Abusive childhood, alcoholic mother, fame at 15… TV chef Lorraine Pascale has survived them all – and is still smiling. She tells Judith Woods how she does it.
‘My childhood was s***,’ says Lorraine Pascale. This is not the opening gambit I expected from the former model, TV chef and million-selling cookery book writer. She’s sitting opposite me in a chichi vegan restaurant near her West London home, sipping a turmeric latte, looking a good decade younger than her 46 years, laughing easily and often. She appears textbook ‘happy, sorted, successful’ – frankly, you’d never guess the pain she’s endured.
And given her brutal summing up of her childhood, the last thing you’d expect is for her to dwell on her tough years. Yet, in her latest reinvention as a life guru, that is exactly what Lorraine is doing. Her message, quite simply, is that we should not allow our past, however difficult, to define us. And she is very much speaking from experience.
Born at a home for unmarried mothers in Hackney, East London, in 1972, Lorraine was taken into care at birth. At first she was fostered and then adopted at 18 months. Her adoptive white parents, Roger and Audrey Woodward, who already had a son, brought her up in the Cotswolds but separated and then divorced when she was three.
Audrey began drinking heavily and Lorraine became the focus of her rages. She was physically attacked – social worker reports reveal that Audrey fantasised about throwing Lorraine under a lorry. Her mother admitted that the only way she could keep herself from hitting her child was to lock her in her bedroom.
Aged eight, Lorraine was sent to a series of foster parents before it was deemed safe for her to be reunited with her adoptive mother – a move which, as Lorraine says, certainly toughened her up. ‘Yes, it probably gave me resilience but not in a good way,’ she recalls. ‘Growing up with an alcoholic parent makes you hyper-vigilant. You learn to watch adults, to read the room – to defuse tension before it’s barely been manifested. It’s exhausting and erodes your self-esteem. It was only later that I learned to be happy, and that was by taking responsibility for my own mental health. Yes, bad things happen but at some point you have to stop blaming and feeling aggrieved and defining yourself as a victim and move on.’
And move on she did. Scouted by a model agency at the age of 16 she left school and modelled for the next decade, with career highlights including the iconic swimwear issue of Sports Illustrated and being the first black model to feature on the cover of US Elle.
When her modelling career came to an end, Lorraine retrained as a chef and a baker. She launched a cupcake business, Ella’s Bakehouse (named for her daughter Ella), and became a household name in 2011 when she presented the BBC series Baking Made Easy, with the inevitable cookbooks following quickly.
Now Lorraine is adding ‘motivational speaker’ to her CV, using the horrors of her own early years to inform inspirational talks at schools and prisons.
She is also currently writing a memoir that she hopes will be an inspiration to readers. This latest side hustle makes sense – if anyone has the life experience to act as a positivity guru to others it’s Lorraine. ‘Don’t call me that!’ she shouts, visibly cringeing. ‘Positivity is so not me. I’m the one who gets shouted at to “cheer up, love” in the street because I’ve got a resting bitch face – or, rather, a resting generalised anxiety disorder face.’
I beg to differ – for a start, her Instagram feed is peppered with inspirational quotes such as ‘know your value instead of always trying to prove your worth’.
‘No. No. No!’ she screams. ‘I am not that person who hides behind fake slogans and trite fridge magnets saying “Live. Laugh. Love”. Those people deserve to have cupcakes thrown at their heads. There is a world of difference between personal reflection and one-size-fits-all artificial positivity. Helping people find the things that bring them joy and contentment is not the same as instructing them to paint a smile on their faces.’
The last time I interviewed Lorraine she was charming but somewhat aloof. Today, she is less guarded, far more relaxed and open. She beams when talking about her 22-year-old actress daughter Ella Balinska, from her six-year marriage to Polish jazz musician Count Kaz Balinski-Jundzill, which ended in 2000.
‘I am so proud – soon you’ll be interviewing her not me,’ says Lorraine, referring to her daughter’s role alongside Kristen Stewart in the forthcoming reboot of the Charlie’s Angels movie. ‘I always knew she would do something creative and it’s wonderful to see her following her passion. As her mother, I will always worry about whether she is earning enough to pay her bills, but it brings me joy to see her so happy and doing so well.’
I suspect it’s not solely Ella’s success that is behind this more affable Lorraine. She is currently dating businessman Dennis O’Brien, with whom she was photographed last year, but she won’t be drawn further than to say, with a grin and a glint in her eye, ‘He’s great.’
The couple met at the gym, and she has said in the past that they are both into fitness. Unsurprisingly, Lorraine is lean and lithe. She looks strong, but working out is more than just a route to killer abs for her. Exercise was her saviour when she was knocked sideways by the death of her adoptive mother Audrey a few years ago. She had somehow managed to not only forgive but also to maintain a relationship with both of her adoptive parents following their divorce. Audrey’s death hit Lorraine hard; having made peace with her mother, she was floored by grief. ‘I tumbled into a deep sadness which could well have turned into depression,’ she remembers. ‘But three days after it happened, I got out of bed and managed to get to the gym. It saved me.’
These days Lorraine has a close relationship with her adoptive father Roger and his new wife, with whom he has a daughter, and they see each other often. In adulthood, she did meet up with her birth parents, but she describes the experience as ‘like meeting strangers at a bus stop’ and felt no compulsion to see them again; she already had a family.
She seems to have reconciled herself with her chaotic upbringing, embraced it even – it certainly gave her the drive to succeed at whatever she turned her hand to. She is philosophical when I ask what she thinks of the move to relax adoption guidelines to no longer stipulate that adopters and adoptees be of the same ethnicity (Lorraine was adopted before this policy came into place). ‘What every child needs is unconditional love and security,’ she says. ‘Waiting around for the identical Dulux colour-match is no way to manage vulnerable children’s lives. My upbringing was really tough but that had nothing to do with my parents being white and me being black.’
She’s open on her website and Instagram about overcoming her struggles. One of her breakthroughs, she tells me now, was ‘discovering that “no” is a full sentence’ and that continually bending over backwards to accommodate the other person in a relationship leads you to not just defer and devalue your own needs but to deeply resent the other person. ‘I believe that when you put everyone else first, all you are doing is teaching them to put you second.
‘I just want to share my experiences and recount how I overcame obstacles,’ she says. ‘There’s a real phenomenon of women who are strong and assertive professionally but are hopeless in their personal lives. That fascinates me. I have had lots of unsuccessful relationships where I lost myself because I was a people pleaser who invested too much in my partner’s comfort and happiness rather than asking for what I needed. If he wanted to go out, I would go out, even if I was exhausted and craving me-time and an early night.’
So what’s her advice for anyone who reads this and thinks it sounds familiar? ‘Just do you. Be yourself,’ she says. Hmm… I’m not sure that’s quite the insight I was looking for, Is ay – but then she clarifies: ‘It sounds simple but it’s actually quite hard because we’re all influenced by those around us and the most sure-fire route to misery is to strive to do what you think other people want you to do.
‘I’m not telling people to chase perfection but to embrace who they are and be the best version of themselves.’
I wonder aloud whether she has a snappy motto for us all to live by. She barely misses a beat: ‘Keep going – unless you feel like crying, because that’s OK, too.’
It’s positivity, Lorraine Pascale-style: upbeat but with just the right amount of side-eye.