Elizabeth Hurley: Baby, you ain't seen nothing yet

Nobody works a red carpet better. And if you thought becoming Britain's most famous single mother would keep her out of the flashlight, then you haven't reckoned on the relentless ambition of the Versace clotheshorse who may become the face of Marks and Spencer

James Sherwood
Sunday 23 June 2002 00:00 BST

England's most famous single mother, Elizabeth Hurley, is once again ready for those close-up shots. After her three-month self-imposed exile from the tabloids, it emerged last week that Versace's favourite red carpet girl is in negotiations with Marks & Spencer to be the new face of the high street chain. It is even rumoured that her three-month-old son, Damian Charles, may appear with his mother in the M&S campaign.

The timing of this leak couldn't have been better for Elizabeth. The same day saw confirmation that the American film producer and playboy Steve Bing was indeed Damian's father. The announcement was characteristically terse and churlish. "Recently conducted tests have shown that Steve Bing is the biological father of Elizabeth Hurley's son Damian Charles Hurley." Hoist by his own petard, Bing himself had demanded the DNA test that proved paternity.

Hurley must feel vindicated by the result. The pair had been in an 18-month relationship after the former Estée Lauder model split from the actor Hugh Grant. When the affair with Bing ended in November 2001, after Hurley informed him that she was pregnant, the gallant heir to a $400m fortune told the press: "Ms Hurley and I were not in an exclusive relationship when she became pregnant." Hurley was said to be deeply distraught by this attack. Her inner circle of friends christened her ex "Bing Laden"; she countered the claim saying: "I was completely loyal and faithful to Stephen throughout this time, as indeed he assured me he was to me."

But Elizabeth Hurley's reputation may not emerge quite as white as the silk satin Angel Sanchez gown she chose to show off her miraculous post-natal curves. Neither may the prediction by the Mephistopheles of celebrity, Max Clifford, that Elizabeth Hurley "could only be of benefit" to Marks & Spencer. So adept is the 36-year-old actress/model at manipulating the media that she makes Jo Moore look as guileless as Little Bo Peep. Her arrival on the arm of Elton John's inamorato David Furnish at last week's charity ball at the Grosvenor House Hotel was a perfect "Hello boys! Did you miss me?" photo-op.

After the birth, Hurley and Damian were hidden away from the cameras, first in Elton John's Windsor mansion, then at his villa in the south of France. The first public appearance of Liz doing what she does best (working a red carpet) was guaranteed to perk up a Hurley-starved press pack. So too was an "impromptu" dinner date with a mystery man at the Ivy restaurant in London's Covent Garden, where Hurley was snapped by a paparazzo who had allegedly been tipped off. If one is looking for mystery and anonymity, then the Ivy is not the best of venues to choose.

Throughout her battle with Bing, Hurley used "friends" in the media to preserve her dignity. Bing, meanwhile, had never pretended to be other than he is – a very rich man, who enjoys the company of plenty of beautiful, famous women. On the day Hurley informed him of her condition, Bing hopped on his private jet with Mick Jagger for a weekend at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. With notches on his bedpost including Uma Thurman, Farrah Fawcett and Sharon Stone, he is hardly a pipe-and-slippers kind of guy.

There was little information coming from Bing's camp. All his "friends" would tell the press was that Hurley had told Bing she was on the Pill. He was caught in a not-so-tender trap. But the results will go at least some way to allowing Hurley to emerge with her reputation and her pride intact. It is not clear whether Hurley will accept Bing's contribution to the upkeep of their son. But under California law, maintenance payments can top £40,000 a month.

Childbirth for Hurley could yet provide an exit clause from a career that, at the age of 36, has brought her plenty of attention but little artistic success. This is, after all, a woman who once said: "The moment I want to get married and have children is when I am tired of being Elizabeth Hurley."

Born in Hampshire, Hurley takes great delight in her relatively humble roots, once declaring: "It was fishfingers and peas for supper, and holidays in Devon as opposed to Mustique." She saw rebellion as a way of making herself appear special. She was expelled from sixth form college, she wore a nose ring and slept rough in Waterloo station when she missed the last train home: all pretty standard teenage kicks.

Her Equity card was earned dancing five nights a week with a troupe called Body Line. Her big break came not with her role in Dennis Potter's TV drama Christabel but on meeting Hugh Grant. It was as the girl on Grant's arm for the London premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994 that Liz Hurley became a star. Thanks to the black Versace couture dress held together with luck and gold safety pins, Hurley found her forte: posing for the paparazzo's camera. "That Dress" was the first in a closetful of Atelier Versace gowns with which Hurley plied her trade. "By June 1994 Versace was my favourite word," she said. "I am in heaven any time I get to wear couture."

The actress made her Hollywood debut in 1992 with the film Passenger 57. With the exception of Austin Powers, where Hurley shone as glamorous assistant to Mike Meyers, her films (Beyond Bedlam, Mad Dogs and Englishmen and Bedazzled) have floundered spectacularly. At the 1999 premiere of Bedazzled, Hurley was booed. She had broken the Screen Actors' Guild strike to film a commercial for Estée Lauder. A $25,000 cheque to the strike relief fund and a public apology did little to save face.

Hurley squandered a lot of goodwill from Hollywood. Her support for Hugh Grant after the Divine Brown prostitute scandal earned points on her LA reward card. Her actions since have not. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, blackballed the actress from the magazine's annual post-Oscar bash after she and Pamela Anderson showed up looking like a pair of dime-store hookers. Her aside "If I were as fat as Marilyn Monroe I'd kill myself" did not go down too well with those who worship Hollywood's most vulnerable sacrificial lamb. Posing like a latterday burlesque queen with a python for the now-defunct Talk magazine (shot by David LaChapelle) turned as many women off as it turned men on.

Yet Hurley is hardly on her uppers. Last year alone she earned in excess of £4m. Though she lost her lucrative exclusive contract as the face of Estée Lauder to Carolyn Murphy (10 years her junior), she continues to model for the cosmetics and perfume house. Her original contract, signed in 1995, was worth £2m a year, a deal she has the former Tatler editor Jane Proctor to thank for initiating.

Marks & Spencer probably sees in Elizabeth Hurley a positive, modern role model, a single woman earning a substantial sum by making the most of her assets, and who has overcome her misfortune with Bing.

Her greatest misfortune, though, remains the end of her relationship with Hugh Grant. Together, Grant and Hurley were a very posh Posh and Becks. Despite that encounter with the not-so-divine Ms Brown, Grant has become big box office, thanks to an excellent string of light comedies including Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary and About a Boy. And he has since kept his private life private. Marks & Spencer may just be what Liz Hurley needs.

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