LONDON (AP) — Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, testifying Wednesday in the fraud trial of two former assistants, denied using illegal drugs and accused her ex-husband of spreading the allegation to savage her reputation.
Lawson said Charles Saatchi had threatened to destroy her if she did not clear his name after he was photographed gripping her throat outside a restaurant, the widely published image that was soon followed by a divorce.
Coverage of the trial has focused more on the failed marriage of Lawson and Saatchi and their tempestuous home life than on allegations that two women working for them were living the high life at the couple's unknowing expense.
Lawson, 53, appeared as a prosecution witness at the trial of Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo, longtime employees who worked as nannies, cleaners and assistants in the couple's home.
She said she had been reluctant testify because she had already been subjected to a campaign of "bullying and abuse" from Saatchi, whom she divorced in July following the throat-grabbing incident.
"He said to me at the start that if I didn't go back to him and clear his name he would destroy me," Lawson said.
"He started spreading false allegations of drug use," she added. "I have been put on trial here ... and in the world's press."
The Grillos — sisters from Calabria in southern Italy — are accused of using credit cards loaned to them by Lawson and Saatchi for household expenses to spend 685,000 pounds (more than $1 million) on luxury clothes, accessories and accommodation at high-end hotels.
Lawson told a jury at Isleworth Crown Court in London that Elisabetta Grillo had been "a rock" who helped her overcome the trauma of the death of her first husband, John Diamond, in 2001.
Lawson, famous for her sensuous manner and "domestic goddess" image, said the 41-year-old Grillo — known to the family as Lisa — later left the family feeling betrayed.
"I loved Lisa. My children loved Lisa," said Lawson, who wore head-to-toe black save for the white collar on her blouse.
Lawson said she had showered Grillo with gifts, including a 7,000-pound set of false teeth. But she said her employee's behavior became increasingly bitter and unkind to Lawson's children.
Lawson was read a list of expenditures by the Grillos, including nights at luxury hotels and purchases from Yves St Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana and Chanel. She denied authorizing them.
"It's very difficult when you find out that someone you have loved and trusted could behave in that way," Lawson said, her voice breaking. "In my heart of hearts I do not believe Lisa to be a bad person. But I believe her to have not a very strong moral compass."
The case has been overshadowed by details of the breakdown of Lawson's 10-year marriage to art collector Saatchi. Lawson referred to him as Mr. Saatchi throughout her testimony, and remarked when a lawyer referred to the "unfortunate" divorce that she didn't consider it unfortunate.
Defense lawyers have claimed Lawson used illegal drugs including cocaine, citing an email from Saatchi in which he referred to her as "Higella." They have suggested Lawson ignored the Grillos' lavish expenditure in return for their silence about her drug use.
But Saatchi told the court last week that he had never seen Lawson taking drugs. He said the email was written in anger and he regretted sending it.
The trial has revealed details of Lawson and Saatchi's luxurious but often fraught home life, which involved a large staff including a personal trainer paid in cash because, Lawson said, "personal trainers don't take credit cards."
She said cash was readily to hand because Saatchi "kept a huge stash of it above the fridge" in a freezer bag.
Lawson appeared composed but tense as she was questioned about her marriage in often testy exchanges with defense lawyer Anthony Metzer. "I don't see why my marriage is pertinent to you," she snapped.
She disagreed with Metzer's suggestion that Saatchi had "patriarchal" attitudes but agreed that he had a temper. "I don't think anyone could be in any doubt that he did have a temper."
She said she had confided in Elisabetta Grillo about Saatchi's bouts of shouting and swearing. "I sometimes did say, 'I don't know how long I can take this,'" Lawson said.
She said she had treated the Grillos like family, but disputed the lawyer's claim that Elisabetta Grillo was a surrogate mother to her two children.
"My children do not need a surrogate mother," she said.