With a nod and a wink at her glamourous image, Elizabeth Hurley is pretty in pink as she carries on with her life’s mission – breast cancer awareness
We are used to seeing this woman in so many guises. As a glorious vamp in a Versace gown, barely contained by gold safety pins, on then-boyfriend Hugh Grant’s arm. As a demure bride in a pink-and-gold wedding sari in the pages of Hello magazine. As the fictional Queen of England in the new television show The Royals, all smiling menace and softly draped furs.
So who is this creature, then, wearing a white bathrobe you’d find on the back of the door in any hotel room? Never mind that she’s also got a plate of chocolate cake in one hand. “Don’t mind the bathrobe,” says Elizabeth Hurley with a smile at once arch and conspiratorial. “I greet everyone this way.”
I somehow doubt that. A woman with this many plates in the air has little time for lounging on the sofa, bare feet tucked under her, forking chocolate cake into impressively glossed lips. But that is precisely what she’s doing on this afternoon in Toronto, taking a brief break from a tornado schedule of appearances on behalf of Estée Lauder’s Breast Cancer Awareness campaign. She has been its celebrity ambassador for 20 years now, meeting survivors and their loved ones, giving pep talks to Estée Lauder employees, smiling for endless photos in a succession of snug dresses, one foot placed just so in front of the other.
She is a particular sort of chameleon, this Liz Hurley, changing her careers to suit the changing times, while maintaining a kind of glamour impervious to fashion: smoky-shaded blue eyes, needle-heeled stilettos, glossy waves of dark hair. She is a Jilly Cooper heroine sprung to life, all long limbs and posh vowels and lust for life.
When I ask her, for example, how hard it is to conduct a relationship when you’re famous, she shrugs. That shrug encompasses Hugh Grant, Australian cricket star Shane Warne, ex-husband Arun Nayar and Steve Bing.
“It’s very hard having new relationships when you’re in the public eye because, you know, things are new,” Hurley says, curled up on the couch in the photo studio. “The last thing you need are outsiders putting in their opinion. That’s one of the costs of doing business, but there are a lot of upsides of the business, too. So it’s a First World problem. I understand that my problems are First World problems.”
She laughs and arches one perfectly groomed dark brow, as if to say, “Isn’t it silly, all this talk of men? Men who have been kicked to the curb, while I’m still here, doing interesting things?” And it is true: anyone who tweets in the voice of her parrot has more amusing things to talk about than old boyfriends (you can follow her slightly surly parrot @Pingponghurley on Twitter, if you’re curious, although she also tweets under her own name). For many of her 49 years, this army major’s daughter from Basingstoke, England, has been reinventing herself with the ingenuity of a nine-lived cat. In the 18 years since she popped on screen in a catsuit in Austin Powers: Man of Mystery, she’s also been a movie producer, an organic grocery impresario, a swimwear designer, a model, a television presenter and a campaigner for breast-cancer awareness.
While Hurley may not be known for her versatility as an actress, she is adept at a certain femme fatale. It’s a quality she brings to her latest role as the Queen of England in The Royals, the first scripted drama from the E! Channel. Hurley plays Queen Helena, mother of the country and two very naughty children. “I’m not a nice queen,” she says, with a treacly dark laugh, pointing to a copy of Zoomer magazine lying nearby with the real monarch’s portrait on it. “It has nothing to do with Queen Elizabeth II.”
“Hello, old man,” she says. “How are you, cub?” Ah, so there is a man in her life after all. It’s her 12-year-old son, Damian, calling from England, where he’s on a break from his boarding school. They have an animated chat about her day – “I was just at a store called the Bay. It’s like Canada’s Selfridges” – and she promises to call him back in a half hour. For the next 20 minutes, he sends her texts filled with emojis of hearts and bears.
It was for Damian’s sake that she assumed her most unexpected role: gentlewoman farmer. In 2003, Hurley bought an estate in the Cotswolds region of England, a verdant rural patch famous for hosting wealthy exiles from London. If Hurley hadn’t grown tired of London, she had certainly grown tired of its relentless paparazzi. Hugh Grant became famous for taking on the tabloids during the U.K.’s recent phone-hacking scandals, but his ex-girlfriend was just as ferocious (if quieter) about intrusions to her privacy.
“Our press is famous for being vicious,” she says. She and Grant made a point of suing tabloids when they felt they’d been defamed “and we stopped getting libelled. It pays to make a stand and protect yourself against unpleasant lies, slurs and innuendo.”
The breaking point came when Damian became afraid of the photo-graphers lurking on the sidewalk near their house. He once took an umbrella out of a stand before they left the house, though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. His mother asked why he needed an umbrella. “Mummy,” he said, “I’m going to hit those men outside.”
They packed up and moved to the Cotswolds, to a 450-acre manor containing less vicious creatures than London’s streets. There, Hurley’s reinvention continued: a woman famous for her stilettos and frocks became famous for her pork and pies instead. “Elizabeth Hurley” sausages were sold in Harrods and, in 2009, she announced a partnership with Prince Charles to sell “modern, healthy, organic food” produced on her farm and sold under his Duchy Originals label. (If Prince Charles has seen The Royals, he certainly isn’t saying.)
The two women bonded immediately, which is exactly what you’d hope would happen when two great survivors of the mascara-and-mustn’t-grumble school collide. “She’s 82 years old,” Hurley says with admiration, “and she has the joie de vivre of a 20-year-old. Yes, she looks fantastic, she’s always taken care of herself, but it’s her manner that’s the most inspirational – she’s so energetic and interested in everything. Wonderful woman.”
In between filming, raising her son and occasionally tweeting in her parrot’s voice, Hurley continues her work as a global ambassador for Estée Lauder’s international Breast Cancer Awareness campaign. Twenty years ago, when she had just begun modelling for the company, Evelyn Lauder – who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989 – approached her with a simple plan: they would use the company’s influence to spread awareness about the disease, its impact on the lives of women and their loved ones.
It was both the best and worst time for Hurley: she had just lost her grandmother, Ena Ranger, to the disease. Ranger came from a generation that didn’t speak easily about body parts or intimate issues and didn’t tell anyone about the lump she’d discovered until it was too late for treatment. “She was exactly the kind of person that Evelyn was talking about when she said, ‘Women are scared. They don’t know what it is. They don’t know what the treatments are. They don’t know that it doesn’t have to be a death sentence.’”