December 4, 2013

The Perils of Being a Public Domestic Goddess.

It’s probably safe to say that 2013 isn’t a year that the celebrity chef/Domestic Goddess, Nigella Lawson, is going to look back on in fondness.

Less than six months after she was granted a fast-track divorce (after photos were published which appeared to show her now-ex-husband, Charles Saatchi, grabbing her by the throat), she is back in the news again for all the wrong reasons.

This week she is expected to testify in the case of two former personal assistants who are accused of defrauding her and Saatchi of over $400,000.

The assistants’ defense is that they had an understanding with Lawson which allowed them to spend as much as they wanted on company-issued credit cards in exchange for their silence over her alleged drug use: they claim Lawson was a “daily” user of cocaine and marijuana and had been so for more than a decade.

While the assistants are technically the ones on trial, many people close to Lawson claim the case has turned into “The Case of Nigella Lawson” and what is on trial is her public image. Media pundits say that if these allegations are true, Lawson’s career could be essentially over. Already, there are claims that the producers of ABC’s The Taste are debating whether or not to bring her back after this season.

While I take the drug use claims with a big ol’ heaping of salt considering the sources are two women who supposedly stole money to spend on designer clothing and luxury vacations, many feel that the damage to Lawson’s “Domestic Goddess” image is already done.

As this goes on, I cannot help but think of the parallels between Lawson and America’s Diva of Domesticity, Martha Stewart whose own reputation took a public beating after a 2004 trial where she was found guilty of, among other things, securities fraud and obstruction of justice which led her to serve five months in federal prison.

It was only two years ago that Stewart was able to return to the board of her company, and the public rebuilding of her image continues.

While celebrity downfalls are nothing new, there is something special about these two situations.

Most of us know by now that the world of celebrity is full of smoke and mirrors. Thanks to “exposes” about the magic of Photoshop, few people believe the celebrities and models that appear in glossy magazines actually look that way in real life. Likewise, few people believe that “reality shows” actually reflect reality.

However, lifestyle gurus are different. We want to believe that what we are seeing is real.

In a way, it’s easy to believe that. Via their books and TV specials, we are invited into their homes or what we think are their homes. We get to “meet” their families and friends. Despite the fact that these are full-scale productions with numerous assistants, editors, make-up artists, etc. working behind the scenes to ensure that all goes flawlessly and the public only sees the perfect end product, no one is supposed to be aware of that. Even those who are aware of the work that goes into these things often forget.

In Lawson’s case, the line between reality and fiction was further blurred by her (at least originally) shooting her shows out of her own West London kitchen and having friends and family members make cameo appearances as well. (Indeed, the two assistants on trial appeared in at least one such special.)

When we see these things, a number of us not only believe that these people are like us but that we can even be like them if we buy their books, watch their specials, etc. After all, if they can do it, then why can’t we?

This idea that lifestyle gurus are like their fans prevails despite all the evidence to show that most are not anything like the average fan.

Even though Stewart and Lawson made no bones about being wealthy and enjoying the finer things in life—Stewart was already a billionaire by the time of her trial and Lawson was named to Britain’s Rich List several times as one of the highest paid TV personalities in the UK—there was still an expectation amongst fans that somehow they were still just “normal folks” who happened to have a lot of money.

Whereas most people cannot even remember what the former was charged with in her 2004 trial, many can remember the time that Stewart showed up in court toting a $10K Hermes Birkin bag and wearing (what appeared to be) an expensive fur scarf.

Even though Stewart later claimed the fur was faux and the bag was her only handbag which she had bought for far less than the retail price of $10K, the damage was done: Stewart was no longer “one of us”. The cat was out of the bag that she had not been “one of us” for a long, long time.

Likewise, the revelations last week by Saatchi’s accountant that the household staff spent an average of over $100,000 a month on credit cards that Lawson and Saatchi paid for and the amount was considered “trivial” made it clear that Lawson stopped living like normal folks a long time ago.

There is a temptation to sit back and laugh at a Christmas special from years ago, where at the very end of the program, a hurried-looking Lawson hastily applied party make-up and offered tips for busy mothers on how to get made up in a hurry.

In retrospect, how busy can one be when they have at least two full-time live in assistants who, according to court records, usually worked from five a.m. or six a.m. in the morning until “late at night” and who, in addition to taking care of the three children who lived in the house, cleaned and did most of the personal shopping for the couple who “generally did not go shopping like most people do.”

With that sort of support in place, why would anyone have to rush?

Lest anyone think I am ragging on wealthy women who can afford and use full-time help, I am not. In fact, if I could afford it, I would probably employ help.

However, there is something just a tad disingenuous about having those sorts of resources and not disclosing it to your public. While money may not solve all your problems, it’s a whole lot easier to be a “domestic goddess” or plan elaborate dinner parties when you don’t have to worry about a nine to five job, a mortgage, and child care like the rest of us mere mortals.

Again, while the argument can be made that all celebrities operate on illusion, the truth is we expect actors to play roles.

When I see Christian Bale as Batman, I don’t expect him to be a superhero in real life. However, whenever you use your persona to sell cookbooks, linens, etc.—in other words when you are the brand—you are opening yourself up to criticism.

For years, critics sneered at Martha Stewart saying that there was no way her life could be as perfect as it appeared.

Indeed, when it proved not, she would later say she never thought that people really thought she was perfect. Fair enough, but that is the persona she put out there. Many did believe it and felt let down by reality.

If anything good can happen out of the personal misfortunes of these two very public and successful women, it’s that perhaps those of us who strive to have it all will see that it’s virtually impossible to do so. Despite their success, neither of these women were able to remain immune to pitfalls of life. Both suffered the failure of their marriages being played out in public and both had details of their personal lives laid bare for the entire world to see.

Frankly, I would not wish that on anyone.

I am not in favor of building up celebrities only to tear them down. I am also not saying there needs to be an end of lifestyle gurus.

However, I do hope that the next big lifestyle guru to come along—and there always will be a new one—will take some of these lessons to heart and not end up with the inevitable fall from grace: do what you enjoy, sell your books and products, but keep your personal life separate from the brand and avoid giving the impression that your life is perfect.

Ironically, I think back to something Stewart said in an interview years ago where she responded to criticism that her perfect meals, crafts, etc. were out of reach to the average woman. She said:

“I think it’s very important that whatever you’re trying to make or sell, or teach has to be basically good. A bad product and you know what? You won’t be here in ten years.”

Maybe that’s the key: think of these “perfect” things like Plato’s forms: they are examples of perfection that most of us probably will not reach.

Instead of trying to be domestic goddesses or divas, perhaps we should just try to do the best we can whether it’s being a parent, a cook, etc.

Being our best may mean that sometimes dinner is leftovers or that the Christmas tree comes out of a box rather than one that grew on your luxury farm. It may even mean hating domestic arts, but doing what you like to the best of your ability.

Therefore, as someone who once hoped to be a domestic goddess who baked the perfect cake, had the perfect house and was the perfect wife and mother, I can honestly say there is a freedom to realize that is not me and never will be.

Instead, I am content to be the “slummy mummy” and just be the best I can for myself and my loved ones.

It’s all any of us can do—even those who are held up as media role models.

Those looking for perfection are better off looking for it where it exists: in the world of fiction.


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

{Photos: Flickr, Wikimedia Commons.}

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