Nigella Lawson: Domestic assault in real time fuels denials and debate

Tamsin McMahon on the latest in the story all of Britain is talking about

(October 2012 file photo, Lionel Cironneau, AP)

The news in Britain is that Nigella Lawson, Domestic Goddess, stepped out without her wedding band.

What exactly this means for the future of her marriage to advertising and art mogul Charles Saatchi is hard to tell in distorted reality of paparazzi journalism. But the image of normally luminous 53-year-old celebrity chef looking barefaced, uncoiffed and without her ring while chatting on her cell phone at a London cafe is as close to a public statement Lawson has made since photographers snapped her being strangled by Saatchi during lunch at a posh London seafood restaurant for his 70th birthday earlier this month.

The photos themselves are shocking. Saatchi grabs Lawson by the throat, first with his right hand, then both hands, before twisting her nose and pushing her face. Lawson clearly has in her eyes what Telegraph columnist Alison Pearson, having herself once been strangled by a man, calls the unmistakable “expression of an animal in a trap.” Finally, photographers snapped Lawson — who once declared “I don’t believe in crying out loud” — doing just that for the world to see.

Thanks to the modern era of omnipresent cameras, we now have clear evidence of a celebrity domestic assault in real time. But you wouldn’t know that judging by the ensuing response.

Saatchi, whose company Saatchi & Saatchi was once the largest advertising agency in the world, is doing his best to spin the incident in his favour.

The first reports on the couple’s post-assault status came from anonymous “friends and relatives” who called the media to declare that the couple was back to “normal,” hosting two dinner parties in the week after the assault and returning to the same restaurant where they “appeared cozy, sitting close and chatting.”

When that failed to kill the story, Saatchi issued a statement to the Evening Standard, where he moonlights as a columnist, describing the incident as a “playful tiff” due to his needing to “emphasize my point” during an argument over their blended family of three children. After Lawson left the couple’s home in a converted factory in London, Saatchi said the move was his idea so that Lawson could have some privacy from the paparazzi “until the dust settles.”

Friends rushed to defend Saatchi’s honour. Tracey Emin, and artist whose career Saatchi bankrolled, accused his critics of jumping to conclusions because they “have obviously never been in love.”

“For all we knew, she could have said to him ‘Oh, do you have to smoke another fag?’ and he had jokingly said: ‘Yes, and I could just throttle every time you ask me that.’”

The restaurant, which caters to the rich and famous and is no doubt well versed in discretion, claimed staff “did not see the alleged incident, nor were they alerted to it at the time.”

Saatchi’s ex-wife, Kay Saatchi, issued a statement saying that while life with the millionaire art mogul had been “difficult,” he had never been physically violent.

Friends of Lawson have been largely silent on the incident, presumably because she isn’t instructing them to wage a media campaign on her behalf.

This being Britain, the debate has become political. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg waded into the fray, telling a caller to his radio talk show that he couldn’t be sure the public strangulation hadn’t been “a fleeting moment.” Nick Griffin, head of the British National Party, took to Twitter to joke that “If I had the opportunity to squeeze Nigella Lawson, her throat wouldn’t be my first choice.”

The comments caused enough of an uproar that Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman was forced to declare that the government was against domestic violence. Home Office minister Jeremy Browne dismissed the idea that the rich and famous receive get an easy ride after the police investigation into the attack was called off when Saatchi voluntarily gave a statement to Scotland Yard and received the British police equivalent to a slap on the wrist.

As the parliamentary debate that raged, Lawson’s father, Lord Lawson of Blaby — a former Chancellor of the Exchequer who still sits in the chamber — looked on silently and shook his head.

There is much to distrust about the way the tabloid media can twist a celebrity story out nothing. But if real-time photos of the public choking aren’t enough, there is plenty of other evidence that the couple’s 10-year relationship was not filled with domestic bliss.

“I’ll go quiet when he explodes and then I am a nest of horrible festeringness,” Lawson said in 2007 of her marriage to Saatchi. There were earlier photos from last December, snapped of the couple at the same restaurant, with Saatchi’s holding his hand over Lawson’s mouth. Despite Kay Saatchi’s recent effusive support, her past interviews have painted a different picture. “She’s with him and he’s 65 now and probably really grumpy and I’m free,” she told a British journalist in 2008. “So there’s a certain karma about that.” Saatchi himself has even joked about being “a ferocious wife-beater” – though purportedly satire – in his 2012 book “Be the Worst You Can Be.”

But in the world where celebrities are expected to turn their personal tragedies into fodder for self-promotion, Lawson’s refusal to launch a publicity campaign of her own is considered enough of a sin to cast in doubt over her status as a victim of abuse.

Australian radio DJ Dee Dee Dunleavy took to her blog to suggest fans stop buying Lawson’s cookbooks because Lawson dared Tweet a picture of a buttered bagel after the assault rather than a treatise on feminism. “We don’t like to think of you cowering from a thug,” she wrote, demanding that Lawson “make a stand on domestic violence.”

Lawson’s silence has so frustrated her fans because she hardly fits the stereotypical image of a battered wife thanks to her own wealth, power, beauty and a celebrity status that eclipses that of her elderly husband. “We don’t believe cultured, middle-class men are violent to their partners, or that successful, confident, fabulous women suffer it.” writes Anna Maxted in the Telegraph.

It’s a stereotype so old fashioned it hardly bares repeating, particularly in an era where domestic violence still exists despite the fact that many women now out-earn and outrank their husbands and Hollywood makes movies about stay-at-home dads.

There are too many examples of famous women abused at the hands of their less-famous husbands or boyfriends — Rihanna, Tina Turner, Halle Berry. That this remains difficult to accept says more about our outdated ideas of domestic violence than it does about Lawson.

Meanwhile, for all her wealth and celebrity status, Lawson has built her fame on projecting the aura of the perfect housewife, dressed seductively for dinner while whipping up an impromptu spaghetti ala carbonera or crepes suzette in a gorgeous kitchen. It’s this image of domestic bliss, so integral to Lawson’s public image, that is now crumbling before her eyes.


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