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Padma Lakshmi said even though she decided to open up about being raped as a teenager, so many other sexual assault victims stay quiet about their trauma because they fear being forever defined by the experience.
“I have a show that’s Emmy nominated. I have a child. I have a foundation for women’s reproductive health. I’m with the ACLU and I speak on their behalf for immigration — I don’t want to be known as that girl from that cooking show who was raped,” Lakshmi said in an exclusive interview with TODAY Monday.
“I think women feel that way. They feel like they have this invisible scarlet letter that this happened to them.”
The “Top Chef” host in September described in a New York Times op-ed how at 16 she was raped while she slept by her 23-year-old boyfriend. The piece ran after sexual assault allegations were raised during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of assaulting university professor Christine Blasey Ford when they were both teens.
During Kavanaugh's hearing, President Trump challenged Ford’s account in a tweet that questioned why she failed to report the crime to police at the time. The tweet prompted a “Why I Didn’t Report” social media campaign, with many people responding with their personal stories.
Lakshmi said she also tweeted her response, telling TODAY: "A lot of us don't report it. There's no upside to reporting it. There's no upside for Dr. Ford, clearly, but she's a hero to many of us."
But Lakshmi added that speaking out on social media wasn't enough for her.
“It didn’t feel right to me. I thought, what happened to me is really important and really painful and it deserves more than a hashtag,” she said.
After spending a restless evening, she decided to pen her op-ed to help clear her conscience.
“How am I going to feel if he gets confirmed and I didn’t say something? I’m going to regret that for the rest of my life,” she said she remembered thinking.
Kavanaugh eventually was confirmed by the Senate.
Lakshmi has described opening up about her ordeal as similar to ripping off a 32-year-old bandage. But she said she feels it helped give a voice to so many others in similar positions.
"I did what many millions of women, and a lot of men, do. We just bury it. We just push it down so far deep inside and hope that it will be so buried that it probably didn’t happen," she said. "We try to erase what happened to us and the only way to truly erase that trauma is to really confront it in whatever ways is appropriate for that person."
Lakshmi said she never thought of herself as a political person even though she has found herself speaking out on a variety of issues in recent years.
"I think when you get older, you have a power that you didn’t have when you're young,” she said.
Becoming a parent also has made her more conscious of the impact of her decisions, “even the decision to keep quiet," she said.
"If I don’t want that rape or what happened to me define me then I have to move on and let the good things in my life define me. I’ve had so many great things happen to me," she said.