We never knew Nigella Lawson - and we still don’t

Nigella has welcomed us into her home, but not her heart. More so than any other TV chef, she’s selling the illusion of intimacy - and we're buying it
  • @MsEllenEJones

Excuse the name-dropping, but Nigella and I are on first-name terms, after all. She has shared with me the secrets of her favourite family recipes. I commiserated with her through her first husband’s long illness and have been a dinner guest in Nigella’s home countless times, including the memorable Christmas of 2006. True, Nigella’s “kitchen” was sometimes actually a studio, and I only attended her dinner parties via the intermediary of a television set, but still.

I’ll admit I've been questioning the strength of our friendship after I learned of her marital problems only second-hand,  from the Sunday People. Her husband, Charles Saatchi, is pictured placing his hands around her neck outside a Mayfair restaurant and she is later seen with tears streaming down her face. What a shock to discover that the domestic life of the “domestic goddess” is not as perfect as it appears. In fact, it felt almost as if I’d never really known her at all.

They call her "the queen of food porn". It's a reductive phrase given her wide appeal, but it does capture the essence of the transaction with her audience. More so than any other TV chef, Nigella is selling the illusion of intimacy, and we’re buying it (£15 million worth of it at the last count).

Was anyone in this media-savvy age ever genuinely flummoxed by the notion of “persona invented to flog books” as distinct from “real person”? If so, the scales must have fallen from their eyes when a 2007 newspaper story exposed the not-particularly-shocking Nigella Express practices of featuring hired extras and filming some scenes in a studio kitchen. It was less a scandalous betrayal of viewer trust and more “perfectly normal procedure” for entertainment TV, as the programme-makers helpfully explained at the time. Somewhere deep down (and hopefully not that deep down) Nigella fans know that watching a Nigella programme or owning a Nigella book isn’t actually the same as being a close Nigella confidant.

These pictures of a couple do not contain any revelations, partly because of course Nigella Lawson is a real person with a personal life that’s nobody’s business but hers, and partly because photos like these are always open to interpretation. Perhaps this story will at least inspire some first-person accounts of domestic violence to supply the insight and context that the pictures lack.

This is not to excuse Saatchi of the offence for which he has been cautioned. Nor does it negate the reality or seriousness of domestic violence. But if speculative gossip is allowed to pass for real insight into a woman’s life, all we’ve done is replace our old illusion of Nigella intimacy with a new, seedier one. At least it used to be Nigella herself who was cashing in.