Take one former supermodel, mix with a successful career in cookery writing and add a large dollop of domestic bliss for the perfect result, says Sophie Dahl.
By Sali Hughes
05 October 2011
Sophie Dahl has requested we meet in a salvage yard coffee shop off the M40. I’m browsing some vintage doorknobs when she bounds in. And, even after 13 years of interviewing some of the world’s most beautiful women, I am unprepared. She is insanely pretty – like, Sistine Chapel pretty. In a simple ‘mum shirt’ and boyfriend jeans, an enormous black Chanel tote is the only clue to her former life as one of the world’s most successful fashion models. Skin like double cream – the kind that only British girls possess – poured over the most exquisite, aristocratic bones and the body of a vintage Playboy bunny. Her lips are so pouty, and her curly-lashed eyes so enormous, she looks like a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Tweetie Pie.
As she sits down and politely orders a pot of builder’s tea, I wonder aloud if, when Sophie’s career turned to writing, her extraordinary looks got in the way? She did, after all, spend her twenties as a supermodel with an agenda of ‘real woman curves’ forced upon her. No smart and impressionable young woman wants her appearance to be debated ad nauseum in the national press.
She nods, more shyly than you might expect. ‘I’d been a fantastically plain child, so it felt super weird when my appearance became a talking point in the press, and this politicised thing,’ she says. ‘To begin with, I was bouncing down the catwalk like a Labrador puppy, having just had an enormous baguette for lunch. It was only when it became really public that I started feeling quite embarrassed and shy, and that was what prompted my move to New York. I just wanted to disappear.’
Sophie left New York and, with it modelling, in 2007.‘I didn’t like being a model,’ she says now. ‘It feels weird to stand in your knickers in front of people you aren’t married to.’ Now 34, it’s remarkable and refreshing that she devoted her post-fashion life to food – Kryptonite to most models. For someone who claims greed is her biggest vice (she gave up cigarettes when she quit modelling, despite still missing them dreadfully), cookery writing seemed like a logical next career step. ‘I’d known I wanted to write since I was little, and food was always very important to me, and my family. I like routine, and cooking became a ritual when I was modelling in New York. My life was nomadic, so making supper felt like an announcement that I was home.’
I wonder if those New York loft model meals were quite the same as the nursery food in her new book, From Season To Season (I doubt the ‘Heartbreak Carbonara’ – though delicious – is catwalk-friendly). ‘Things were more disciplined when I was modelling,’ she admits. ‘I ate less bread. I’m naturally greedy and would end up the size of a house if I ate all I wanted all of the time. Nowadays, I arm myself with Spanx and I’m ready to go. I’m happy with myself, though. Women fetishise thinness but men don’t give a ****. I always had boyfriends, whether I was skinnier or rounder.’ At this exact moment, a waiter comes to offer us pudding. She orders a huge slab of strawberry cheesecake and two spoons.
This abundant appetite and love of food has served her well. After a novella and novel, her debut food book, The Delicious Miss Dahl was an instant bestseller, and the accompanying BBC series pulled in over two-million viewers in the UK (it has since been syndicated worldwide). Now married to musician Jamie Cullum and mother of seven-month-old Lyra, Sophie’s latest book, From Season To Season, feels even more intimate and nostalgic than the first. It draws heavily on her childhood, combining family anecdotes with comforting recipes (the apple cider omelette is a triumph) from the repertoire of Jamie’s family, and of her beloved grandmother, the late actress Patricia Neal (wife of her grandfather, Roald Dahl).
These affectionate stories appear alongside often uncomfortable memories of Sophie’s unconventional childhood with her actress mother, Tessa Dahl, who was just 19 when Sophie was born (her siblings, Clover, Ned and Luke, came much later).
The young Sophie lived a transient life, changing houses, schools – even countries – occasionally with dread and unhappiness, on her young mother’s whim. ‘My mum liked to move house,’ says Sophie matter-of-factly, ‘she loved , and didn’t like being tied down. If she was fed up somewhere, she would move.’ As a mother myself, this makes me feel sad, but Sophie’s philosophical. ‘It’s not until you’re in your thirties with the benefit of hindsight that you can say, “that was wrong”. As a child, that was my reality so it didn’t feel weird. Looking back, I can see that it was. But we forget our parents were so young. Think about people you know who are in their early twenties and it’s not fathomable for them to be having babies and making choices for them. You develop a softness and an appreciation towards your parents.’
I ask if all the old wounds have healed and she smiles. ‘I don’t remember who said it, but the moment you reach adulthood is when you forgive your parents, and I’ve definitely found that to be true. You get on with it because you accept they did the best they could.’
The adult Sophie – all cosy family pottering and countryside idyll – comes as a direct result of such an unsettled past. Significantly, she’s had the same best friend, Emily (a primary-school teacher), since birth and has chosen to settle in the only childhood base she knew – rural Oxfordshire – with Jamie and Lyra. ‘Oddly, my childhood gave me a grounding or, at least, a sense of wanting to create my own family unit that was consistent and rooted. So I am immensely grateful for my background, as it means I could come into my marriage and motherhood in a way that I feel like I’ve done all my partying and this, for me, is a massive luxury.’
She had made the tentative steps towards this new life before she met Jamie at a charity function in 2007. ‘Leaving New York and London, quitting that life and moving home, was quite a step. All of that time was transitional and frightening, but brilliant.’
The man she has chosen to share this new life with is suitably solid, and from a close family that has welcomed in Sophie as their own. It’s easy to see from the book that she adores her in-laws. ‘I thought he was great before I knew his background,’ she says, ‘but when you see where someone comes from, it gives you a stronger sense of them and what they are shaped by. The closeness of his family is, and was, very appealing. It feels very natural and easy, like it was always meant to be.’ She admits that meeting Jamie was a turning point. ‘I knew very early on that I had met my person,’ she says. ‘I think we both did. Life just felt fuller. I hate it when people say, “I felt completed”, but it felt like it was always meant to be in that way. He felt familiar to me. It felt like coming home, which I suppose is the mark of something great.’
In January of last year, the couple married in an intimate ceremony in the New Forest. The bride wore a simple dress by Alice Temperley and their first dance was to Steve Miller Band’s The Joker. Now, they are largely together while Jamie scales back his touring to be at home, for which she is grateful. ‘I feel very lucky,’ she says. ‘As a new mother, I have friends whose husbands went back to work within a week and, for me, having Jamie at home was invaluable. We really got to figure Lyra out and she got to figure us out. It’s been lovely.’
Life at the Cullums’ consists of hanging out with Lyra, while Jamie works in his home studio, rejoining the family for lunch. ‘I have somebody help me in the afternoon which is when I do my writing and emails and then we liaise again later for bath and bedtime.’
I wonder whether becoming a mother to a baby girl has caused her to revisit the issue of body image and whether she’d discourage her daughter from placing herself under the same scrutiny? ‘I don’t want to pre-empt that too much, because she may want to be a scientist,’ Sophie smiles. ‘But I do notice that people talk to beautiful little girls in a different way, and I think that’s terribly dangerous. I have a brother with an incredibly beautiful daughter and you see how self-aware she is already at a very young age. It’s no-one’s fault, it’s just the way that society is conditioned to tell little girls they look like princesses. It should also be that she’s incredibly clever, funny, kind and loyal and she’s such a great friend. You have to continue to reinforce other attributes which are more important than beauty.’
One senses that Sophie herself decided there was more to her life than beauty, and never really looked back. She is currently on something of a roll. Her next project is a BBC documentary on home-economics guru Mrs Beeton, with whom she’s long been fascinated, then it’s on to writing her new novel about a group of close girlfriends in New York. And then, possibly, more children – once she’s emerged from ‘the fug of early motherhood’. But, for now, a trip to John Lewis for new curtains is the priority. Sophie fishes around for her purse to pay the bill and gives me an enormous hug and promises to tweet me, despite feeling a constant low-level anxiety about ‘being boring’ on Twitter. As she sweeps out, with a nearby lunch group of old ladies gawping at her lovely face, I look down to the table and see that she has left me the last mouthful of strawberry cheesecake. Greed and good manners. Some things about Sophie Dahl have always remained the same.
Sophie Dahl's Best Things In Life
Best book: The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden (Pan, £6.99). It’s the most gorgeous coming of age story about a teenager’s transition into womanhood.
Best film: Annie Hall. I want to be Diane Keaton when I grow up. She’s the kind of woman you could drink red wine with and then she’d probably sneak off to buy a packet of fags.
Best stress relief: Cooking. I cook every day, even if it’s just eggs on toast.
Best TV Show: Californication. Though I spent the early days of motherhood glued to reruns of Come Dine With Me and Friends. I love Jennifer Aniston.
Best Designer: I love what Francisco Costa’s done at Calvin Klein.
Best Music: Hip hop like Jay-Z for , Joni Mitchell and a bit of Jamie for home.
Best Beauty Product: I love Crème de la Mer as a treat, and Ren Rose Otto Bath Oil.
Best memory: My brother’s 21st birthday in Martha’s Vineyard. My granny was still alive and we all ate fresh lobster and coleslaw.
Best thing in life: Love and family. People overcomplicate things. That’s really all it’s about.