I’ve got serious déjà vu. In 2002, I interviewed Elizabeth Hurley in this very room at Kensington’s Blakes Hotel. It was 11 weeks after she’d given birth to her son Damian – now 16 and about to take his GCSEs. She had just come through the eye of a media storm over the DNA paternity test involving her former boyfriend Steve Bing, the American film producer and business tycoon. And it was eight years after her most famous former boyfriend, Hugh Grant, was arrested with a call girl on Sunset Boulevard. As she told me then, ‘I seem to live permanently in some god-awful soap opera. I just wish I could at least edit the script.’
Storylines almost worthy of The Royals – the cult spoof soap opera about a fictitious and hilariously dysfunctional royal family in which Elizabeth currently stars. Four seasons in, she plays Queen Helena, a role she modelled on Cruella de Ville and Dynasty's Joan Collins – who also happens to play her mother. 'She's hysterical!' laughs Elizabeth (never Liz), her upper-crust vowels far less intense these days.
Elizabeth Hurley's journey from Basingstoke schoolgirl to actress to business woman and self-styled commodity began, of course, with a dress: a legendary black Gianni Versace number held together, barely, with safety pins as if tattooed to her curves. It was 1994 when the little-known aspiring actress attended the premiere of Four Weddings And A Funeral, in the days before celebrity stylists. 'I'd never been to a premiere before. I didn't have any designer clothes of my own, I'd never even worn any, and I'd never heard of Versace,' she recalls. Someone gave her the number of the Versace press office; she picked up the dress herself in a plastic bag, took it home – 'no full-length mirror, let alone a steamer' – slung on some old shoes, did her own hair and make-up and BOOM! One of the world's most iconic red-carpet dresses was born. 'The next morning, Hugh and I flew to Cannes and we were given the newspapers on the very early morning flight – no internet then – and I thought, "Christ, we're on the cover of the newspapers," it was just extraordinary.' Does she know that the safety-pin dress has its own Wikipedia page? Or that it appeared in an episode of The Simpsons?
'Oh, really? No, I didn't know that.' Had we been able to get hold of the 24-year-old dress from the Versace archives for our shoot, I wonder if she would have worn it? 'I'm not sure I would, to be honest,' she pauses. 'People don't like to wear their wedding dresses again do they? I think you couldn't look better in it second time around. I mean, 24 years on, you could end up feeling slightly depressed, hahahah... so, erm, no! That dress is definitely for someone 20 years younger than me,' she says. I guess it must be as tiresome to be pinned to one dress as it is to be an actor best known for the Austin Powers capers back in the late '90s, when she radiated a comic mix of chilly reserve and sexual heat.
That she's maintained our interest ever since is quite remarkable. At 52, she looks fantastic – on and off camera. Not daring to tamper with that classic bone structure or the cascade of caramel highlights, she looks like an older version of, well, herself. ('Plastic surgery? I'd be too scared. Fillers? Forget about it! But I have had Botox in my forehead.') She has no qualms about posting selfies in hot-pink string bikinis and transparent kaftans to promote her swimwear business, which she founded 12 years ago. And why the hell shouldn't she? Still, they continue to spark controversy.
I read out a tabloid headline: 'Elizabeth Hurley recently confessed her son Damian is mortified due to her constant barrage of sexy selfies, which she regularly makes him take. And jokes that she will wear a nun's habit to his parents' evening.' She hoots: 'That's all fiction! My son is incredibly supportive of me and my beachwear business and of me as an actor and the breadwinner of our family of two. I often show them to him before I post them because he's youth, he knows what people like. In fact, when he was little he used to try and persuade me to wear long couture dresses to parents' evening, instead of my Uggs and tracksuit. No, he loved the glamour!' She adds that by drip-feeding the press images via Instagram 'it takes the heat off'. 'I'm not saying there aren't still people who want to train their long lens on you and take pictures of you scratching your butt – but it has calmed down.'
I wonder out loud who tipped off the paparazzo we spied skulking on the street on the day of our shoot for the 20 minutes or so we were filming outside? 'Well, he came out of nowhere,' she exclaims. 'He wasn't there when we started filming, I had a good look because I thought I can't believe we're getting away with this, on the street with no security.'
You can understand her nervousness around long lenses. It was the reason she moved to the country 10 years ago, first to an organic farm in Gloucestershire and now in a smaller pile in Herefordshire (said to have cost £9 million) 'because every time I took my son to school they were there. It was unbearable, really affecting him quite badly, he felt very protective of me, he was only five and for a little boy having his mother getting harassed and feeling scared, he couldn't stand it.'
She took an eight-year break from acting and set up her business, Elizabeth Hurley Beach, so she could take care of Damian and work from home. Has being a single mother in the public eye affected her relationship with her son? 'We have a pretty strong relationship because it's just the two of us, although a bigger extended family – my sister Kate, brother Michael and Arun, my ex-husband, is with us a great deal with his family.' (It was Arun, she says, who rushed to the hospital to be with her nephew Miles after he was stabbed.) Damian also has his godfathers, 'Uncle Hugh [Grant], Uncle EJ [Elton John] and Uncle Fox, that's what we call Dennis [Leary, the actor and comedian].'
And, of course, there is one relationship she's maintained for a very long time. She laughs: 'Hugh? Way too long, 31 years! Hugh is my oldest friend, Arun is my best friend too and I adore Shane – it's pretty hard to break up from a best friend. They're still people you want to share both good and bad things with. Hugh is very happy with his girlfriend Anna [they are reportedly set to marry soon], they've got three kids together and I get on with Anna incredibly well.' (Notably no mention of Bing here, Damian's father, whose fortune, she announced at the time, she wouldn't take a penny from.) 'You can't annihilate the past, you have to make friends with it, otherwise you've got these terribly dark areas – we are our past so it would be pretty sad to tear up photographs and delete everything.' You can see from what she says next why those relationships initially worked and also why they were ultimately doomed. 'We've all lived out of suitcases our entire professional lives, passport in our bags the whole time, all of us in the public eye, we just get it. You never have any ties in our business, you can never commit. If I had to fly to New York tomorrow to work I'd go in a heartbeat. People who aren't in that life can find it very difficult to adapt.' Oh, it sounds like she's dating now, I say. 'I'm not saying anything because it wouldn't be fair.' Is he in the public eye? 'I've made a vow, unless I'm engaged to somebody, I don't talk about anybody, sorry, I know that's boring.'
Still, she does have one regret. 'What would have made more difference in my life is if I'd had more than one child. I was one of three, a big sister and a little brother to squabble with and to love. Damian doesn't have that. They're very different, single children, more insular but very at ease with themselves, very self-possessed, focused.' Damian wants to follow her into acting, she says, and even played a cameo in The Royals – Prince Hansel Von Lichtenstein, a royal who doubles as a spoilt German reality TV star. 'It started when I took him on the set of Gossip Girl [her first job when she went back to acting]. He was 10 and I thought he'd be bored senseless, 16-hour days! But he just loved it.' The day after we meet she is heading to New York to pick up her other role as an ambassador for Estée Lauder. She hosts the annual breast cancer awareness gala, which has, she proudly tells me, raised $800m over the past two decades. As someone who first posed in the beauty giant's ads 23 years ago, drenched in amber light and little else, she sounds extremely grateful to the Estée Lauder Companies ongoing loyalty and the fact that the worlds of beauty and fashion have finally become more age-inclusive. 'Well, I can only approve! As I've benefitted from it greatly since 1995.' (Those campaigns must have been lucrative, given that her personal fortune, all told, is estimated at around £26m). 'It's really important for 50-something women to see other 50-year-old women. I don't feel there's a cut-off any more when you're no longer relevant and can't work.'
Refreshingly, the Nicorette-chewing Elizabeth doesn't bang on about her own health rituals. 'I'm not a vegan who lives on green juices, I don't go to the gym religiously. Yes, I do yoga and Pilates, but not for eight months because I injured my shoulder with a hedge trimmer.' (Now I feel bad about making her repeatedly swing a Versace bag over her head in our shoot. 'Don't be silly, it was an enormous pleasure and Damian was thrilled with the pictures and that's all that matters nowadays.')
Driven to the core and crisply self-assured, but equally warm and funny, the real Elizabeth Hurley is hardly anything like her tabloid soap-opera persona. As she gets up to leave, picking up her Gucci bag (a Christmas present from Uncle EJ), I wonder about her survival instincts and her astonishing staying power. 'By default,' she says. 'I've just stuck around and kept working where a lot of people retire and have a perfectly nice life doing something else. But I like show business. I love my life so I wouldn't like to stop.'
Until next time then, Elizabeth..
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