PROFILE: Brave face of a cosmetic image scandal

The Estee Lauder woman has true class. But what happens when real life intrudes, asks Susan Irvine

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In the fickle business of selling cosmetics, image is everything; without it, a mascara is just a mascara, after all. The classic solution is to give a brand a "face", someone who will be identified as the Lauder Woman or the Lancome Woman over the years. She has to be beautiful but also, nowadays, a successful, articulate woman whose whole lifestyle sums up the aspirations of the women the products are aimed at. She has to be a woman who other women want to be.

This is the job Elizabeth Hurley has signed up for with the cosmetics giant Estee Lauder. She is no longer just Elizabeth Hurley, small-time actress and big-time girlfriend of Hugh Grant; she has been reborn as a concept: a complex package of looks and lifestyle to be bought by women along with their lipstick or perfume. But just as Lauder Woman gleans kudos from the glamour surrounding Hurley, so her star-rating plummets when the real-life Hurley - or her claim-to-fame partner - comes a cropper.

Lauder was the first, in 1962, to have a single house model to project its corporate image in across-the-board advertising. Until then different models were used for different products. But as Estee herself said: "We felt that there was what we came to call the 'Estee Lauder woman'. She was one kind of woman always ... she had that certain, indefinable air known as class ... She was sensual rather than sexy. She was strong and smart. She seemed in charge of her life, which was perceived as the good life by millions of women who identified with her and strove to be like her."

In the 33 years since Lauder instigated the concept, only seven models have projected the Lauder Woman, most famously Karen Graham, in the Seventies, and Paulina Porizkova, the Polish model who was the face of the company from 1988 until earlier this year. Lauder initiated a powerful trend and was soon copied by its arch rival, Charles Revlon, whose company dominated the mass market at that time. As a challenge to Lauder's status-driven approach, he hired Lauren Hutton in 1973 to embody his upmarket Ultima II line. Hutton's was the first mega-bucks cosmetics contract. She was paid more than $200,000 a year for the role, a staggering sum at the time, paving the way for the lucrative million-dollar contracts that models now command for being the face of a brand. (Hurley has been paid an estimated $2m-$3m to become Lauder Woman.) As the Ultima II Woman, Hutton was the clean, fresh all-American girl, with a sexy edge. But the Lauder Woman was always different; she was not about youth and sex so much as about class. In advertisements of the Seventies, Karen Graham was pictured showing off her cut-glass cheekbones surrounded by the luxurious antiques of her upper-class home. This lifestyle marketing was later appropriated by Ralph Lauren for his fashion and fragrance ads.

When Hurley was chosen in February to be Lauder Woman, she seemed the embodiment of the image: beautiful, upper-class and articulate, as well as being a professional working woman - this trend for women with "real" jobs being the cosmetics business's nod to feminism. With the added cachet of her boyfriend Grant as the hot acting ticket of the moment, Hurley was a publicity dream come true.

William Lauder, Estee's grandson and the company's vice-president, said at the time: "Women are tired of looking at models as this image of perfection. Maybe part of the problem with Paulina was that people did not identify with her. Maybe Paulina was too perfect. Elizabeth Hurley is more than a model. She's an actress. She has a life."

For the Lauder company, the dream has been brought back to reality with the unattractive image of Hugh Grant the Kerb-Crawler. Sex has been forced back into the picture, not in a smouldering, seductive way, but as tackily as could be imagined. Lauder finds itself in a Catch-22 situation. If it keeps Hurley as its high-profile Lauder Woman, its October ad campaign is bound to trigger quite different associations in the public's mind. If the company fires her, it risks the wrath of millions of people who don't want to see a woman judged on the conduct of her man.

Launching a fragrance in today's saturated market costs millions in promotion and is always a gamble. Even for a company with a reputed billion-dollar turnover and massive profits (Lauder is still wholly owned by the Lauder family), the investment is considerable. Lauder has invested an unprecedented amount in its new perfume "Pleasures", with Hurley featured in print and television ads, and yet its product is compromised before it has even reached the shelves.

There is no getting away from the fact that Grant's behaviour affects Hurley's image. And from one way of looking at it, that seems reasonably fair. Hurley rose to tabloid fame because of Grant and sex ("That Dress"). She could fall because of Grant and sex too.

Nevertheless, firing Hurley would be unpopular, and Lauder gave every indication on Thursday that it would do no such thing. Considering the capricious nature of media publicity, Lauder is probably wise to sit it out. Certainly there are now millions more people aware of Lauder's new fragrance than there were a week ago.

And maybe even Lauder Woman will be able to gain from her painful induction as a flesh-and-blood woman with real (if soap opera-type) problems. Though it still remains to be seen whether Lauder Woman will manage to weather her first-ever sexual scandal without damaging that "indefinable air known as class", Hurley's performance on Thursday would seem to suggest that she will be successful. She ascended the stage in front of 80 or so sniggering journalists and charmed them in seconds. In the event's only, albeit oblique, reference to the Grant affair, she excused any "unmodel-like" behaviour and astutely drew a distinction between her audience inside and the group of paparazzi ("that lot") without.

Lauder will be watching what Hurley does next with keen interest. Scent and sympathy is not a formula that has been tried before. It might just work.

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