Padma Lakshmi, 52, thought she was being 'Punk'd' when 'Sports Illustrated Swimsuit' called

The TV foodie talks about her Hulu streaming series "Taste the Nation" returning for its long-awaited second season.

(Photos: Everett Collection)
Padma Lakshmi, whose Hulu streaming series Taste the Nation returned this week, talks food, politics and landing Sports Illustrated Swimsuit with Yahoo Entertainment. (Photos: Everett Collection)

Padma Lakshmi thought the offer to make her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue debut was a joke.

"I honestly thought I was being Punk'd," the Taste the Nation and Top Chef star tells Yahoo Entertainment of her stunning new pictorial.

"When I was a model [in my 20s], I would have killed to be in Sports Illustrated," Lakshmi says, "but it never happened and I thought that ship had sailed. I really hadn't thought about anything like that in so long. So when the phone call came, I couldn't believe it. I literally was like: Are you kidding me?!"

Fortunately, the 52-year food goddess, best-selling author and United Nations Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador was already on her fitness game — thanks to Top Chef.

"We finished filming in October and I was already working out really hard for a month to lose the weight from Top Chef — because I gain 10 or 15 pounds every season," she says. "So I'm in and out of the gym basically my whole life. All I do is I eat or I work it off at the gym. I box, I jump rope, I do whatever I can because I'm not in my 20s and my body is different."

So she just stepped things up even more to don the gold and beaded bikinis for the Dominica shoot.

"I had three weeks notice and I just did everything I could — from facials to hair masks to boxing, jumping rope, lifting weights, doing stairs," says the mom of one. "And I eat mostly plant-based [foods] at home. I don't eat as heavily as you see on Top Chef, where I'm consuming like 7,000 or 8,000 calories a day. I do have a good metabolism — I just can't keep abusing it like this. But so far so good," she says with a laugh.

While SI Swim came calling later than she would have imagined, posing now, in her 50s, is "sweeter," she says. "I hope it does tell women of all shapes and sizes that you don't have to be rail thin. I'm definitely not rail thin." What matters is that "you're the best version of yourself and you're healthy and you're in shape. And as much as exercise has given me physically it's given me way more emotionally and mentally, especially boxing. It's made me feel very grounded. I had a very hard younger life and I often felt intimidated. Boxing has really given me an inner strength. I recommend it to everyone."

Lakshmi can currently be seen eating her way through Season 20 of Bravo fave Top Chef, but this week marks the return of her personal passion project: Taste the Nation. She stars in and executive produces the Hulu streaming show, created as her rebuttal to anti-immigrant rhetoric from Washington in the Trump era, and sees her traversing the country exploring the diverse food culture of immigrant communities in America. So not only is she making and sampling borscht, cornbread and pasteles, but sharing the cultural history of the cuisines with the people who make them.

"There's still so much for all of us — myself included — to learn about the different people who make up this country."

For the show's second season, she traveled to Puerto Rico, Appalachia and visited the Afghan American community in Washington, D.C., Filipino Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ukrainian Americans in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach and Arab Americans in Dearborn, Mich., during Ramadan. Each show is a lesson for herself as well as viewers.

"In Appalachia, we go to three different communities," she says. "We talk to some African Americans and talk about the banjo because that's an instrument that was brought over from West Africa by enslaved people. We talk to some Scottish descendant, Western European white people there and learn about what that was like. We also talk to some Cherokee. And I didn't realize there were Cherokee in Appalachia, but there are. In fact, they live on something called a boundary. A boundary is different from a reservation. [It's] something that the tribe owns. They bought that land from the U.S. government. They had to buy back their own land basically, but they did it.

"Appalachia is such a gorgeous part of our country, and what most people outside that community often hear about is from the movie Deliverance — and it's not that," she says. "They're taking back the word 'hillbilly,' they're taking back the word 'redneck' and it's exciting."

Lakshmi has spotlighted Native American tribes before, including the Wampanoag Nation tribe in a standout episode during the show's mini-season, in 2021, correcting the record about Thanksgiving ("Truth and the Turkey Tale Thanksgiving").

"I didn't learn a lot of this stuff," she says, "and I'm a product of the American school system and we should have. It is interesting, and it is the truth about this country. And we cannot make this country better and different from the crimes we used to commit if we aren't able to look those issues in the face. I don't think that's wrong. I think that's good."

Lakshmi says food is a good "gateway" into important topics like politics.

"I think food is very political and eating itself is a political act," she says. "The choices we make about what we feed our families and where we shop and what we buy in what season are very important — not only to our lives and the lives of the people who produce that food, but to the environment and to future generations. I don't think we think about that often enough. The reason the show's called Taste the Nation is because it's a play on Face the Nation, the political show, but I use food as a way to get into these communities because food touches every aspect of our lives. Every creature on the planet eats, so it's a great gateway. People won't talk to you often about politics and religion on the first meeting, but everybody will tell you about their Aunt Maggie's strudel. It's a good way to get people to open up."

She's "hugely indebted" to her producers who fan the country and help her find "our participants who open up in such a deep and profound way. It's so moving. They trust me with their stories — and I hope I can give my platform to them to tell their stories as they see fit. I write [and] edit the show, but I'm really trying to take my lead from them, while eating a lot of delicious food along the way," she says.

Lakshmi's hope is she'll get a Season 3 to continue telling these stories. The show debuted in June 2020 — in the middle of COVID — so when it came to making more episodes, she had to settle on a four-episode holiday mini-season in 2021 before being able to fully come back for Season 2.

"I was afraid people would forget about us because there's so much wonderful television on right now," she says. "So I was really raring to get back on the road and do my endless road trip, as I like to call it." And she still has "a long laundry list of places I still want to go to," because "not only are the people in this country diverse, the terrain is really diverse. Hawaii does not look like Arizona, which doesn't look like Cape Cod," and "we want to make sure we try and canvas the whole country."

She adds, "I just want Hulu to give me another season so I can keep on traveling."