If a public-relations genius and a television goddess attempt to destroy each other's reputations in public, who wins?
That drama has been mesmerizing Britons over the last six months, played out between Charles Saatchi, the advertising guru and art collector, and his now-ex-wife, television celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, otherwise known as the Domestic Goddess. Next month, if a claim made in court by lawyers for the pair's housekeepers is accurate, the Nigella-Saatchi show will be coming to TV sets in the U.S., in an exclusive Lawson interview with Oprah Winfrey. (A spokesperson for Winfrey said there were "currently no plans.")
In case you don't follow celebrity gossip, here is a brief summary of the story so far:
- Back in June, Saatchi was photographed grabbing Lawson by the throat and grabbing at her nose while at his favorite restaurant in Mayfair, Scott's. Saatchi said it was just a "playful tiff" and was furious when Lawson remained silent instead of backing him up. Saatchi had to admit to assault and accept a police caution.
- That might have been the end of it, except that Saatchi discovered that the couple's Italian household assistants, Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo, had been using his credit card to spend more than $1 million on designer clothes, hotel breaks and massages, among other alleged expenses. Fraud charges were brought and the trial is now under way, reported in minute detail -- often in real time -- by the U.K. news media.
- Saatchi wrote Lawson a private e-mail in October, which somehow made its way onto the Internet and was read out loud in court by the judge. In it, Saatchi referred to his by-then-former wife as "Higella," accusing her and her 19-year-old daughter of being "so off your heads" on drugs that she had allowed the Grillo sisters to spend as they wished.
- In November, the Grillos added a "bad character defense" to their case, alleging that Lawson knew about their spending and accepted it as part of a tacit agreement: She wouldn't tell Saatchi on them if they didn't tell him about her cocaine habit. The defense gave them the right to cross-examine Lawson in court.
Domestic Goddesses aren't supposed to snort cocaine (for the record, Lawson said in court she had taken the drug a total of six times, five while her former husband was dying of cancer in 2001 and once in 2010 to cope with her unhappy marriage to Saatchi). In court last week, Elisabetta Grillo also claimed that Lawson allowed her two children to smoke cigarettes and pot, and that she had found bags of cocaine in Lawson's bathroom. Lawson's reputation is, as one British tabloid newspaper columnist put it this week, "in the gutter."
Saatchi was charming when he appeared in court. He said he was "utterly bereft" at the fact that his e-mail had become public, and that he still adored Lawson even after their divorce in July. He said he had "no proof" that Lawson used drugs.
On the day Lawson took the stand, where she accused Saatchi of bullying her because she had refused to clear his name about the incident at Scott's, Saatchi published an extraordinary article in his regular arts column in London's Evening Standard, headlined "The Ultimate Revenge. Murder Your Murderer."
The piece began with an anecdote about a carpet python that eats a tarantula, only to be killed when the dead spider's venom is released into the snake's digestive system. "Of course in most cases the murdered are incapable of exacting revenge on their killer," Saatchi wrote, but not this time. He ended with another revenge parable: Lorena Bobbitt. Saatchi described in detail how Bobbitt chopped off her abusive husband's penis, only for doctors to sew it back on and her husband to make a career as a porn star and chat show celebrity.
"Her advice to the women she speaks to at her clinic for battered wives? Never take the law into your own hands, or indeed an offending body part."
The column never mentions Lawson, but the message is hard to avoid. In court, Lawson said Saatchi had threatened her after the Mayfair incident, that if he she "didn't clear his name he would destroy me." She said he used the drug charges to put her on trial by media.
If Lawson's courtroom accusations are true, you might think Saatchi let his rage overcome his brilliance as a public-relations mogul (at one time, Saatchi & Saatchi was the among the world's biggest advertising agencies, famous for the 1979 campaign that helped to bring Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to power). Surely destroying his ex-wife, a beautiful TV celebrity chef, in public would make people tend to believe in Lawson's accusations of bullying. But not so, according to the professionals.
"I think he said to himself, `If I was advising a client, how would I do this?'" said Francis Ingham, director of the Public Relations Consultants Association in London. "I take the view he has handled it with extraordinary skill."
Ingham believes readers of the Evening Standard column were supposed to identify Saatchi as the tarantula and Lawson as the python. "He picked a very particular snake. It is a large, overweight and not very clever snake," Ingham said. "It does convey the level of hatred between them."
Whether Lawson meant to damage Saatchi, or Saatchi to destroy Lawson, it is her reputation that will be damaged for some time to come, according to Ingham. Meanwhile, he said, the attacks on her character in court may be making people rethink the meaning of that original throat-grip and nose-pinch in Mayfair. As a result, "We've probably now changed our views about him." Then again, there may still be Oprah: Lawson wouldn't be the first to use her to rebuild a damaged reputation.
(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)