When Padma Lakshmi first entered the Byrdie studio for her video shoot, her skin looked so airbrushed that I thought something was clouding up my contact lens. But, no, alas, the 47-year-old model, author, and Top Chef host really does have the complexion of someone 20 years her junior. I don't know about you, but I look at someone as poised and accomplished as Lakshmi—a multilingual philanthropist and women's rights advocate who has found self-made success in myriad fields from modeling to cookbook writing to television—and I think that caring about makeup and skincare must be beneath her. Lakshmi grew up with a single mother, splitting her time between New York City and her hometown of Chennai, India, then went on to build a wildly successful modeling career for herself (appearing on magazine covers like Vogue and Marie Claire in India and posing for designers from Giorgio Armani to Ralph Lauren), which helped her pay for her college degree, paving the way for her award-winning career as a food author and host of Bravo's all-time most successful cooking show.
But I was wrong about Lakshmi's relationship with beauty. That becomes clear as soon as the camera started rolling for our video on Lakshmi's five must-have beauty products. Lakshmi talks about her beauty routine with genuine reverence. She grew up watching her mother carefully apply eye shadow and perfume before nights out and engaging in holistic skincare practices with her family in India, and Lakshmi remains closely connected with her beauty regimen (thus, the flawless skin and makeup).
All those early influences played into the creation of Lakshmi's new makeup capsule collection for MAC (available today on the brand's website), a stunningly packaged 17-piece line including six lipsticks, a gloss, two eye palettes, two blushes, three dual-ended eye pencils, and a trio of brushes. MAC, with its unprecedented color ranges, has been an important brand to Lakshmi since she started modeling in the '90s. "MAC was really the first brand to make products that worked on [women with darker skin]," she tells me. "I remember the moment when I found my color—C5 in Studio Fix—I was so over the moon. I didn't have to mix three or four bottles of foundation."
Talking about makeup and skincare with someone who takes them as seriously as Lakshmi does is one of my favorite things to do as a beauty editor. So, eager to know more about her relationship to beauty and every detail of her current routine, I asked Lakshmi to tell us everything—and to our good fortune, she obliged. Keep scrolling to watch the video and read our conversation.
How did your love of makeup first take shape?
As a child, I would watch my mother put her makeup on. She was a single mom, and when she would go on the occasional date, I remember sitting on the toilet seat or in the tub and watching her in the bathroom mirror doing her eyeliner and eye shadow and spraying perfume on her decollete. I remember going with her to these classes this Swedish model was giving on makeup and hairstyling out of her apartment. My mom couldn't find a babysitter, so she'd just take me with her. I used to copy her. And when I got home from school (before my mom got back from work), I'd climb up the bathroom sink and take her makeup. The blue eye shadow in my Dessert Dusk Palette ($33) is pretty much the eye shadow that I once dropped and shattered when I tried to get it off the top shelf of my mom's medicine cabinet. I was so sure she was going to kill me. I remember it like it was yesterday: I was trying to wipe it up with toilet tissue, but you know powder eye shadow—when you try to wipe it, it just spreads and gets in the grout between the tile. I was freaking out. And it's funny because that blue is now one of my favorite colors. It's the blue that's on the walls in my house. So it clearly made its impression on me.
By age 8, I was doing very elaborate makeovers on my cousins with the makeup my mom would send from America for them. I just had an innate curiosity and a lot of practice. In high school, my friends and I would light matches to our eyeliner—in those days, at least in my price bracket, you didn't have soft, smooth, creamy eyeliners that would blend but also stay on. And then when I started modeling, of course, because I was interested in makeup, I soaked up all the information I could get from every makeup artist, editor, and fellow model.
What are some of your most tried-and-true makeup tricks?
Tyra was the first model to share her secrets with me—she's a really good makeup artist. I don't know how much she does herself now. But she was the one who taught me how to darken the sides of my nose if I wanted to.
I also used to do my mom's eyebrows, and when I go visit her, she still makes me do them. That's how I got my allowance money—shaping her eyebrows. The one piece of eyebrow advice that I figured out pretty quickly is if you don't know how to do eyebrows, get them done by a really great professional person who you maybe know from a friend. Find a really good recommendation, have them do your eyebrows, but then carry a pair of tweezers in your makeup bag so that every day when you are staring closely at your eyes to do your eyeliner or mascara, you can police your brows. You can see if there are any strays that have grown in and just pluck those out. You won't wind up plucking more than one or two every day at most. It's easier to maintain than to let them grow in and then think, Ah, I don't know how to do my eyebrows. Okay, let me try—oh my god, I did too much. And then you don't have to spend the money to get your eyebrows shaped, waxed, or threaded all the time.
Another tip (and a lot of people know this) is to highlight the upper middle border of your top lip—the Cupid's bow. But sometimes, with a powder highlighter, it can be a little messy. So there's one pencil in my collection, a dual-ended eyeliner pencil ($19) with a dull gold on one side called Kerala Sun and a silver on the other side called Iced Heather. But depending on your skin tone and the lipstick you're wearing, you can use these to highlight your top lip. Eyeliner pencil doesn't have to be just for your waterline or inner corners—you can use it wherever you want.
We couldn't help but notice that you have the most unbelievably beautiful skin. Who and what are responsible?
The biggest thing for skin, and it doesn't cost a lot of money, is honey. When I used to travel and I didn't have a lot of money, I would always find honey on the breakfast tray at a hotel or something. You just wash and cleanse your skin, take all the makeup off, pat your skin dry, and then slather honey all over your face, avoiding the delicate eye area. And then you just tap your fingers on your face, almost like you're playing piano on your skin. And what that does is pull out the impurities in your pores without upsetting the pH balance. There are those strips you can use to get the pores in your nose clean, but a lot of times, what they do is make your pores bigger because they are so powerful and have a lot of strong chemicals. That can be worse in the long run. But the honey is really gentle. And the suction of pulling the honey away with your fingers, which it sticks to, actually removes the impurities. Honey is also antibacterial and antimicrobial. And then you just rinse your face.
Here's another good and easy one: I buy a little tiny vile of tea tree oil. You can get it at Whole Foods or even Trader Joe's sometimes. Get a little bottle and keep it with your other skincare. You know, when I'm doing Top Chef, I'm putting on TV makeup every day, and all day they're adding powder, so my skin can get clogged and I can break out. So I always just ask for a big bowl of boiling water (you can just make it with a kettle), and I put five or six drops of tea tree oil in that boiling water. Then I take a big towel, put it over my head, and I steam my face. Just like you'd do with Vicks VapoRub if you had a cold. And it can sting—even the steam can sting your lips sometimes. But it's really good because it gets that antiseptic in there gently. You don't want to put tea tree on a cotton bud and put that directly on your skin, because it's really concentrated, really strong, and it will burn. You can take a tiny Q-tip, dip it into the tea tree, and use that right on top of a zit. That's okay. It's better than toothpaste, which can really do a number on your skin and dry the skin around the pimple. But I find that just steaming your face like that once or twice a week, if you're under stress, have worn a lot of makeup a lot of days in a row, or haven't been eating well, is just another way to keep your skin clean. It doesn't cost a lot of money. If I can't get to my facialist, sometimes I will do that and I'll also do a clay mask.
There are two sets of products that I really love for skin, and 98% of my products are from these ladies. They're not big brands, but they're both based in New York, and I've been using them for so many years. One is Tracie Martyn, and one is Christine Chin. I really like Christine's toner and daily renewal serum ($138). And her moisturizing mask ($34) is amazing. Especially when you're tired. I do that, like, twice a week when I'm on Top Chef. I keep it in the fridge then just put it on (it's super gooey), lie down for 20 minutes, and listen to a podcast. You don't even have to wash it off actually—just sleep with it.
Then from Tracie Martyn, I love her green enzyme mask ($90). I also like her Face Resculpting Cream ($108), which I actually use on my thighs. But that cream can actually get really pricey even for me, especially considering the sheer area of thigh that you want to cover. But another one that I think is equally good and actually does more for your thigh and stomach is something called Hot Cream ($17). It must have peppermint oil or something in it because it makes me feel like I'm freezing. I put it on and I immediately have to wear really cozy sweats or a really thick robe and socks, because at first it's really cold, and then it gets hot. It's like IcyHot for your cellulite! It's not that expensive. And one of those things will last me two to three weeks or a month.
I am going to order that Hot Cream immediately.
But let me tell you a funny story: Be careful with it. Because one time I was putting it on my thighs and I had just gotten out of the shower. I wasn't dressed and I was hurrying, and I kind of grazed my vag, and it was very, very, very uncomfortable to say the least. And rubbing with a tissue or wet washcloth doesn't help. It just spreads it. So you just have to sit there and hope it goes away soon. It is just the worst. Remember that one episode of Friends where Ross was trying to get into his leather pants and he was putting on oil and baby powder? I had a naked version of that trying to get this stuff off my privates. So I just want you to be careful.