has abused drugs would be as disingenuous as expressing surprise to learn that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
More importantly, the saga surrounding Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi plays out like a high-class soap opera, with elements of gentility, sleaze, and even exoticism – that is, the type of celebrity scandal that one simply cannot find in the United States. Although neither Lawson nor Saatchi can be described as British aristocracy, they do indeed belong to a kind of nouveau riche “celebrity gentry” of the modern age (with a decidedly Jewish flavor). Nigella’s life story is replete with wealth, glamour, power, success and tragedy – her father was Nigel Lawson, the Baron Lawson of Blaby, a Conservative MP who also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Nigella’s mother was none other than Vanessa Salmon, a famous socialite and heiress to the J. Lyons & Co. restaurant-hotel-tobacco fortune. Vanessa was renowned for her beauty, prompting scores of men to fall madly in love with her throughout her brief life. But like any “poor little rich girl” tale, Nigella claimed that her mother was a jealous depressive and physically abusive toward her and created much unhappiness in the family. Vanessa died of liver cancer at the tragically young age of 48 in the mid-1980s. One of Nigella's sisters, Thomasina, also died of breast cancer in 1993.
Nigella’s former husband (No. 2, for those counting) Charles Saatchi also comes from a wealthy and influential Jewish family, but his origins are 2,500 miles away from London – in Baghdad, Iraq. The Saatchi family fled Iraq for the U.K. in 1947 in fear of anti-Semitic attacks and amassed a fortune in Britain.
Now 70 years old (17 years Nigella’s senior), Saatchi made his money in advertising (he founded the world-famous Saatchi & Saatchi agency with his brother Maurice) and art collection. Nigella was actually his third wife, having first married her in 2003. With a net worth of at least $100 million, Saatchi also reportedly has a history of abusive behavior toward his wives and his employees. I suspect more ugliness, domestic misconduct and melancholia will be revealed as this sordid trial continues – even if the Grillos are acquitted, Nigella has already suffered permanent humiliation and the smearing of her reputation (and she is, keep in mind, only a witness for the prosecution!).
Nigella and Saatchi may indeed be neurotic, selfish, insecure, self-obsessed, greedy and jealous (like most contemporary celebrities), but these two are far more interesting and compelling than the dull, tacky, manufactured pop culture stars that we in the United States are bombarded with on a daily basis.
One simply does not see women like Nigella anymore – she is like a vision from our romantic distant past: overwhelmingly, unambiguously feminine, beautiful beyond words, a "mother goddess" figure from our dreams – indeed, a voluptuous Cleopatra somehow living and breathing in the 21st century.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.