As her 18-year-old son sets off on an independent life, actress Elizabeth Hurley reveals the strain of stepping back, the pain of the tragedy that struck in the summer – and the personal motivation for her life’s mission.
‘I worry about safety all the time,’ says Elizabeth Hurley, thinking not of herself but her son Damian. They spent lockdown together, but the 18-year-old – who looks astonishingly like his famously beautiful mother – has just signed with a top modelling agency and left her for a gap year full of photo shoots.
‘I worry very much about security. But no, I’m all right with it really,’ she says, grimacing as if to suggest this may not be true. ‘I torture him by making him text me and check in all the time. There’s a lot of eye-rolling going on from his end. It’s just keeping a clear head and finding a balance, isn’t it? Stepping back all the time.’
That’s not easy when a mother and son are as close as these two. The 55-year-old actress, model, entrepreneur and breast cancer awareness campaigner has been described as Damian’s twin in the past and said his personality mirrors her own.
‘Yes, we’re very close. Thank goodness, because it’s really just the two of us,’ says Elizabeth, who is single after a series of high-profile relationships with Hugh Grant, multimillionaire Steve Bing (Damian’s father), textiles heir Arun Nayar and cricketer Shane Warne. ‘We get most of the same things. Of course, he’s left me streets behind because he’s young and knows everything, but otherwise we have the same sensibility, which is great.’ The same face too, it seems. Damian’s resemblance to her is startling. ‘Yeah, quite alike,’ she agrees. ‘And I’ve got some pictures of me around his age where there are a lot of facial similarities.’
Today Elizabeth Hurley is dressed all in black, with flashes of fire in her hair, and looks quite gothic. She comes across as bossy and rather grand but playful, too. A bad cold has made her face swell up ‘like a guinea pig’, apparently. I say that must be the world’s best-looking guinea pig. She grins and says: ‘We are going to get along really well.’
She’s in the middle of a season of huge change that is a challenge to every parent. Damian turned 18 in April and has just finished school, getting two A*s and two As in his A-levels. ‘The end result is a good one, but the sadness and the misery of not graduating, not saying goodbye to your friends and not marking your last year as a child is just awful.’
Elizabeth admits she’s had to work hard to adjust to her little boy becoming a man. ‘We have to back off and treat them like we treat each other. Stop being so bossy and unfeeling, and talking about them as if they’re not there. It was a big process for me to learn to stop being annoying. If we don’t want to have them eye-roll us for the next 40 years, we have to change.’
Lockdown was spent at her £7 million manor house in Herefordshire with eight other members of the family, including her mother Angela. They tended the garden, ate together every day and crashed out on the sofa to watch box sets and old movies. The extra time together was precious, but now mother and son have gone their separate ways.
‘I feel fine about it,’ she insists. ‘A couple of weeks ago he went to New York by himself because he had a job. He used to fly to see me on location – he was an unaccompanied minor aged nine – so he’s done long-haul flights by himself. I feel it’s the right time. There is going to be a big difference, for sure, but it is the natural order and the way of the world, so it’s just the way it is.’
Is she not worried for him, given her experience of the cut-throat world of modelling? ‘My first modelling job was when I was 29. So I was a grown-up when I joined this industry.’
Elizabeth Hurley became the face of Estée Lauder in 1995 after making a spectacular impression on the red carpet at the 1994 premiere of Four Weddings And A Funeral with her then boyfriend Hugh Grant. Her black Versace dress held together with oversized gold safety pins caused a sensation.
This daughter of an Army major from Hampshire turned fame into starring roles in the spy spoof Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Bedazzled, in which she played the Devil seducing a young man for his soul. And she seems to have done her own deal with the devil – for the secret of everlasting youth – judging by the selfies she posts to her 1.7 million Instagram followers, promoting her beachwear range. Elizabeth still acts, most recently as a queen in the hit US TV comedy The Royals, which put those clipped, regal tones to good use.
Today we’ve met up to talk about Estée Lauder’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness campaign. This has raised around £70 million in the 25 years she has been involved – but there is a new urgency this year. The Covid crisis has made it hard for many women to get an appointment for a mammogram – two weeks ago it was estimated that a million women had missed their breast screening this year as a consequence of lockdown. ‘It’s incredibly important to tell women to self-check and to run to their doctor if they find anything that worries them,’ she says. ‘And we don’t have a cure yet. Our research scientists are adamant that if they have more money they will find a cure.’
There’s a poignant personal reason for her involvement in the campaign which we will discover, but I’m also aware that it’s her first interview since the tragic death of Damian’s father in June. It’s awkward, but I have to bring it up. ‘Oh,’ she says softly. ‘Very, very sad. Somebody he was very close to called me.’
Steve Bing, the heir to a real-estate fortune, jumped from the balcony of his apartment in Los Angeles. He had wooed Elizabeth with expensive jewellery and private jet flights around the world in 2000, when she was at her most famous. But when she became pregnant things turned toxic – he denied being the father and issued a statement saying their relationship was not exclusive. That hurt. In her own statement she said: ‘I loved Stephen enormously during the 18 months we were together. I was completely loyal and faithful to him throughout this time as, indeed, he assured me he was to me.’
A DNA test proved Bing was the father but she turned down his offer to pay £100,000 a year into a trust fund, saying the relationship had never been about the money for her. Were they in contact at all after that? ‘Well, no,’ she says firmly. ‘We hadn’t been friends for a very long time…’ There’s a real sorrow in her voice now. ‘But about a year and a half ago he came back into our lives. It’s very sad. I mean, it’s just terrible. Horrific that it happened, but there is some comfort to know that we had made up and there was no bad feeling.’
Was it Bing who made the approach? ‘Well, it’s a bit complicated. Yes, actually he did reach out.’
Her former lover wanted to join forces to fight his own father Dr Peter Bing, who had decided that he would not recognise Damian or Damian’s half-sister Kira, daughter of the tennis player Lisa Bonder, as his grandchildren, as they were born out of wedlock. That would exclude them from inheriting the £370 million family trust fund. The case went to court and a judge ruled in favour of the grandchildren, although Dr Bing is appealing. ‘None of it’s really my story, because it’s all to do with Damian. All I can say is that it was great to connect again with someone who… we had loved each other, very much. A long time ago.’
Steve Bing is said never to have met his son but he phoned Elizabeth on the day Damian turned 18 in April and wrote a goodbye letter to him before taking his own life. ‘I’m actually very grateful that we had the chance to reconnect. There were no hard feelings left. In fact, there were a lot of positive feelings left. But it was a terrible thing to happen.’
The breakdown in communication was unusual for Elizabeth, who is extraordinarily good at staying friends with her exes. When Hugh Grant turned 60 this summer she posted a lovely clip of him in Love Actually dancing in Downing Street as a smitten prime minister. The caption read: ‘Happy 60th birthday to the glorious Hugh Grant – a magnificent addition to the human race, even though he looks like a monkey. [Heart symbol] you forever xxxx.’
The mention of his name makes her smile. ‘I don’t see a lot of Hugh because he’s married with children and we’re both very busy but we’re still each other’s go-to people when we’re trying to decide whether to take a job or reading a script. There’s nobody else we really want to read it with.’
Would they work together? ‘I don’t think we would be in front of the camera together. We really get on each other’s nerves. We love each other, but we annoy each other.’
The father figure in Damian’s life has been her former husband Arun Nayar. The marriage lasted four years but the pair are in touch all the time. ‘Yesterday, when I was doing all my Estée Lauder Zoom calls, I did go to my ex-husband’s flat because it looked nicer and the bandwidth is faster and stronger.’ Everyone has had to learn Zoom fast; is she any good at it? ‘No, awful. It’s really hard to get a nice angle and get the sound right. People kept saying, “Can’t you get higher definition on your computer?” I was like, “I’ve no idea. I’d rather be putting Vaseline on the lens!”’
If Elizabeth Hurley worries about what she looks like on Zoom, what hope is there for the rest of us? But actually she’s being a trouper just by turning up today, with that cold. ‘I was so sick yesterday and so ill with snot, sinuses, weepy eyes, no hair and make-up, quite tricky. But here we are, all snot and nasality!’
She’s pretty sure it isn’t Covid. ‘I’ve had a test. I’ve just done a movie where we were tested left, right and centre. They were unbelievably strict. There was a Covid officer there every day and a nurse who took everybody’s temperature. If anybody’s went up even a point, they were sent home.’
Father Christmas Is Back will star Kelsey Grammer as her father and John Cleese as his brother. ‘It’s a great cast. Our surname is Christmas. It’s a daddy coming home to four daughters he abandoned 30 years ago.’
She had a handsome companion with her throughout. ‘I thought, “This is just hopeless, I’m not going to work this year because of Covid; I might as well get a new puppy.” Then I got the movie so I took the puppy to York for our filming.’ The cute little labrador is called Shivraj. ‘You have to be like a maternity nurse or they bond to somebody else and never really get trained. The hotel carpet was fine because I ran up and down many flights of stairs every two hours to take him for a wee!’
Now the filming is over, her priority is the Estée Lauder campaign. ‘Evelyn Lauder [the founder’s daughter-in-law] came to me after a shoot in 1995. She said, “Women all over the world are dying of breast cancer, and no one’s talking about it.” I knew that first-hand because I’d lost my grandmother to breast cancer the year before. She found a lump and was too embarrassed to talk about it or tell her doctor.’
By the time her grandmother did see the doctor, because the pain was so great, it was too late. A double mastectomy could not save her. ‘I feel so bad that my grandmother and women of her generation had no comfort in talking about it to anyone. If a cancer is found early, it’s 90 per cent curable. There’s an extremely good chance of survival. Nobody knew that then.’
Her grandmother had just died when Evelyn Lauder bought Elizabeth a mammogram for her 40th birthday. She has been every year since. ‘I do get nervous and uncomfortable but there is comfort in knowing that you were clear the year before, so if they find something, it will hopefully be new and small.’
Younger women should learn to examine themselves, she says. ‘We very much believe that girls at puberty should familiarise themselves with their own breasts. Then when they do a monthly self-examination they can see if there’s a change. We really need to educate our girls about that.’
So much has changed over the years, with pink ribbons and buildings being lit up for the cause, but Elizabeth keeps campaigning because this has become very personal. ‘One lady who interviewed me on television went and had a test afterwards and she had cancer. They found a lump, which was very frightening. Thank goodness she went then.
‘I had three friends under 40, all with young kids, who were diagnosed. One girl was putting on a fancy-dress corset that was tight on the ribcage and said, “There’s something funny there.’’’
How did all these women do? ‘They all survived,’ says Elizabeth happily, and she delivers what she knows is one of the most important lines of her life: ‘Early detection really does save lives.’
Support The Breast Cancer Appeal
The Estée Lauder Companies’ Breast Cancer Campaign is launching its Time To Unite virtual self-check event on Wednesday 21 October at 7pm to unite women in their mission to create a breast cancer-free world. For further details visit elcompanies.co.uk and click on The Breast Cancer Campaign under ‘Our Commitments’ Show your pink ribbon and share what it means to you on social media: use the hashtags #TimeToEndBreastCancer and #ELCdonates to show support to the global breast cancer community. For every public, in-feed Instagram or Facebook post throughout October featuring both #TimeToEndBreastCancer and #ELCdonates together, Estée Lauder Companies will donate $25 (around £20) to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation in the US, up to $100,000 (around £78,000).
Interview by Cole Morton