Padma Lakshmi Opens Up About Leaving ‘Top Chef’ After 17 Years: ‘Complex Factors’ Went Into the Decision

Padma Lakshmi wants a man … a gold man, that is.

After 16 Primetime Emmy nominations throughout her career, she makes no qualms about wanting to make a trip to the stage to accept a statuette. She’s double nominated this year for outstanding host for a reality or competition program for Bravo’s “Top Chef” and outstanding hosted nonfiction series or special for Hulu’s “Taste the Nation.”

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Lakshmi has emceed the Bravo series for 17 years and in June, she announced, via social media, that she would be exiting after the recently aired 20th season.

Hollywood has taken great strides in the past few years to increase AAPI representation on screen, with a record number of Asians landing Emmy nominations and wins. This awards season, more AAPI actors are fighting for history-making wins, such as Ali Wong for “Beef” and the Indian-born Lakshmi.

Variety’s Awards Circuit Podcast recently spoke with Lakshmi as she discussed the next chapter of her career and her hopes to finally walk away with an Emmy statuette. But first, on the Awards Circuit Roundtable, Cody Heller, the showrunner behind the Emmy-nominated breakout Amazon Freevee hit “Jury Duty,” shares more stories behind the production and brainstorms what might come next. Listen below!

How are you doing amid the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes?

Padma Lakshmi: It’s surreal, not only because we’re having this pause — but we’re having this pause when I decided to take a pause, which I did not foresee. Everybody is experiencing a version of what I’m experiencing, whether forced or not. What we’re trying to resolve is a very important issue. And as a SAG member and WGA East member, I’m totally in support of what’s going on. I hope for a quick resolution because we all want to just get back to work, do what we love, tell great stories, create jobs and make the world a more wondrous and interesting place.

What made you want to take this pause in your own life?

I had been on location for eight months out of the year. And when I wasn’t on location, I was in pre- and post-production for both my shows. And I was looking at edits of one show while on the set of another show. It was just exhausting and untenable for me to continue that way. I also felt I’ve done everything I set out to do and more at “Top Chef.” I’m leaving the show at a very high point, in very capable hands. Now, it’s time for me to challenge myself creatively. Hopefully, I’ll get another season of “Taste the Nation.” I didn’t have any guarantees. Many people close to me were saying, “Well, why don’t you just wait until you get another season of ‘Taste the Nation’ before you stop ‘Top Chef’?” Other complex factors went into me just being done with “Top Chef,” which we don’t have time to go into here. But I think I just thought, if I’m feeling this way, then I’ve got to trust my gut. I’ve also got to make room in my life and my schedule for new things to bubble up.

Totally off-topic, but I haven’t had a relationship in a long time either, because I’m always working. I don’t know when I think I was going to meet anybody. I’m surrounded by people I either employ or employ me, and neither of those [groups of] people are appropriate [for a romantic relationship]. It was also about having a personal life, to be honest, and also being present for my daughter — she’s a teenager. In five years, she’s going to go off and have her own life and hopefully go to college and stuff. It wasn’t an easy decision.

Are you nervous about what the future holds for you?

Hollywood is built on propagating insecurity. A lot of that is very real. A lot of that is also self-inflicted or theoretical exercises in predicting the world and your life. I am lucky in that I’ve had a good robust career. I can afford not to work for a bit while thinking about the appropriate next move for me. That is a privilege that I’ve not always had in my life. Sometimes I took a lot of jobs because I needed to pay my rent. The person you see on TV or in magazines — there’s still that little girl who was struggling to be an actor, who was struggling even to get in the door for the audition because they’d be like, “Oh, we’re not going ethnic with this role.”

What gives me hope is that — God forbid, “Taste the Nation” also goes away — my production company has two other projects in development, but they’re both scripted. So I’ve got to wait it out just like everybody else.

Do you still need help navigating this business in terms of diversity? Are you seeing progress or a regression?

I think the strikes are necessary — bottom line. But I do think that our business as a whole is contracting. There no such thing as an independent movie anymore. There is a lot less programming being developed and made, both in scripted and non. I think a lot of the streamers are struggling; we’re going to see all of them go to advertising, and regurgitate that cable model, even though cable is dying. What you’ll see will be less numerous and also more broad.

Therefore, the middle guy is going to get cut out. You’re going to see a lot more franchises, a lot more blockbusters, a lot more usage of tried-and-true talent. There’ll be less room for young talent to bubble up. It’s why I started my production company — because I wanted to grow my business and diversify my professional interests.

How badly do you want to win an Emmy this year after 16 nominations?

I love Michelle Obama, but I want to win. You want a good job and a good man [Barack Obama]?! I’m not even going to be elegant about it. I’m definitely the underdog in the category.

I think for all of the toil and time that I have spent on “Top Chef,” I think it will be nice to have a statue to show for it. But at the same time, it’s wonderful to have that nomination for “Taste the Nation” — that is the show I created. Having the recognition would be even more meaningful because hopefully, that will help us stay on air.

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, produced by Michael Schneider, is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post weekly.

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