by Margarette Driscoll
ELIZABETH HURLEY’s empire continues to flourish. Even her exes are regulars at her court. But, she reveals, it’s her role raising awareness of breast cancer that she most cherishes.
If longevity is the test of celebrity, Elizabeth Hurley has passed with flying colours. Ever since she became the paparazzi’s darling – after accompanying her then boyfriend Hugh Grant to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994 wearing ‘that Versace dress’, held together with oversized safety pins – her life and loves have been the stuff of soap opera.
But alongside the drama she has built an impressive career as an actress, model and swimwear entrepreneur, while mostly being a single mother.
It takes the best part of four weeks to find a space in her crazy-busy diary for an 8am meeting at Blakes, a boutique hotel just around the corner from her home in London’s Kensington. And, at 7.45am, with a long day’s filming ahead of her, I find her already seated at a corner table sipping a soy cappuccino.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Elizabeth looks amazing. Her eyes sparkle, she has the perfect honey tan and her tumbling hair is an exquisite shade of caramel. All summer she has been working 16-hour days shooting season four of E!’s The Royals, the Dynasty-style soap – ‘Buckingham Palace on steroids’ – in which she plays Queen Helena, head of a fictional British royal family, all tiaras and sexy footmen.
On Instagram, Elizabeth (none of her friends calls her Liz) describes herself as ‘Mummy, Actress, Model, Farmer and Bikini Designer’ and it’s hard to know – other than Mummy, obviously – which of these roles takes precedence.
She talks with as much enthusiasm about her latest acquisition, a flow beehive (a method of extracting honey without disturbing the bees, in case you were wondering) for her £6 million country pile in Herefordshire as she does about her acting career.
Followers will be familiar with her glamorous swimwear shots and endless tabloid speculation about her love life and friendships with her string of exes: after Hugh Grant came multimillionaire Steve Bing, husband Arun Nayar and fiancé Shane Warne. But there is one serious aspect to her portfolio.
She was hired as a ‘face’ of the cosmetics giant Estée Lauder in the mid-1990s and has spearheaded its support for breast cancer research ever since. This week, to mark the 25th anniversary of the campaign, she is launching its annual fundraiser (October is breast cancer awareness month) which is hoping to raise more than £100,000 in the UK through sales of a specially created beauty box.
Breast cancer is a subject very close to Elizabeth’s heart. When Evelyn Lauder – co-creator of the pink ribbon (now the symbol of support for people with breast cancer) and daughter-in-law of the company’s founder Estée – first asked her to join the campaign, her beloved grandmother had just died from the disease.
‘No one talked about breast cancer in those days. Cancer was a dirty word – it was whispered – as if it were contagious even to say it,’ she says.
‘My grandmother, who was fabulous and from a large, happy family, didn’t talk about it, even to my mother. We found out later she’d had a double mastectomy but we didn’t know when she had it; we weren’t there for her. Now survival rates are higher and there are better treatments. We’ve done a good job of spreading awareness. A world that doesn’t have breast cancer – or one where you don’t die of it – has to be the aim.’
Elizabeth is characteristically upbeat. One of the things people seem to like most about her is that she’s not edgy or neurotic. She cheerfully admits to being a show-off who can’t resist the camera and is a compulsive flirt, so much so that she laughs about having suffered ‘flirting injuries’ on holiday: thinking she looked ‘hot’, she misjudged a scissor jump into a hammock and knocked herself out.
She has found a kindred spirit in Joan Collins, who co-stars in The Royals. One of Elizabeth’s recent Instagram posts shows a clip of the two of them walking off set, arms entwined, saying, ‘You were wonderful, darling.’ ‘No, you were wonderful…’
And in a surreal moment of life meeting art, she recently ran into Prince Harry’s girlfriend Meghan Markle, an actress some think might become an actual royal. Elizabeth is cheering her all the way: gorgeous, talented, a woman of her own making, Meghan is just what the royal family needs, she says. ‘Hell yes! She’s enchanting.’
Damian, Elizabeth’s 15-year-old son, who has spent four school summer holidays hanging around on set, was offered a cameo role as Prince Hansel of Liechtenstein last year. ‘I was his chaperone, so I was there to watch and pass him bottles of water. This year we’ve had a scene together, which was sweet,’ she says.
Her advice to him as an actor was simply to ‘learn your lines and don’t be annoying’, which he seems to have more than managed. ‘Bizarrely, he’s astonishingly comfortable and non-nervous. He’s impressive actually, a natural.’
In term time, Damian is away at boarding school. It must be a tough act, being a single mother, running two homes and trying to work (‘Ah! Cue the violins,’ she laughs). She thought long and hard about sending him away, but it has worked well for both of them. Ironically, as the son of a celebrity, Damian probably has a more ‘normal’ environment in a school where many of the pupils have rich or famous parents.
‘My mother helps where she can but she is a generation older and if Damian were at day school in London, aged 15, and I had to go away for work, I don’t think she would have been able to cope with the challenges,’ she says. ‘He went to a day school in the country for a while, but it was hard to know who could hold the fort there, and because he is an only child and was never going to have siblings, I wanted him to have kids around him.
‘We’re quite isolated. There aren’t neighbours like there were where I grew up, when you could just get on your bike and say, “Do you want to come out and play?” He doesn’t have that. It was the right decision and he’s very happy where he is. And now we have these great holidays every summer, on set. He likes that; he’d rather be on set than on holiday. There’s part of me, though, that would rather be on holiday.’
Elizabeth’s career began after a period of teenage punk rebellion when she dyed her hair pink: ‘My mother probably thought I looked a fright.’ She grew up in a modest semi in Basingstoke, Hampshire. Her father, Roy, was a major in the Royal Army Educational Corps, her mother Angela a primary school teacher. Her siblings are also high achievers: Elizabeth’s sister Kathleen was an agent who sold film and TV rights to books; her brother Michael is a scientist at London’s Imperial College, researching Parkinson’s disease.
Elizabeth was just out of acting school in 1987 when she landed a part in a Spanish film, Remando al Viento, which also starred Hugh Grant. They were an item for the next 13 years, their relationship surviving not just her upstaging him in the Versace dress but his much-publicised encounter with prostitute Divine Brown in Los Angeles in 1995, the same year Elizabeth was snapped up by Estée Lauder.
Professional discipline means she’s too busy for boyfriends right now – ‘When I’m filming, I don’t go out at all. Not at all. I walk in the door and go straight to bed’ – but her ability to keep exes circling in her orbit is remarkable.
She and Hugh lived next door to one another for a number of years after they split up and are godparents to each other’s children. Her ex-husband, Indian textiles heir Arun, is still very much on the scene, though they divorced in 2011.
And she remains close to Shane Warne, the Australian former international cricketer, to whom she was engaged for two years until 2013.
‘The thing is,’ she says, ‘if someone’s lovely how could you not be on good terms with them? None of us has ever done anything bad to one another. Hugh and Arun are very important in our lives. Shane is still a good friend; we were texting each other last night. Damian loves Shane’s three kids, so we’ll always be connected to each other in one way or another.’
The one who has been all but erased from the picture is film producer Steve Bing, biological father to Damian. When Elizabeth became pregnant, Bing denied paternity, saying their relationship had been ‘non-exclusive’.
Elizabeth’s fury was evident in the statement she released when a DNA test proved Bing (who inherited $600 million at the age of 18) was her son’s father and he offered to pay £100,000 a year into a trust for Damian’s maintenance. ‘I have always made it perfectly clear that I don’t want any financial help from him whatsoever,’ she said. ‘The money is not wanted or welcome.’
Over time, the cold war between them seems to have thawed – ‘I honestly don’t think I have an enemy in the world right now,’ she says breezily. ‘We’re on friendly terms.’ But Damian carries her surname, not Bing’s.
On Father’s Day she posted a message to Arun – ‘Thank u for being the best daddy to our little man’ – alongside a sweet family picture of the three of them, taken when Damian was little.
‘They’re very close,’ she says. ‘Damian went out for dinner with Arun last night. And when they came back there was a knock at my bedroom door. I said, “Damian, why are you knocking on my door?” And, of course, it was Arun come to say hello.’
Intriguingly, she twice absent-mindedly refers to Arun as ‘my husband – I mean my ex-husband’ – and talks warmly of his family. ‘I absolutely adore his mother; she’s German so we call her Mutti. In India I stay with her and when she’s here she lives around the corner, so I see her nearly every day. Twice a year I go to Mumbai, where Arun grew up and his brother still lives. I have kaftans made there for my beachwear company, so I go to supervise production.’
She has tried to spread the word about breast cancer in India, ‘but the conversation is only just opening up there’. In 2009, the year after she married Arun, she returned to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai where she spent her wedding night to host a fundraiser, dressed in a pink sari with Damian in a matching, mini maharaja outfit.
Two years ago, she launched breast cancer awareness month in New York by flicking a switch that lit up the Empire State Building in pink.
She has a mammogram at the Evelyn H Lauder Breast Center in the city every year. Her first was a present from Evelyn for her 40th birthday.
Evelyn was inspired by the Aids activists of the time, who had created a red ribbon as a symbol of support for the cause. She and a friend created the pink ribbon to symbolise breast cancer.
She also set up the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, declaring its mission to be ‘prevention and a cure in our lifetime’. The BCRF now supports research around the world, including three projects at Britain’s leading cancer hospital, London’s Royal Marsden.
‘My grandmother was a teacher who grew up on a farm. In those days, people hadn’t been lectured on eating quinoa and kale, but they ate healthily compared to now because they didn’t have processed food – and there was no pollution in the country. To this day we still don’t really know why some people will get the disease and others won’t,’ says Elizabeth.
‘What upsets me most is that had it happened today it would be a different story. Women of my grandmother’s generation didn’t go for mammograms and they hadn’t been taught to examine their own breasts for irregularities like we have. The change that has come about over the past 25 years is quite incredible. Back then doctors frequently saw very large tumours and now that is very rare. One in eight women in the UK will get breast cancer, but if it’s discovered early, 90 per cent of those will survive.’
One of the key things we’ve learnt about breast cancer is that it can be inherited. Four years ago, Angelina Jolie, whose mother died of cancer aged 56, revealed that she had undergone a double mastectomy in order to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer.
Elizabeth has also been DNA tested and was relieved to find she does not carry the faulty genes associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. Nonetheless, she is always nervous when having a mammogram: ‘None of us wants bad news. Mammograms are not painful, despite what people say. There’s nothing to be scared of, other than a diagnosis.’
The big dilemma for older women is the risk of breast cancer associated with HRT. Elizabeth has erred on the side of caution: ‘Some people think research shows a risk that might not bode well with breast cancer but other doctors say it could be advantageous. It’s not my place to give advice, but I’ve chosen not to take HRT. It is an individual choice.’ Which makes it all the more amazing that she has such beautiful skin, thick hair and seemingly boundless energy.
‘Aha! For now,’ she laughs. ‘It could all go downhill.’
Save more than £65 on the Estée Lauder Beauty Box
– The Estée Lauder Beauty Box launches 2 October – it costs £25 with £15 going to Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) – and contains more than £91 worth of goodies, including Clinique eye cream and lip balm, Estée Lauder foam cleanser and Smashbox mascara. Each box includes a pink ribbon you can wear to show your support for the campaign. One in eight women in the UK develop breast cancer in their lifetime; almost eight in ten will survive the disease for ten years or more.
– The late Evelyn Lauder began the first breast cancer campaign in 1992, co-creating the Pink Ribbon to raise awareness. In the 25 years since then, Estée Lauder breast cancer campaign has raised more than £52 million for global research, education and medical services and funded 225 research grants.
– Elizabeth has been the Estée Lauder Companies UK Breast Cancer Campaign’s global ambassador for more than 20 years.
– The UK Breast Cancer Campaign Beauty Box sold out in less than a week last year and raised £60,000 for BCRF.
– One BCRF-funded research programme at London’s Royal Marsden Hospital is a trial of anti-oestrogen drugs and therapies for breast cancer patients. Another, at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, is looking at what can be done to alleviate stress levels in breast cancer patients.
– So far, in 2017, the BCRF has invested more than £1 million in UK research. Nearly £10 million has been raised in Britain since the campaign began. This year, to mark its 25th anniversary, the campaign has a new mission: to help create a breast-cancer-free world.