December 23, 2013 12:00 PM

She arrived at the London court wearing a severe black coat and a defiant expression, prepared to testify in a fraud case brought against her two former assistants. But when Nigella Lawson – star of ABC’s reality cooking show The Taste – took the stand last week, she suddenly found herself on trial, forced to answer questions about cocaine and marijuana use as well as her tempestuous 10-year marriage to advertising millionaire Charles Saatchi. “She didn’t want to tell the world her side of the story,” says a friend, referring to Lawson’s untenable relationship with Saatchi that sparked alarm last June when scandalous photos surfaced of her now ex-husband wrapping his hand around her neck. “She’s not the type to sit around the table and bad-mouth her husband,” adds another insider. “Whatever was going on between them was strictly between them.”

But the posh and exceedingly private Lawson was now going public – and going big. “The marriage was difficult at many stages and also deeply happy at some stages. That is sometimes the nature of marriage. But this, perhaps, was doomed,” confessed Lawson, 53. Calling Saatchi, 70, “a brilliant but brutal man,” she said, “I wasn’t scared of him all the time.” But she ultimately suffered. “I felt totally ashamed, isolated and in fear,” she said. “I don’t mean I was beaten. Emotional abuse doesn’t have scars, but it is still very wounding.”

At first the much older Saatchi seemed a surprising match for the journalist turned chef – the daughter of former British politician Nigel Lawson – who built a culinary empire as Britain’s domestic goddess by championing comfort food on her TV shows and in bestselling cookbooks. “Nigella had the big, exciting personality. People gravitated to her. That made Charles insecure, but it’s also what he loved about her,” says the Lawson friend. “He’s dark, very stubborn, and his ego is very, very fragile.” Especially when things didn’t go exactly his way. “Mr. Saatchi likes to have control over every element,” said Lawson. After cleaners finished working on the London home they shared with Saatchi’s daughter Phoebe, 19, and Lawson’s children Cosima, 20, and Bruno, 17, “he would go around and point at marks that he wanted to remove,” Lawson said. “He likes everyone to do what he wants.”

That appears to be the driving force behind the now-infamous incident at Scott’s restaurant, where Saatchi took hold of Lawson’s neck. “What actually happened was that somebody walked by with a very cute baby in a stroller, and I said, ‘I am so looking forward to having grandchildren.’ And he grabbed me by the throat and said, ‘I am the only person you should be concerned with. I am the only person who should give you pleasure,'” Lawson said.

Until then, Lawson said, she sometimes coped with Saatchi’s mercurial mood swings by taking drugs. In the face of allegations that she was addicted to cocaine, Lawson admitted to using the drug on two occasions in her life: when her first husband, journalist John Diamond, was dying of throat cancer. “It was a small amount, and it gave him some escape,” said Lawson. (Diamond died in 2001.) And the most recent incident was in 2010, when she says that she felt “subjected to acts of intimate terrorism by Mr. Saatchi.” Also in the past year, “I have smoked the odd joint,” Lawson said. “I found it made an intolerable situation tolerable.” But “I did not have and do not have a drug problem. I had a life problem,” Lawson insisted. “The answer was in changing the situation.”

Now with her messy divorce behind her and The Taste set to return on Jan. 2, Lawson hopes to put the spotlight back on what she loves: food. “This is a rough time for her. Nigella detests this kind of attention,” says the Lawson friend. “She just wants to work and she just wants peace.”

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