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Celebrity chef faces heat on stand about drug use

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LONDON -- Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson admitted in court Wednesday she had taken cocaine, but denied being a habitual user. She accused her ex-husband of trying to "destroy" her, during a lacerating day of testimony that laid bare a materially affluent but deeply troubled marriage.

Lawson said her former husband Charles Saatchi, a millionaire art collector, spread drug rumours about her after he was photographed gripping her throat outside Scott's restaurant in London. The widely published image ignited harsh criticism of Saatchi and was followed by their divorce in July.

"He told everyone that he was taking cocaine out of my nose at Scott's when he knows that is a lie," Lawson said, testifying at the fraud trial of two former assistants. She said her ex-husband spread "false allegations that I was a habitual user" who snorted cocaine daily.

"People who do that are a lot thinner than I am," she said. "I have never been a drug addict."

Lawson, 53, was appearing 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 London home.

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 rooms at high-end hotels.

The two employees deny the fraud charges. Their defence lawyers have suggested Lawson ignored the Grillos' lavish expenditure in return for their silence about her alleged drug use.

The media coverage of the trial has focused more on Lawson and Saatchi's failed 10-year marriage 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 said she had been reluctant to testify in court because she had already been subjected to a campaign of "bullying and abuse" from Saatchi.

"I have been put on trial here... and in the world's press," Lawson said.

Lawson said she had taken cocaine half a dozen times with her first husband, John Diamond, while he was dying of cancer, and took it once again in July 2010 at a time when "I felt subjected to acts of intimate terrorism" by Saatchi.

"A friend of mine offered me some cocaine and I took it. It completely spooked me," she said.

She also said she had smoked marijuana during the final stages of her marriage to Saatchi.

Lawson, famous for her sensuous TV manner and "domestic goddess" image, described the 70-year-old Saatchi, a former advertising magnate, as a "brilliant but brutal" man with a sharp temper.

Giving her version of the notorious restaurant incident for the first time, Lawson said Saatchi grabbed her throat after she saw a baby nearby and remarked that she was looking forward to becoming a grandmother.

She told the court Saatchi said: "I am the only person you should be concerned with. I am the only person who should be giving you pleasure."

When the pictures emerged and she fled their home, Lawson said Saatchi demanded she come back to him and clear his name or "he would destroy me."

Lawson told a jury at Isleworth Crown Court in London that 41-year-old Elisabetta Grillo -- known to the family as Lisa -- had been "a rock" who helped her overcome the trauma of the 2001 death of her first husband, but said her employee's behaviour became increasingly bitter and unkind to Lawson's two children.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2013 C18

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