By JILL LAWLESS
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 widely published image that was soon followed by a divorce.
Attention in Britain has been much more on the failed marriage than about allegations that two Italian sisters working for the couple were living the high life at the couple’s unwitting expense.
Lawson, 53, appeared as a prosecution witness at the fraud trial of her former assistants Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo, a case that has exposed details of the TV star’s tempestuous domestic life.
She said she had been reluctant to take the stand because she had already been subjected to a campaign of “bullying and abuse” from Saatchi, whom she divorced in July.
“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 — who are sisters from Calabria in southern Italy — are accused of spending 685,000 pounds (more than $1 million) using credit cards loaned to them by Lawson and Saatchi for household expenses. The cards were allegedly used to buy luxury clothes, accessories and stays at high-end hotels.
Earlier, Lawson told a jury at Isleworth Crown Court in London that one of the defendants had been “a rock” who helped her overcome the trauma of her first husband’s death — but left the family feeling betrayed by her misbehavior.
Lawson, famous for her sensuous manner and “domestic goddess” image, said 41-year-old Elisabetta Grillo — known to the family as Lisa — had been “a stalwart and helped me through a really difficult time” before and after the 2001 death from cancer of her first husband, John Diamond.
“I loved Lisa. My children loved Lisa,” said Lawson, appearing nervous but composed. “She came to me at a very difficult time and she was a rock. I would have done anything for her.”
Lawson said she had showered Grillo with gifts, including a 7,000 pound ($11,500) 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 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.
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 turned a blind eye to the Grillos’ lavish expenditure in return for them keeping quiet 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.
Lawson appeared composed but tense as she was questioned about her marriage to Saatchi 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.”
And she disputed the lawyer’s claim that Elisabetta Grillo had been a surrogate mother to her two children.
“My children do not need a surrogate mother,” she said.
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