EL James and Fifty Shades of Grey: The Buckinghamshire mum who launched the most successful sex franchise of all time

Fans say she liberated them, critics have slated her sexual submission - meet the woman behind the S&M craze

Helen Nianias
Tuesday 10 February 2015 12:28 GMT
EL James posing underneath a poster for the film based on her books
EL James posing underneath a poster for the film based on her books (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

EL James, aka Erika Leonard, has broken records and made a fortune with the Fifty Shades series.

This week sees the release of new book Grey, as told from the perspective of sadistic boss Christian Grey.

Her work is derisively described as "mummy porn" by critics, and hailed as life-changing by fans - but who is the woman behind the relentless fictional frotting?

Rural upbringing

Unlike her extraordinary career trajectory, James' upbringing could probably best be described as boring. Her mother is Chilean and her father Scottish. James grew up in Buckinghamshire, she went to Wycombe High School in High Wycombe, and read history at the University of Kent.

"Snowqueen's Icedragon"

James, now 51, happily describes herself as a Twi-hard, and the Fifty Shades books were notoriously inspired by Stephenie Meyer's vampire drama. Initially, she even wanted Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson to play Christian in the film.

Extreme fans

James seems happy but faintly baffled by her success - and by some of the reactions from her devoted fans. She says one 40-something woman said she'd never orgasmed until she'd read Fifty Shades, and another claimed she actually came while reading the book.


Rather than grabbing the cheque and going on a ritzy holiday (she's reported to have been paid £3 million for film rights) former TV producer James decided to get involved on the production side with the movie. When asked why she did it by TIME, James responded: "Because I could. (Christian Grey would appreciate that comment.) I didn’t want to take the money and run - I wanted the movie to be one the readership would love."

On-set rows

The adaptation was apparently a source of on-set tension between James and director Sam Taylor-Johnson. “It was difficult, I’m not going to lie," Taylor-Johnson told Porter. "We definitely fought, but they were creative fights, and we would resolve them. We would have proper on-set ‘barneys’, and I’m not confrontational, but it was about finding a way between the two of us, satisfying her vision of what she’d written as well as my need to visualize this person on screen, but, you know, we got there."


On top of the alleged £3 million movie pay packet, James has earned an almost inestimable amount from her books. It has sold well over 100 million copies worldwide and James is reported to have earned £33 million from them in 2013 alone. James has also secured lucrative merchandising deals connected with the movie and book franchise, including underwear, a wine range, an album of classical music she reckons the characters would have listened to and, predictably, sex toys.

However, she continues to live with her husband and children in a house in the London suburbs rather than a New York penthouse. James says she's not materialistic and that she doesn't want to use her money to buy "more stuff".

Competitive husband

James' author husband, Niall Leonard, confirmed that he and his wife do not enjoy the high-end, swinging-from-chandeliers, nipple-clamps-aplenty love life of Fifty Shades' Anastasia and Christian.

"Our first Christmas together I bought her a tin opener," he wrote.

However, Fifty Shades of Grey did inspire Leonard to leave full-time screenwriting and author his own books after seeing how much joy James got from her work. His series of crime novels, Crusher, launched in 2012.

They have two teenage sons who apparently jokingly tease their mum about her books. When asked if they'd read the books, James said: ''No, good God no. I’d be mortified, and they’d be mortified, you know. It would be far too embarrassing."

Fame averse

While James has inspired many women to be less shy, she chooses to stay out of the spotlight. She's choosy about the kind of interviews she'll give and she told the Guardian she doesn't believe her own hype.

"No. I'm too old for that," she said in 2012. "Having worked in TV production all my life [her last job was at Vic and Bob's production company], I'm very aware of how monsters are created, and I don't want to be one. It's unsettling, yes. I do feel like I'm in a dream. But it's just noise – or that's how I think of it."

She added: "I don't do much press. I value my anonymity. I'm happy to come in on the tube or the train and watch other people reading Fifty Shades."

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