Chrissy Teigen wanted to cover literally everything in her first cookbook with cheese and ham, seems extremely disappointed in almond milk, and says her mom loves eating caviar with Kris Jenner. She shares this with a group of journalists seated on the sunny patio at the Chateau Marmont, picking at plates of pancakes made with Vita Coco Coconut Milk, for whom she is a spokesperson. (There was also, fear not, avocado toast, and coconut milk for the coffee, which was indeed preferable to almond milk but still too thin.)
Dressed in white silk with a jeweled gold belt fastened above her pregnant belly, Teigen is so glowing she could be worshiped as a minor fertility goddess. Everyone holds up their phones to film her, which in 2018 is about as worshipful as you can get, even if most of us are really just recording in order to transcribe later. Though maybe that’s a little worshipful, too.
Until recently, a famous food person was an irascible white man with a sophisticated-sounding accent and a Michelin star or 12, the domestic pantheon of Martha and Ina, or anyone who made food on TV. Now, the food world is being flooded with actually famous people who would be recognized on the street — and not just by someone who spent a four-week surgical recovery watching Chopped. Real-deal movie star Gwyneth Paltrow waltzed into the food realm with a familiar and assured melding of Hollywood fad diet (wellness) and Martha Stewart-derived perfectionism.
As a domestic goddess, Paltrow offers approachable recipes but also pleasure-blunting, dubious food rules, which makes her hard to love if you actually love eating. Chrissy Teigen, whose first, best-selling cookbook Cravings featured her gnawing chicken wings in swimsuits and a chapter dedicated to her Thai mother’s cooking, defies any previous food celebrity mold. She’s a breath of fresh air, if that air smells like mac and cheese.
Teigen’s celebrity is fascinatingly elastic yet hyper specific. She’s famous for being a model, and for being married to the musician John Legend, but really she’s famous for being a famous person who uses the internet the way you would use the internet if you were famous: making fun of your overconfident husband, live-tweeting airplane nightmares, yelling at Donald Trump. Except Teigen is so famous, and so good at the internet, that those relatable tweets can spawn nightmare right wing conspiracy theories or demand an entire #empowering article (or a pickup by Eater).
Teigen’s appeal extends across all sorts of keywords — motherhood, celebrity, beauty, food — and the writers in attendance at the Vita Coco Coconut Milk brunch were mostly from lifestyle and celebrity publications. Compared to her gray hairs and her politics, Teigen’s love of food is one of the least scrutinized or controversial aspects of her celebrity matrix (so far). Her cookbook, edited by respected food world personality Francis Lam, was well-received and a best-seller, and she’s not as obsessed over by food publications as she is in other media niches.
Teigen’s association with food is also lucrative. In addition to the partnership with Vita Coco, she’s the new face of the McDonald’s Dollar Menu, and has a second cookbook on the way. She’s also recently trademarked “Cravings,” suggesting a lifestyle brand is in the works; she told me she’s not allowed to talk about that yet.
Teigen hugged me at the beginning and end of our allotted five minutes together and only occasionally referred to the coconut milk, which was helpfully displayed on a table in front of us, in case either of us had forgotten. Junkets often mix mannered rigidity with abrupt intimacy — at SXSW I once squeezed into a tiny booth with the very tall Jon Favreau for an intensely monitored 10 minutes — and chatting with Teigen on cushioned benches in the benevolent sunshine, while handlers hissed repeatedly in my ear that time was running out, was like hopping from hot pools to freezing cold water in Russian baths.
Access is always tied to promotion, and the trick of influencer marketing is to switch a celebrity promoting their project for your product. If the celebrity is Teigen, a beautiful model who overshares with deadly and irresistible charm, the name of your coconut milk will appear in conjunction with anecdotes about Teigen’s daughter’s enthusiasm for nail files, and slathering her skin with coconut oil and blocking Twitter haters so they know they’ve been blocked and her parents’ fondness for living separately and ramen burgers??? Ramen burgers. Teigen is Eater’s media personality of the year, and in a time of endlessly grappling with the food world’s brutal power structures, an interview with a woman who literally just wants to talk about how great noodles are (so great!) is a professional and personal relief. Score one for the coconuts.
Teigen is very happy to play an easygoing noodle enthusiast. She is positioning herself as not just an anti-Gwyneth, but as far less lifestyle-y aspirational than even a Martha or an Ina. She refuses to label herself as an expert cook, is gleefully obsessed with chain restaurants, and takes pride in the fact her recipes are tested far from major urban centers. The products she promotes are similarly approachable. Drinking coconut milk available at the grocery store is aspirational the way hitting snooze maybe only twice instead of three times is aspirational — both an actual thing I aspire to daily and something I could actually do.
And Teigen’s definition of accessibility is not the focus-grouped sameness of the chains she loves. Instead, Teigen wants to give her audience access to herself, and the food obsessions that define her sense of self. She’s thrilled by how readers embraced her mother’s Thai recipes, and is invested in making Thai cooking more accessible outside big cities. She says if she could, she would love to open an Asian Eataly. “If I end up with one of those before I die I’ll be very happy.” The main appeal for Eataly, from her perspective, is it breaks Italian food down into its many regional variations, and she wants non-Asian Americans to see Asian cuisines the same way. “A Thai Chinese restaurant pains me, though I’ll order from it for sure.” Teigen also says she’s incorporating more Thai recipes into her second book, after discovering her fears that readers would avoid recipes like a stuffed cucumber soup were completely unfounded.
Teigen’s internet celebrity, and her food celebrity, are intimately related to one another, and both connected to the increased access, and authenticity, social platforms can offer a famous person. She says cookbook offers came in years before she agreed to do one because she was afraid no one would believe a model loved to cook. Instagram and Snapchat were her way of demonstrating to her fans that she wasn’t faking it — these were actual recipes she and her husband enjoyed. “People got to see it’s not like we have a chef and I like to be in heels nearby,” she said. “It’s my main love.”
And even as social media has allowed Teigen to share a genuine love of cooking, she’s also clear on how corrosive the fetishization of her presence there can be. “Someone I follow and really love, she wrote, Stop making every tweet into some weird story, we love Chrissy and we’re going to end up hating her.”
That line between those who love her, those who obsess over her, and those who hate her for sport is already blurry. She’s currently balancing an admirable commitment to making Twitter good, dealing with intermittent swarms of social media harassment, and posting select Instagram #ads, all of it leveraged on her relatability, an ineffable charisma that manifests both in her legendary Twitter owns and in sharing stories so personal about products she promotes they must be true. What happens when Teigen ceases to be relatable? Or just burns out on giving so many people so much access to her thoughts?
Teigen handles normal access like any other famous person (five minutes, five handlers), which is a reminder that her access is mediated through a screen. Still, the way she uses social media is, for now, still fairly rooted in her actual experiences. I witnessed this, sort of. Also on the Marmont patio, several recently announced Oscar finalists were, coincidentally, being interviewed by other journalists. I accidentally made eye contact with Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya and instantly felt like a stalker — and then later Teigen tweeted about wanting to say hello to him but not wanting to be an “annoying interrupter.” If I were also famous, I would definitely also both want to greet an actor I admired and be horrifically worried it would be awkward. So relatable.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.
Editor: Erin DeJesus