The Hurley tale: Making of an upper-class illusion

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By AMIT ROY in London
  • Published 1.03.07

London, March 1: To the world and especially to gullible Americans, and possibly now to Indians, 41-year-old Elizabeth Hurley comes across as the quintessential upper-class English beauty who is to the manor born.

On Saturday, at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, she will marry Arun Nayar, who is about the same age. Although she has had lots of boyfriends before, many of them her own, this will be her first marriage and her fiance’s second.

But who is this English woman who is about to become the new bahu of India?

“Elizabeth Hurley both looks and speaks the part of an upper-class girl from the Home Counties,” according to her biographer Alison Bowyer.

“But the image is an illusion. Weekends in country houses and expensive Swiss finishing schools were not on the agenda for the young Elizabeth. Her ancestors had been housemaids in such houses, and home for Liz Hurley was a modest bungalow.”

She was born Elizabeth Jane Hurley on June 10, 1965, at the family home near the army barracks in Aldershot, Hampshire, where her father, Roy, was a captain in the Royal Army Educational Corps. Her mother, Angela Titt, had been a music teacher. Elizabeth had been preceded by a sister, Kathleen, in 1962, and followed by a brother, Michael, in 1969.

Liz lads
Arun Nayar
Stephen Bing
Hugh Grant

By 1983, she had changed her accent to sound “posher”, and tired of the apparent dullness of Basingstoke, headed for London. Keen to be a dancer in a sexy pop group like Hot Gossip, she enrolled for lessons at the London Studios Centre near King’s Cross where she also took some acting lessons.

She got her first break at 21 when she was picked for a tour of West Asia in a farce, The Man Most Likely To — in Abu Dhabi, her habit of shedding her clothes got her nearly arrested when she went swimming topless.

She developed a taste for luxury hotels and perfected the image of a “twin set and pearls” Sloaney girl from Kensington. She also did not want to be called “Liz” but “Elizabeth”.

In May 1987, she was picked for a low-budget Spanish film on Lord Byron, where she met an up and coming English actor, Hugh Grant, who was unsure whether he really wanted the “absurd, career damaging” part.

“Then I saw Elizabeth and went for the absurd Spanish film,” Grant recalled later. Hurley said: “We were snogging on set and soon snogging off it, too.”

It is sometimes alleged that she is “famous for being famous”. There was also a cruel jibe from Vogue that called her “a textbook example of how to be famous without being successful”.

Actually, her start in films was remarkably promising. Her beauty won everyone over when she sought and got the lead role in Christabel, Dennis Potter’s BBC adaptation of the life of Christabel Burton, niece of the newspaper barons Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere, who married a German just before the Second World War.

Promoting Christabel in America gave her a hankering for Hollywood. Warren Beatty sent his limousine for her but “she seemed almost disappointed when Beatty’s interest in her turned out to be purely professional”. In Los Angeles, she “fell in with a group of feckless, upper-class Brits” who included the aristocratic Henry Dent-Brocklehurst, heir to Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire”.

While Grant’s girlfriend, she met and had a fling with a Harrovian, William Annesley, whose girlfriend was Hurley’s supposed best friend, Charlotte Lewis. Later, Annesley sold his kiss & tell account of the affair for £30,000 to the News of the World — “it was a relationship based on lust”, he gloated.

By 1994, Hurley’s career had stalled but the paparazzi went wild when she appeared alongside Grant at the London premiere of his film Four Weddings and a Funeral in a revealing Versace dress held together with giant golden safety pins.

Two more of Hurley’s films, Beyond Bedlam and Mad Dogs and Englishmen, bombed. Then all hell broke loose in July 1995 when Grant, in Los Angeles for the launch of his movie Nine Months, was arrested with a 25-year-old black prostitute, “Divine Brown”, in the back of his car.

Hurley, by now the new “face” of Estee Lauder, was interviewed on ABC television by Barbara Walters and acquired celebrity status in America. She also got a favourable review for her next movie, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

By 1999, though, her relationship with Grant, after nearly 13 years with him, had become like that of “brother and sister” and that is how it has remained since

On May 23, 2000, Hurley and Grant announced they were putting their romance “on hold”. They intended to work together on the production company, Simian Films, which they had set up.

Although her next film, Bedazzled, did well at the box office, her own performance was panned. She became more of a model and less an actress after her contract with Estee Lauder was extended for £2 million and renewed again for another three years in 2003.

Then came her brief, passionate and disastrous relationship with a 35-year-old American property magnate, Stephen Bing. The contested paternity of their son, Damian, born on April 4, 2002, was settled only after Bing was forced to take a DNA test.

Her new boyfriend, Arun Nayar, the son of an Indian father and a German mother, was unveiled at the Christian Dior fashion show in Paris in February 2003.

In modern Britain, there is no pressure for couples to tie the knot but she might have reckoned that if she was ever going to marry, this was realistically her last chance. “We’re very happy and I love him enormously,” she said.