The fall of a Domestic Goddess

Poor Nigella -It is not her confession of drug taking that threatens to ruin her career, but the devastating blow to her image dealt by the exposure of daily life in the Saatchi – Lawson household.  The key to Nigella’s success has always been that women (generally early to late middle aged and middle and upper middle class) identified with her. Her fan base rallied to her support during the trial with #Team Nigella trending on Twitter; each allegation designed to break her only endeared her to us. We can forgive the drugs but it is the Elton John-like lifestyle that has really tarnished the image. Nigella had, despite the drip feed of disappointing revelations over the years: the cutsie homely kitchen that was actually in a warehouse on an industrial estate; the sweet study with the desk in what seemed like a garret was in fact a studio set up – retained the image of someone we could identify with; we believed her to still be at heart one of us, albeit with a lot more money.

Nigella began her career writing clever and evocative restaurant reviews for the spectator magazine in the 1980s, she also wrote a regular column and opinion pieces for the Times. As her husband succumbed to a horrible cancer, she began her career as a domestic goddess with the book How to Eat. A television series followed where we saw her rushing in and out of and around her ‘normal’, modest house which was on the edge of a very busy thoroughfare in Hammersmith. She had two young children, a husband in poor health and seemed to have the same problems and interests we could all understand and empathise with. Nigella embodied all we aspired to – beauty but brainy, a formidable intellect combined with a lightness of touch and arch sense of irony and fun, sexually desirable yet curvaceously, lusciously plump and most of all a bit slapdash and not at all precious in the kitchen.

Her fans followed her over the years during which she became more and more famous and a packaged, marketed industry – no doubt this agenda was pushed by her controlling and Svengali like husband Charles Saatchi, who confessed curiously and, creepily possessively that he loved having a wife who was coveted by other men. He appeared to treat her as the perfect amalgam of his twin interests: a piece of art and a marketable commodity to be pimped out the world at large.

Nigella’s marriage to Saatchi always appeared rather odd but understandable, a young widow with two young children who has had a fractured family life, a child of divorce and the devastating loss of her mother, sister and husband all in the space of a decade must have left her sad, fearful and vulnerable. It is easy to see how Saatchi, an older man, a friend of late husband and rich as Croesus seemed attractive to her, he offered her safety, financial security and sanctuary. We now see that her marriage became a claustrophobic trap. As she became more successful and richer, she appears to have become more and more detached from reality. It is no longer possible to accept Nigella as one of us – we sympathise yes, but can no longer identify with her. There is a certain unpleasant shadenfreude for some at seeing the seemingly perfect woman brought low, proof that the Domestic Goddess was an advertising construct; Nigella’s life was no more domestic or goddess-like than Madonna’s.  There is also a sort of morality tale element to the story, a ‘there you go you see? Money doesn’t bring happiness’ and how smug and happy we are not to have been destabilized by great riches.  We can no longer imagine Nigella as one of our mates. Our pals, no matter how rich, don’t have six personal assistants, including cleaners who contract out the actual cleaning to professional firms. We all admire generosity and nobody, bar sour-faced killjoys begrudges extravagance, but none of us spends two grand or so a week on flower arrangements to decorate our museum -like fortresses. We don’t rack up tens of thousands of euros worth of clothes at Donna Karan or have cashmere jerseys in every style and colour Brora can offer us. Most importantly, we don’t have so much money that we don’t even notice that sixty or seventy thousand pounds a month is being spent on our credit cards without our knowledge. The Nigella we imagined having cosy ‘kitchen sups’ of an evening, testing out new recipes in her own kitchen, the Nigella we imagined meeting for coffee and cake after a shopping trip is a figment of our imagination. Instead we see a very rich and rather sad women who despite the fame and the money and the beauty was still trapped in an unhappy marriage with a controlling bully who, until this was made public by the shocking incident outside Scott’s restaurant last summer and her hand was forced by a shocked media, appeared willing to accept this state of affairs.

I still love Nigella but feel – irrationally and unfairly – let down by immersion into the life of the super-rich. I sincerely hope that if her American career is derailed by the scandal that she goes back to what she does best – writing widely on food and other subjects and goes back to some sort of normality.