NIGELLA Lawson’s admissions about her cocaine and cannabis use could damage her new television career in the United States, image experts have warned.
The celebrity chef denied claims by Charles Saatchi that she was a habitual drug user, but told the court that “acts of intimate terrorism” by her husband had driven her to cocaine and cannabis use.
She also admitted to snorting cocaine in 2010 when she felt “ashamed, isolated and in fear”, and to smoking cannabis “with or in front of” her children.
The revelations during the trial of her assistants Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo – who were cleared of defrauding Lawson and Saatchi – appear unlikely to cause any issue with her long-established career in Britain. Channel 4 has confirmed that her series The Taste will go ahead as planned in January, describing it as “really exciting”.
However, her reputation in the US, which is regarded as more socially conservative and which punishes drug users more severely, is less certain.
Lawson is due to have the second series of the American version of The Taste air on prime-time television next month. It was pre-recorded before the trial and ABC would not comment on whether there would be another.
It emerged in court last week that she is also booked for an interview with US talk show host Oprah Winfrey, which could prove crucial to determining whether her career will flourish in America.
Celebrities have often appeared on Oprah, one of the highest rated chat shows in America, to come clean about their personal issues before successfully continuing their careers, a process that has been described in the US media as “Oprahfication”.
Phil Hall, a PR expert who advises celebrities on their image, warned that an American audience could be unforgiving.
“We are a bit more liberal about drug-taking. The Americans are still very anti-drugs and there is a big taboo about it. It could be difficult”, he told a newspaper.
He added: “The only way she can continue is to wipe the slate clean by telling the full story,” he said. “Otherwise, there will always be more questions. If she doesn’t put her story out there, others could tell it for her.
“People might say ‘why should she air her dirty washing in public?’ But her whole career has been built on being a ‘domestic goddess’ – inviting her audience into her home, and showing them how happy it is. Her brand is her home. So it would be very difficult for her then to say her life is private.”
Mark Borkowski, a well- established PR adviser, said it was not yet clear if Lawson would experience repercussions in the US.
He said: “There is a lot of work to be done in making sure that the people who employ her are happy,” he said. “Producers will be worried about what people think, and they will have been watching the trial closely. These sorts of allegations can tarnish a brand. The only reason people cluster around a personality brand is if they are generating income for all the parties involved.”
Octagon Media, a top Los Angeles agent, which advises Piers Morgan and Larry King on image, said that an audience would be forgiving as long as Lawson admitted to any wrongdoing. John Ferriter, the agency’s managing director, said: “If she admits to it and has made amends, her stock could certainly rise over here.
“There is no question how talented and likeable she is on camera.”
In other developments, the Metropolitan Police has said Lawson will not face a probe into the drugs claims, unless new evidence comes to light.
Human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC said the law should be changed to give witnesses more protection in criminal trials. He said parliament should amend the Criminal Justice Act, which allows a witness to be “crucified in a sense by a savage cross-examination”, referring to questioning of Lawson by the defence when she appeared as a witness.
“Where they face accusations of a very serious crime, they should be entitled to have their own counsel in court. They should be entitled to call evidence, that counsel should be entitled to cross-examine their accuser,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today show.