January 10, 2014 6:56 pm

New year, new Nigella?

‘Nigella Lawson doesn’t seem to want to change her image. But that image doesn’t reflect the wringer she has come through’
THE TASTE - One blind spoonful could change everything. Now in its second season, "The Taste" returns with a new two-hour format on THURSDAY, JANUARY 2 (8:00-10:00 p.m., ET/PT), on the ABC Television Network. "The Taste" features no-holds barred chef Anthony Bourdain, British food star Nigella Lawson, expert chef/author Ludo Lefebvre and author, chef/restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson©Getty

Nigella Lawson

The Taste. This, in case you don’t know, is the cooking reality TV show starring Ms Lawson and co-chefs Anthony Bourdain (the two are also co-executive producers of the US show) and Ludo Lefebvre (plus Marcus Samuelsson in the US) in which they pick teams of unknown cooks and said cooks then compete, under their tutelage, to produce the best-tasting meal.

The point, of course, after Nigella Lawson’s annus horribilis of 2013 – in which she became gossip-column fodder and the subject of numerous talking-head pieces about her symbolic value as a domestic goddess fallen to earth, thanks to her divorce from Charles Saatchi and the courtroom trial of her former assistants Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo (complete with drug-use accusations and admissions) – is that Nigella has the opportunity at a transatlantic TV redemption. Audiences love a rebirth. But I wonder if it will really work in this case. It doesn’t look like it – and I mean that literally.

I know I am going against the popular and historical flow here but bear with me. I admit, the Twitter reaction upon the launch of the US show was overwhelmingly positive: “Mesmerised by the divine @Nigella_Lawson on #thetaste. I predict a huge hit. Fabulous #TeamNigella” (@MicheleKnight). And it is true, as Martha Stewart proved, that there is an Act II in the lives of iconic homemakers who turn out to be more complicated and layered than their cookbooks might suggest. Plus, American reality TV has become a prime launch pad for many British personalities after . . . well, let’s call them hiccups – be they Piers Morgan or Gordon Ramsey. A large chunk of fans (David Cameron included) clearly want an opportunity, any opportunity, to reaffirm their love of Nigella, as all the #TeamNigella side-taking shows.

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Vanessa Friedman

And yet here’s the thing: Lawson isn’t changing her image. Both the US and UK shows feature her in full peaches-and-cream-Sofia-Loren-in-the-kitchen mode, complete with form-fitting milky-cleavage-baring dresses and carefully tumbling dark locks begging to be pushed out of her eyes at calculated intervals.

Part of this, of course, is simple logistics: the shows were made before the trial. But, given that during her promotional appearance on Good Morning America earlier this month Lawson wore a form-fitting milky-cleavage-baring dress, it seems fair to assume that she doesn’t want to change. It’s an image, though, that doesn’t reflect the wringer she has come through. She’s not showing a stiff upper lip; she’s just stiff.

As Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, “You can’t go home again.” I’d say that applies to image, too, at least when we are talking sympathy vote.

I’m not suggesting a total about-face, you understand; no transformation from va-va-voom culinary siren into leather-wearing revolutionary, taking up arms against the oppressor or the mis-informationists; no Gloria Gaynor “I Will Survive” disco sparkle or Gloria Steinem jeans (though that might be fun). Nigella doesn’t have to go as far as John Galliano, who abandoned his usual costumes to face Charlie Rose in a plain white shirt, blue suit and ponytail, as close to a visual expression of baring his soul as he could come. She doesn’t even have to do a Bob Diamond-on-the-subway, or Anthony Weiner-in-jeans-and-shirtsleeves-in-the-kitchen, both attempting to redress, literally, their image as masters of the universe gone wrong.

. . .

But even so, and maybe especially now, some loosening of the stays, or at least of the built-in corset, might be warranted. Lawson’s face, with its carefully constructed eyebrows and lips, is starting to look like a painted-on mask; something to hide behind. It made a certain amount of sense when she clearly needed to gird herself to go into battle in court – even if she was only a witness – but less so now, when the narrative is supposed to be one of (non-official) triumph. The message should be about leaving the past behind her. Maybe even entering a new stage.

She’s older and tougher, after all, seen some things, learnt some nasty truths. Shouldn’t her style mature along with her? I am sure there are any number of British designers who would love to work with her on crafting a new Nigella, one that wouldn’t be that different from the old Nigella but would at least acknowledge her experience.

Certainly, Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen has proved herself masterful at the massaging of image, as her appropriate-but-youthful clothes for the Duchess of Cambridge demonstrate, while Alessandra Rich’s covered-up yet body-conscious lace, as favoured by Samantha Cameron and Natalie Massenet, could be an interesting choice; similar but different.

Or how about Victoria Beckham? She knows her way around a corset, as her early collections showed, but what vaulted her to BFC Designer Brand of the Year was her ability to push her own boundaries and stretch her aesthetic in softer, more relaxed directions without ever losing her own signature, or sense of dressing a grown-up woman. Sounds kind of Nigella to me.

“Taste”, after all, doesn’t just refer to flavour but also to aesthetic judgment. And, as anyone who has learnt that snails dressed with the right amount of garlic and butter can be delicious could testify, it changes over time. In fact, perhaps it’s time that the executive producer put her Marni or Margiela or Michael Kors where her mouth is.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com; @VVFriedman

More columns at ft.com/friedman

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