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Padma Lakshmi Is a ‘Happy Little Sorceress,’ Designing Jewelry and Making Massage Oil

Padma Lakshmi is her own best advertiser. Every week on Top Chef, people tune in to see not only what she's eating, but what she's wearing. When tomorrow's episode airs, for example, let your eyes linger on the luscious TV-host-slash-model-slash-actress-slash-author's jewelry — it's almost all exclusively from her PADMA by Padma Lakshmi collection, which she launched in May 2009 and now sells through Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. The pieces retail for between $300 and $6,000, and reflect Lakshmi’s Indian background without being overtly ethnic. (Translation: Her jewelry appeals to more than just Indophiles and hippies; case in point, Kyra Sedgwick wore a pair of her earrings on The Late Show With David Letterman last night.) You can even spot a bit of a foodie influence: Some of the baubles feature clusters of peppercorns, bean pods, and raksha nuts cast in ten-karat and fourteen-karat gold. Click ahead to see a slideshow of Lakshmi's jewelry, and to find out how the self-described "happy little sorceress" makes women's hands look thinner, why she dreams of opening her own general store, and — okay, totally tangentially — what her all-time favorite meal was on Top Chef.

So, why jewelry?
When I started doing Top Chef, there was nothing in the marketplace that I wanted to wear. A girlfriend of mine, who I now design with, made ten pieces for me. I just drew them with a pad and pencil and showed her pieces in my personal collection that I wanted updated. It was pretty simple stuff — very delicate, very feminine, it all had movement, and was designed to enhance and adorn, rather than upstage. People started asking me where I got it.

What’s your favorite?
The adjustable pod hand piece; it’s unexpectedly wearable. When we first made it, nobody wanted to carry it, but now it always sells out. It is a bit fetishistic, a little bit eccentric, and it looks good on anyone’s hands — whether you are 16 or 60 and have long, skinny fingers or a chubby hand. You don’t want your jewelry to make you look fat. A lot of what’s out there now does — you just wind up looking like a Christmas tree.

The Indian influence is pretty subtle ...
Obviously I’m influenced by my background. I’d be thickheaded if I didn’t [take inspiration from it], but I also wanted to do it in a modern way. I did the slate silver because of what was happening on the Paris, Milan, and New York runways. You never see that color metal in Indian jewelry. You see oxidized silver but it’s always very hippie. I wanted really high-end and luxurious — something that would go with your Balenciaga motorcycle jacket.

What’s the Nav?
Every season we always do a microcollection based on the Hindu principles of the Navratna. Nav means nine, and ratna means "jewel" or "stone" in Sanskrit. Each stone harnesses the therapeutic properties of one of the nine planets. If you wear them all together, it is said to bring good luck, well-being, and holistic balance to the wearer. If you go in any jewelry shop in India, you’ll see either a ring or necklace with nine stones. I wanted to incorporate that notion into something beautiful to me.

What has surprised you about designing?
What people respond to — you never know when it’s going to catch a wave and when it’s not.

You wear your jewelry a lot on Top Chef, where you’re already known for your body-conscious style.
Normally my weight yo-yos anyway, but this season has been a surprise after having the baby [4-month-old daughter Krishna]. I gravitate toward color naturally, and I look for something that feels good. I want to feel pretty when I put it on. If it doesn’t flatter you, it’s no use to you.

What’s the best meal you've ever had on Top Chef?
Fideos, a clam and noodle dish, by season-two winner Ilan Hall. I still remember it.

When you see chefs behaving badly once the season airs, do you wish you had voted differently?
I’m not aware of that and I don’t want to be. I have to just judge them on their food. It’s none of my business. If you go into a high-end restaurant, you’re thinking about ordering a rib eye, not about whether that chef is nice or not.

Last week’s Quickfire Challenge was about baby food. Did you learn any tips for Krishna?
Tom [Colicchio] and I were joking that a lot of the baby food was better than the adult food. Did I learn anything? Not much. Babies should eat natural food from the kitchen … but I’m a new mom, so I’m not going to give out advice yet.

We also hear that you make your own perfume?
Just for my friends and me. I find organic oils and mix the perfumes myself. I also make body and massage oil for the summer. A mosquito repellent with citronella and geranium or a topical diuretic for bikini season with juniper and citrus oils.

How do you balance everything?
It’s great and hectic. I’m lucky in that my daughter is so tiny; I can take her to design meetings. I had her on set, too. I took breaks, nursed her, and then went back to work. Everyone at the network was so supportive — even the caterers, who read about what was good for breast milk so they could make me special shakes.

What’s next?
To add products to the collection, to branch out, and do other things. I’d like to eventually open a very high-end general store, like they have in Paris. I want to sell everything — gourmet teas from my Easy Exotic culinary line, handbags, silver mirrors and frames, and beautiful jersey dresses. I don’t need to make all of it — it can be stuff that I hunted and gathered. Whether I’m making a recipe or a piece of jewelry or a white-rose-and-jasmine tea or the perfume, I like to think of myself as a happy little sorceress, and if I could just have a little general store with all that stuff and give people a sense of my taste, that would be lovely. There’s a great quote from Elsa Schiaparelli: “A good cook is like a sorceress who dispenses happiness.”

Photo: Courtesy of C&M Media

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