x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sophie's choice is in the kitchen

Feature After a nomadic childhood and troubled early adulthood when her changing body shape became tabloid fodder, Sophie Dahl has found the ingredients for happiness in marriage, domestic order and a new career as a writer and TV cook.

Todd Plitt / Contour / Gallo Images
Todd Plitt / Contour / Gallo Images

After a nomadic childhood and troubled early adulthood when her changing body shape became tabloid fodder, Sophie Dahl has found the ingredients for happiness in marriage, domestic order and a new career as a writer and TV cook. Chrissy Iley reports. She became famous for being a big girl model who became skinny. Then she turned to writing. Now Sophie Dahl has reinvented herself again, becoming a cookery writer and TV cook. "I find cooking incredibly calming, I love the ritual of it. I like cooking on my own. It gives me space. I had such a nomadic childhood and adult working life modelling. Cooking was always something I could come to. Other people might do yoga."

Her childhood was dramatic and difficult. Her grandfather was the children's writer Roald Dahl; her grandmother, the Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal. Her mother Tessa Dahl was extremely complicated. Exceedingly beautiful in her youth, she had many lovers and a couple of husbands. She was only 19 when she had Sophie, whose father was the actor Julian Holloway, and they split up soon after she was born, although Sophie maintained a relationship with her father.

As a child Sophie was dragged from England to America and back again as her mother searched for happiness, battling addictions and depression, partly as a result of her father's death. Did this constant uprooting create a need in Sophie to be settled, organised, domestic, to be in the kitchen and cook for comfort? Or was she always an organised person? "It's chicken and egg," she says. "I don't come from a conventional family. I love being organised. Even as a child I was a list maker. At boarding school in those days you were only allowed one phone call a week. I was worried I would miss things that had happened to me that week, so I would make a list to report on the phone. I am still a list maker and I still have a Filofax. I don't have a BlackBerry or an iPhone. I like having something tangible."

She wrote her first book, a novella, in longhand and faxed the pages to the illustrator. "I still have a fax machine at home. I love them." She seems to revel in the old-fashioned, the solid. At our lunch together, she orders fish with extra spinach. I order scallops inspired by the way she sensuously prepares them on her BBC cookery programme, The Delicious Miss Dahl - not yet released here. It has had a mixed reception in the UK, with reviewers concentrating more on Dahl's flirtatious manner than her food. It is less a cookery than a lifestyle programme - intimate, revelatory, speckled with poetry, prose and crystallised rose petals.

Because she is tall and blonde, with enormous eyes and a winsome manner, women reviewers in particular tend to be harsh, comparing her to Nigella Lawson, the other posh, voluptuous British cook with a penchant for flirting with the camera - and finding her wanting. In fact, Dahl makes Nigella look like a maiden aunt. The critics ignore her genuine fondness for food. At one point, she licks a peanut-fudgey finger and says: "It is like when you're little and you went to the beach, and you'd been swimming so your fingers were salty, and you ate something sweet... ice-cream or... you got that mix of salt and sweetness."

Her TV presence is much as she is in real life - a mixture of self-consciousness and self-confidence. "If you are living out your youth in a semi-public way, all those mistakes, the foibles of youth, are then on the record for ever." She is not so much referring to her famous family background ("the press was different then. And you weren't jaded over celebrities. I remember being totally excited because my mother had Anneka Rice around for tea once") as later on when she became the first plus-sized supermodel whose every curve was constantly monitored, and whose love interests, such as unsuitable older men Mick Jagger and the film director Griffin Dunne, were pored over.

It must have been a shock for her. When she was growing up, her mother's emotions and dramas were so much larger than hers that she must have felt invisible. Then, all of a sudden, she had nowhere to hide. Dahl doesn't do extremes. That's why she loved a school routine. "I thought I didn't like boarding school, but academically I always did better when I was at boarding school. I needed the structure.

"My brothers and sister, they are all very sensible, and that is a hangover from our childhood." She clearly sees food as an emotional comfort, inextricably linked with love and well-being. Food was her stability when everything else was chaotic. It's been said that she skirted with an eating disorder. "It was when my mother had been involved in the ashram [in upstate New York], which I absolutely loved, again because of the discipline and routine. I was very devout. We had moved there from New York City when I was 13. And then we left, all very unplanned, and went back to England, starting school halfway through a term.

"The people I knew in London at 13 were all drinking snakebite and black and stealing their mothers' cigarettes, and I found it confusing. I didn't think I was fat, but it was a control thing and it really bugged my mum that I wouldn't eat. It's pretty transparent. You can't control what's happening but you can control what you eat. A large part of me enjoyed the reaction I got from my mother. I was sent to the doctor and the sensible English side won out."

Dahl's company is quite warming. She is polite, well-meaning, gentle. Probably the least suitable person to become a supermodel. The story of how she was discovered by the late Isabella Blow, the fashion journalist and style icon, has become a modern myth. "I was having lunch with my mum. I'd been kicked out of school. I'd waitressed for the summer and here was the question, 'What are we going to do with Sophie?' It was either secretarial school or cooking school.

"I had this idea of doing a history of art course in Florence. I had no interest in the history of art. I just wanted to go to Florence but my parents were having none of it, and I was fighting with my mother. "I sat down on a doorstep in a teenage woe-is-me kind of way and a taxi pulled up and a woman got out wearing this galleon ship on her head. I remember thinking I don't know who this woman is but I want to be her friend because she was just magnetic, so I said, 'Do you need help with your bags?' and she said, 'I do and you are sitting on my doorstep'. So I went up to her kitchen and she started telling me about her day.

"She made tea and I told her about the secretarial school and how I wanted to do history of art and she said, 'Of course you do. Do you want to be a model?' And that moment was music to my ears. There we were in her Schiaparelli pink kitchen. It would have been the moment in the fairy tale where there was the tingling of the wand and - puff - here is the fairy godmother. I found my mother and told her, 'I'm not going to secretarial school, I'm going to be a model'."

Blow took her to see such luminary photographers as David LaChapelle and Nick Knight and displayed her with pride. "I didn't look like a model. I looked like an 18-year-old, but Izzy never saw people as they were; she always saw a grander more cinematic version of themselves." But Dahl did become larger than life. Her voluptuous pale body, her face and form were everywhere, her bigness celebrated. She was the poster child for pretty chubby girls who saw hope for themselves. But inside, Dahl was beginning to recoil.

Her size at the time was variously described as a large 12 to a 16. "I was a 14, and I got fatter, because everyone was constantly trying to foist food on me. Had I been a girl at university, my shape wouldn't have been something that anybody thought a great deal about. Five foot eleven [180cm] and a 14 is sort of average size. But every time I would get on a plane I would be upgraded and they would ply me with ice cream.

"In the first year I was caught up in it and making money. It was exciting and then I started to feel confused and slightly embarrassed at being singled out. I never really thought about my body. And when you are a teenager you don't want to be singled out; all you want to do is fit in. It wasn't until I moved to New York in my early 20s that I started to figure out who I was. I immediately lost weight just by being allowed to be anonymous. Then there was the second fairy-tale moment."

She had little money and a fancy party to go to. "I went and got a very expensive blow dry and left a bag of dry cleaning with every great dress I owned in the hairdresser's and it disappeared. I had nothing to wear for the party. I went into Gucci and tried on a black dress but couldn't afford it. When I took it off, the salesperson said somebody bought you this dress. A stranger had bought me a Gucci dress." So she went to the party where she was introduced to the photographer Steven Meisel and a few weeks later she was in Italian Vogue. By this time she was thin, not model thin, but similar to the size she is now. "A 10 with boobs. The only time I got incredibly thin was after New York. I got a part in a Bollywood film, went to India and got ill. I was tiny. It's interesting that women fetishise thinness: I have never felt more invisible to men than when I was that thin." The tabloids were all over it saying she was anorexic.

"It was a horrific example to womankind. I was followed by a photographer who told me he had been sent because 'apparently you are anorexic'. I told him I am not anorexic, I am ill. And he said, 'Well you look fine to me.' He took those pictures and those were the illustrative documents of my decline. I really had to think about food, eating three meals a day, and use food as medicine. And that was when I did more cooking. It gave me the impetus to cook."

Dahl wasn't comfortable as the token big model and didn't seem to fit as a thin model. Writing, then cooking, gave her more of a voice. Does she eat when she is upset or not eat at all? "It used to be if I was sad I would eat too much, and then I went the other way. But then when something happened to me, all I wanted to eat was jelly babies. But you have to snap yourself out of it. Jelly babies was a post break-up diet."

Is she the one who breaks up or the one who is broken up with? "A mix of the two. I am suspicious of people who say they have never been left." She concedes that in her past she had the same relationship over and over with different people. "I never saw it till the end of it. It had many guises." What did she do? "Try to look after them." Who looked after her? "That's the burning question? The joy of coming to a relationship in my early thirties is that I didn't feel I needed to be looked after. It was mutual. It feels infinitely healthier and infinitely sexier. When you are not wearing a sign that says 'please save me', that is when you find balance."

Three years ago she met the jazz musician Jamie Cullum, and they married in January. Cullum is on an almost year-long world tour. "It's an unnatural state to be away from the person you love for long periods of time, so we try not to let the separations go above a couple of weeks. I think you automatically start to fight because you lose contact with each other. Some time zones are very bad, though. Europe is a piece of cake because you are having breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same time." Interestingly, she ties togetherness with meal times.

They have a house in north-west London. "And he keeps his experimental clangy music for when I'm not there, or it happens in another room. It's not something I understand, but I understand someone who has a passion." She has always resisted being labelled: the curvy model, the big girl's friend, the tiny model. And indeed her shape has changed so much it is perhaps why she is not self-conscious about being taller than her new husband.

Dahl's first book, The Man With The Dancing Eyes, was about loving and losing and finding. People said it was based on Jagger, but there seems no evidence of that. Her second, Playing With The Grown-Ups, was autobiographical, though she says she didn't realise it at the time. She has more books due. "I want to do a modern-day Mrs Beeton cookery book, and I'm also trying to work on more fiction. The more you leave it, the harder it is to get back."

Perhaps fiction is easier to write when you are miserable and need to figure things out than when you are content? "Maybe. Maybe it is." Did you get your fairy-tale ending? "Yes. I have never been happier in every area of my life. I have stopped modelling. I didn't like acting. All I wanted was to have a job that is cohesive with domesticity and being at home because that is what I love and what makes me happy."