Hurley at 40: Style icon or symbol of a shallow age?

She's beautiful, she's a shrewd businesswoman and she's made a few movies. But none of this quite explains why Elizabeth Hurley is still the subject of enduring fascination. By Joan Smith
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The Independent Online

In celebrity years, Elizabeth Hurley, who celebrates her 40th birthday today, is a veteran. She was famous long before Big Brother, Jordan or Sienna Miller; she was well-known in the 20th century, for those of us who can remember that far back, at a time when Victoria Adams had yet to meet David Beckham and Donatella Versace was still just Gianni's sister. Both women are expected to attend a huge birthday bash this evening in the grounds of Hurley's £2.5m mansion in Gloucestershire, along with her ex-boyfriend, the actor Hugh Grant, and those celebrity must-haves, Sir Elton John and David Furnish.

It is not bad going for a girl from Basingstoke, that least inspiring of Hampshire towns, especially when you consider how difficult it is to capture Hurley in a few words. She is an actor, having appeared in almost 30 films, although I don't suppose many people will be able to recall her performances in Passenger 57 or Double Whammy. Her best-known roles to date are in an Austin Powers movie - The Spy Who Shagged Me is one of the high points on her CV - and as the devil in Bedazzled. Famous as she now is, there is something rather dogged and appealing about the way she has gone on appearing in otherwise forgettable movies.

She has played herself in various TV shows, including (cringeingly) Happy Birthday Elizabeth: A Celebration of Life in 1997 and an episode of The Job in 2001. She is credited as a producer on three films, including Extreme Measures and the mob comedy Mickey Blue Eyes, starring Grant and made by the couple's production company, Simian Films - named, it is said, because she compared Grant's looks, no doubt affectionately, to those of a monkey. She is currently the face of Estée Lauder, whose chairman, Leonard Lauder, recently increased her salary to $3m a year. "I think she is beautiful, and she is just coming into her own," he said, eschewing the ageism that led to a much more accomplished actor, Isabella Rossellini, being dumped by the cosmetics firm Lancôme a few years ago. How long Hurley can defy pejorative assumptions about women and age remains to be seen, but it is clear that women who buy expensive cosmetics appreciate seeing them used by "older" models.

Hurley has had a string of famous lovers, not least the Hollywood producer Steve Bing, who fathered her three-year-old son, Damian Charles, and insisted on a paternity test before accepting that the child was his. She has been "linked" - in the Hello!speak that infests just about every biographical sketch of Hurley - with the executive Ted Forstmann, the Friends actor Matthew Perry and most recently Arun Nayar, an Indian businessman.

Her latest venture, her own-label range of beachwear, shows a pronounced Eastern influence, but whether that is because of her relationship with Nayar - she has recently been spotted wearing a sari - or because she has a sharp eye for what is fashionable at any given moment is impossible to know. Hurley did, of course, become famous in the first instance as Grant's girlfriend, upstaging the cast in That Dress - an unforgettable Versace number held together by outsize safety pins - at the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994.

The couple met in 1987, when Hurley was just 22 and shooting Rowing With the Wind in Madrid. "At the time I had an offer to do a serious BBC project," Grant said later. "I couldn't decide between that and this absurd, career-damaging Spanish thing. Then I saw Elizabeth and went for the absurd Spanish film."

But neither her lovers, her looks nor her CV are sufficient in themselves to explain Hurley's staying power. After all, the world - or at least the rarefied world of Hello! and OK! - is full of beautiful women, many of whom are all too willing to spill the beans about their sex lives, their eating disorders and their ex-husbands. Apart from a brief episode in which she gushed about the joys of ironing little Damian's designer smalls, irritating the hell out of single mothers in less auspicious circumstances, Hurley has been dignified and discreet, even when on the receiving end of some really quite unattractive male behaviour.

As well as Bing's insistence on a paternity test, accompanied by some ungracious remarks about the nature of their relationship, she had to face the world's press after Grant's arrest in 1995 with a prostitute he had picked up on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Hurley was photographed taking refuge with friends, of whom she has a great number, and no doubt had to listen to a great many jokes about her then-boyfriend's conduct. A British tabloid newspaper had the bright idea of flying the woman, Divine Brown, to this country and photographing her in a replica of That Dress, simply confirming for anyone who didn't already know it that Hurley is one of the few women on the planet who could carry it off.

These low points in her career may have been painful but at least they were not self-inflicted. Hurley notably lacks that instinct for melodrama and self-destruction that plague the lives of other famous women; even after Grant's infidelity, she did not stoop to hanging on his arm in public, as Victoria Beckham did after her husband's alleged affair with Rebecca Loos was exposed in British newspapers, earning herself the unkind soubriquet "My Little Pony". Apart from observing that "I think I like splitting up in theory more than I do in practice," Hurley has said little about Grant since their break-up in May 2000, after 13 years together.

They have remained friends, and Grant was on hand to offer support when Hurley became pregnant and faced single motherhood. His latest girlfriend, Jemima Goldsmith, is expected to accompany him to Hurley's birthday party tonight. Indeed, though not of her making, Hurley's tribulations may have worked in her favour, disabling at least some of the envy that a rich, famous and beautiful woman with no particular talent inevitably inspires in other women. Diana, Princess of Wales, was the past master of this art, concealing wealth and privilege behind a carefully constructed narrative of victimhood - what some of us have described with irritation as victim-feminism.

Hurley's relation to feminism is complex, for she undeniably belongs in the trivial modern category of celebrity, with its shallow values and annoying ubiquity. Like the late Diana, she hangs out with the deracinated tribe of pop stars, designers and supermodels who troop round the world from one party to the next, encouraging each other's fantasies. Hurley was one of the first to dub the rest of us "civilians", implying that she and her friends have accepted the discipline of some higher calling - annoying, without a doubt, but not a crime against a humanity. "What has she ever done apart from abolish cellulite?" the former Conservative MP Edwina Currie once remarked waspishly about Hurley. "Does that deserve adulation?"

But there is also no doubt that Hurley has been the target of misogynist barbs from male journalists who habitually equate glamour with stupidity - the very same commentators, it has to be said, who dismiss intellectual women as bluestockings or man-haters. Even in the 21st century, it is impossible to overestimate the fear generated by a beautiful woman who also happens to be smart, as Hurley clearly is. Forget the other labels: it may not sound so glamorous, but Hurley is a terrific businesswoman. Without being a great actor, producer, model or anything else, she has used what talents she has to maximum advantage, manoeuvring herself and her son into a position of enviable security at the relatively early age of 40.

That takes some doing, as any number of here-today-gone-tomorrow celebrities can tell you. Hurley isn't Jade from Big Brother or Abi Titmuss; she certainly isn't Victoria Beckham, who opens herself up to public ridicule by spectacularly overestimating her talents. Hurley's role as a youthful actress in that "absurd" Spanish movie Rowing With the Wind was Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley's step-sister and one of Byron's most spirited lovers; to find her nearest parallel in art or literature it is necessary to return to the 19th century, specifically to W M Thackeray's novel about a penniless but fascinating woman who sets about making her way through society.

Hurley is a modern-day Becky Sharp, not as she appears in Vanity Fair - Sharp is eventually driven to murder by useless men, a temptation Hurley has so far resisted - but as that anti-heroine believed she might have turned out in happier circumstances: "I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year," Thackeray had Sharp observe in 1847. Hurley's success is a testament to how the outlook has improved in the intervening period for intelligent women with a realistic estimation of their own abilities and a (probably exceptional) will to succeed.

As she gets ready for tonight's celebration, climbing into another stunning dress and no doubt launching a fleet of articles about 40 being the new 30, she might want to reflect on one more thing about Thackeray's novel. Hurley has had famous boyfriends and she used Grant's big break in 1994 to kick-start her own career, but these days she is very much her own creation. If she wants a summary of her own first four decades, she could hardly do better than adopt Thackeray's ironic sub-title to Vanity Fair, A Novel Without A Hero.