Padma Lakshmi Talks Food, Advocacy and Aging Gracefully

The TV host and author is traveling the U.S., using food to bring people together.

Padma Lakshmi was photographed by Yu Tsai in Dominica. Swimsuit by Toco Swim. Necklace from model’s own collection.

As a model in her 20s, Padma Lakshmi was very aware of the SI Swimsuit Issue. “The truth is I would’ve killed for it,” she says. But her opportunity didn’t come until three decades later—which is fine by her. “To do it now at my age is almost sweeter for me, because it makes me feel so good,” she says. “And also it shows women everywhere that your femininity and your sex appeal and your beauty is not something that stops at a certain age. If you had told me I would be in Sports Illustrated when I was 52 years old, I wouldn’t have believed you for all the tea in China.” 

Lakshmi knows a thing or two about what gets consumed in China. She’s cohosted Bravo’s Top Chef for 17 years, and in 2020 her series, Taste the Nation, debuted on Hulu. Taste is especially dear to her. It’s the first show that’s been her own, and it allows her to bring together two things she’s passionate about: food and advocacy. 

Two years ago Lakshmi wrote a New York Times op-ed decrying the divisiveness in the U.S. Her preferred method for attempting to counter that is to engage with the other side. In Taste the Nation, she visits ethnic enclaves in various U.S. cities, delving into stories of not only food, but of the immigrant experience as well. 

View Padma Lakshmi’s entire 2023 gallery here.

Taste the Nation is designed for people in red states who don’t think like me,” says. “I’m hoping that through food and the show in general, I can make more approachable the communities that some people on the right fear— immigrants, people of color. I’ve been working with the ACLU [as an ambassador for immigrants’ and women’s rights] since 2016, but I wanted to do something in my professional life that was more artistic and creative, that allowed me to get my point across without overtly jumping on my soapbox.”

The current season of Top Chef took her to Europe, and she got back to the States only a few weeks before her Swimsuit shoot. “If you know anything about Top Chef, you know that I consume copious amounts of food,” she says. “Whenever I come back from Top Chef, I always work out extra hard.”

Her shoot went off without a hitch and left her feeling inspired— and hopefully inspiring. “The one thing I would say for young women looking at this is don’t worry about aging,” she says. “Don’t worry about a clock. Be on your own clock.”

View Padma Lakshmi’s entire 2023 gallery here.

This article originally published in the 2023 SI Swimsuit Issue. Buy the issue here.

Mark Bechtel