Nigella, no longer a ‘domestic goddess,’ has risen through work and the post-print power of the true image to a more dependable claim on our affection

nigella portrait

Nigella on screens last week; Maharani Gayatri Devi with the Maharaja of Jaipur, 1955 - The Evening Standard

Nigella on screens last week; Maharani Gayatri Devi with the Maharaja of Jaipur, 1955
– The Evening Standard

Before we get to Nigella Lawson hammering the last nails into the coffin of the domestic goddess myth, we must record a milestone reached in the suicide last month of 49 year-old L’ Wrenn Scott, the ethereal clothes designer and domestic partner of Mick Jagger. No doubt she killed herself in a tragic confluence of exterior and interior pressures. Entirely unprecedented in the celebrity universe, as far as we know, was the prominence accorded — in speculation about a female suicide — to the possibility that her failure as an entrepreneur could have been the deciding factor. This is a species of tragedy we associate exclusively with the lives of men.

For reasons of interest to no one else, we have in mind today both the miserable and triumphant potential in the lives of women – because of a particular woman we are sending a birthday greeting she can no longer read. What connects the topic to this blog’s interest in post-print media is

• how Nigella’s vindictive ex-advertising mogul ex-husband, Charles Saatchi, was undone by his over-reliance on what remains of his once-tremendous old media influence and connections

• how Nigella’s mediagenic genius – more than mere physical beauty greater and more mysterious than the sum of its parts – came to her rescue in an age of communication dominated by images. How it became the steel-plated shield that excellence in the domestic arts can no longer supply, for her or any other woman – any more than the womanly heart-over-head softness that traditionally went with that

In making work her principal occupation, L’Wrenn Scott – about five years younger than Nigella – had satisfied the now inescapable requirement that a woman establish her worth, both monetary and otherwise, independently of any man. Never mind if she is a delectable nineteen year-old besieged by suitors from every point on the compass bearing engagement rings .

Last month in Britain, following a Law Commission recommendation that British courts actually honour pre-nuptial agreements instead of, presumably, treating them as philosophical tracts, the Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan lauded the guarantee, in these contracts, that she could take what is hers if her marriage should fail. That is too simple a reason for wanting one. The harsh fact is, the action a woman needs to take to protect herself from the peculiarly female forms of vulnerability in long-haul relationships has to precede any such contract.

The setting of terms for a pre-nup will usually entail a chilling discussion. Yet these unenticing agreements that we see becoming indispensable for ordinary people, not just celebrities, set a value on what the chief monetary contributor to a household – still generally male – will owe the provider of non-monetary sustenance, comforts and gifts, including child-bearing, if an ‘uncoupling,’ whether ‘conscious’ or otherwise, becomes inevitable. Unless she has a large inheritance for a lifelong security net, the contributor in kind rather than cash will, ideally, prove her economic value long before any such negotiation; years before she even thinks of spending a span of years working principally as a nurturer.

As any specialist in family law would tell her, one crucial consideration in a court’s decision on what she should receive, in a financial settlement at the end of a partnership, is the size of the cheques from employers that she gave up when she and her partner agreed that she would switch from working outside to inside their home.

The numbers on those cheques could even prove critical in legal proceedings that have nothing to do with divorce. Say that she is a single woman and artist whose forte is highly-praised but uncommercial watercolours, someone who does not see herself settling into marriage for years. She will want to establish the highest possible pre-marital price-tag for her toil in the ‘day jobs’ she does to support herself. Why? As any personal injury lawyer would tell her, that earning power would be weighed in determining what she was owed if — after she has married and taken herself off the market, for any reason – she became the unlucky victim of a road accident.

Her ‘historical’ earning ability could be the chief index of value for the insurance company of the drunk driver who, say, knocked her off her bicycle and hurt her seriously enough to cripple her ability to work for months or years afterwards. If she dropped out of dentistry school or an internship in financial trading to give birth to twins, her compensation from the insurer for the work she has done since, as a loving housewife and mother, would be only a fraction of what she would be owed as a worker who clocked up a few years of practising the profession in which she won her spurs.

… Which brings us back to Nigella, and the particular advantages flowing from her ease before a camera, which have helped to make her story seem part of the life stories of millions of audience members who actually have nothing in common with her. She, of course, sought no financial compensation or alimony in her divorce last summer. That was in spite of submitting to one wrenching adjustment after another in a marriage ‘always on his terms’, and the lustre she lent the Charles Saatchi persona – an especially valuable contribution to a specialist in advertising and the fabrication of glamour-by-association.

In the high drama of having to defend herself, last December, against Machiavellian allegations of a cocaine habit, during the trial of former housekeepers of hers and Saatchi’s, the media commentariat made no reference to the reports, last autumn, that she had agreed to make no financial claims on him. According to the rumours, then, that was partly in the hope of defusing his threat to expose a particularly damaging secret about her. This bargain did her no good, as many signs pointed to his having had some never quite specified role in inspiring the housekeepers’ claims of being indirectly bribed by Nigella to hide her cocaine store and – as she admitted, with unfortunate consequences that have stretched to being declined permission to enter the U.S. last Sunday — occasional use.

For a less resilient woman, becoming the target of Saatchi’s spite, in the latest chapter of a life pock-marked by exceptional suffering, might have been ruinous. But on screens only last week, there were signs of a Nigella recovering her radiance, and drawing on the tremendous capital in respect and affection she has created for herself by following the path that her first husband, John Diamond, put her on. It was he who spotted the potential for the witty, sexy, glamour-puss television cook before anyone else could envisage her in such a role – going by the accounts of other family members and friends.

Alas, a domestic goddess needs a devoted domestic god for a mate. Nigella had one in Diamond, but after he died much too young, she married Saatchi – who, perhaps out of jealousy of the famously enjoyable, casual and spontaneous John-and-Nigella hospitality – proudly broadcast his preference for breakfast cereal over anything from his third wife’s kitchen, and for feeding people in restaurants over anything cooked by her.

As things turned out, at the zenith of her fame as a de-mystifier of the art of cooking – in roughly the last ten years – with a superb, eclectic palate to guide her, Nigella was obliged by Saatchi to be a virtual, if not quite fake, model of a household divinity. Out of consideration for his (understandable) dislike of being invaded by bustling TV crews, her kitchen in the house they shared was replicated in a television studio. In the footage much-loved by her audience of her raiding her refrigerator for nocturnal snacks, she was only acting — like any other performer on a set. Her cookbooks, according to the housekeepers’ court-room testimony, were written in the dead of night, her concentration assisted by whiffs of cocaine. By day, according to other reports, she was responsible for the kind of physical chaos abhorred by Saatchi but more or less typical for creative types of any stripe, though possibly not for chopping-board deities – none of it visible on-screen.

Yet nearly everyone who has watched her at work in a kitchen willingly suspends disbelief to get lost in the parade of beguiling images she offers us, and her self-deprecating and populist – though never condescending – charm. She is a supremely mediagenic phenomenon – all the more so for her emotional transparency. On the day she was photographed striding into court, head held high, she looked as if she was going to do precisely what she did – be ashamed, proud and defensive, all at once; admit to drug use she had fought hard to conceal, but also deny the most extreme related accusations, and explain the excruciatingly painful circumstances (watching her first husband die slowly) in which she was introduced to cocaine.

She made no attempt to hide her tear-swollen and angry face as she left the court. Transparency is what she almost always seems to be delivering, with looks that make her a late-born member of a tiny club of iconic 20th-century women that includes Jackie Kennedy and India’s Gayatri Devi, whose name Google supplies when a searcher does no more than tap in the first few letters of her title, ‘Maharani’. Millions of us exposed repeatedly to free, digitally replicated images of them puzzle over and marvel at their uncanny magnetism.

And Saatchi? There is nothing of presence or anything personal in his form of media power. He made his name as an advertising genius – a canny, intuitive shaper of public perception who, with his much nicer brother and business partner Maurice, put Margaret Thatcher into No. 10, Downing Street. Print barons vied for their agency’s patronage, for the streams of advertising revenue they could put their way – lifeblood, for their newspapers.

Apparently blind to that difference between the sources of his and Nigella’s sway, he imagined that he could reverse the ineradicable damage done by last summer’s tabloid photographs of himself with his hand on her throat with a blizzard of photo-ops arranged to depict himself as genial and aspirationally elegant. In the decades when print media still dictated what the public saw of anyone famous – or not – he could have insisted on only being photographed from his most flattering angles. His is a closed face with calculation written all over it.

Nigella’s, on the other hand, is inexplicably WYSIWYG, as the computer geeks say – ‘what you see is what you get’. Inexplicable, because the truthfulness characteristic of her somehow gets through the layers of television makeup she must often wear, and the contrived domestic haven in the backdrop of her cooking shows. Something about her, as well as plain old hard work, has helped her to create the defences against exploitation and degradation that every woman ought to have.