Will Allegations of Drug Abuse Hurt Nigella Lawson’s Career?

The celebrity chef has denied these claims in court. Will that be enough?

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Dave M. Benett / Getty Images

Correction appended, Dec. 5.

It hasn’t been a good year for Nigella Lawson. First, the celebrity cook was photographed with then-husband, Charles Saatchi, outside a London restaurant in June, with his hands wrapped around her throat. He was later cautioned by police for assault — the following month she filed for divorce after 10 years of marriage. Then, during a fraud trial of the former couple’s two personal assistants, an email from Saatchi surfaced claiming that Lawson was regularly “off her head on drugs.” She’s been tabloid fodder in Britain and the U.S. throughout much of the controversy.

Lawson, who kept quiet during the photo controversy and divorce, formally denied the habitual drug allegations in court on Dec. 4, calling them “false,” while testifying against her former assistants. (For his part, Saatchi also testified on Nov. 29 that he had “no proof” Lawson had ever taken drugs.) Lawson told the court, “I have never been a drug addict. I have never been a habitual user [of cocaine]. There were two times in my life that I have used cocaine.”

“I did not have a drug problem,” she told the court. “I had a life problem.” Earlier, she had told the court that Saatchi had threatened to “destroy me,” before adding that she’d had a “long summer of bullying and abuse.”

Now that Lawson has had her say, will the seasons change for her? Though she’s a mega-watt celebrity in Britain (as the self-appointed Domestic Goddess), she hasn’t found quite the same level of success in the U.S. But as the co-host of reality cooking show The Taste, which aired on ABC early this year, Lawson’s star was in the U.S. While the second season of Taste is still scheduled to air on Jan. 2, there’s a lingering question of just how much all this personal turmoil — particularly the allegations of substance abuse — will impact Lawson’s career.

According to Ronn Torossian, CEO of the New York-based 5W Public Relations, which specializes in crisis management, the controversy alone has been enough to damage Lawson’s name. “As a TV personality and a food writer, you don’t want people talking too much about other distractions,” he says. “There’s not going to be cookware companies jumping up and down saying, I want to be involved with this cook with a very troubled personal life.” Particularly in the States, he adds, as “she is much more famous in America for this incident than for anything else.”

But any potential fall-out still might not be insurmountable. Terence Fane-Saunders, chief executive of Chelgate, a London-based public relations firm, says that Lawson’s best move would be to “do what other reformed drug users have done in the past and insist that it’s behind her.” He adds, “There are a lot of distinguished people out there who’ve made similar admissions and have been able to go forward with their career.”

In fact, one such distinguished person is Lawson’s Taste co-host, Anthony Bourdain. Before Bourdain became a celebrity, he was a habitual user of drugs, something he openly chronicled in his 2000 best-seller Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly. Despite his past, Bourdain has built a reputation as a hard-working, esteemed chef, albeit one with a bit of an edge. Bourdain issued a few tweets last month, seemingly in support of Lawson, using the hashtag #TeamNigella.

Not that he’s the only one. Lawson still has plenty of support from her British and American fans, many of whom have offered support over recent months on social media. And despite the headlines and media scrutiny in recent months, it’s these fans she’s continued to connect with, largely through her Twitter account, where she’s avoided mentioning the controversy. Instead she’s continued to offer up plenty of what people love her for — recipes. Which could just end up being her smartest career move yet.


Correction: The original version of this story misstated that Nigella referred to her fans as “Team Cupcake.” She was referring to her staff.