independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Martina Devlin: What Liz told me the night she wore that dress

IT was a moment which proved to be a game-changer. And Liz Hurley did it to show her celebrity boyfriend that he couldn't upstage her, even at the premiere of his hit film.

When she was decanted into a plunging black evening gown, it's unlikely that Liz anticipated how high it would catapult her through the VIP stratosphere. But she knew the waiting photographers would like a glimpse of flesh -- and that meant Hugh Grant sharing his spotlight with her.

Her suspicions about the photographers proved to be an understatement. When she stepped out of a limousine with him, they swivelled en masse. Hyperventilated en masse. Stampeded en masse. Snap-snap-snapped en masse.

During the flash frenzy, anyone who didn't move out of their way fast enough risked being trampled -- even Hugh, supposedly the star of the event.

Liz Hurley had made her point.

I had a bird's eye view of it all from behind the velvet ropes at the premiere in London's Leicester Square: the only reporter in a delirium tremens of male photographers who looked as if a genie had just emerged from a lamp and was wearing their three wishes.

After they had shot away to their heart's content, Hugh began to work the crowd gathered for the 'Four Weddings And A Funeral' premiere. I found myself standing beside Liz, while she waited for her other half.

We fell into conversation, a surreal experience when one of you is wearing a summer raincoat and the other a collection of strategically positioned safety pins.

We established that the dress was Versace and she had borrowed it from Hugh's publicity people, who had the loan of special-occasion wear from designers.

Then Liz made a comment which was infinitely more revealing than any low-slung dress, even one with cutaway sides.

To pass the time, I had dredged up the tried and tested remark I always use when someone is left hanging about for their more famous partner.

"You must be very proud of him," I said. "Are you kidding? I'm jealous as hell," she flashed back.

I did a double-take. She caught the look on my face and added quickly: "Don't print that. Yes, of course I'm proud."

Clearly, she'd prefer to be attending a premiere in her own right, rather than as a plus one -- and who could blame her?

She was a working actor, after all, although job offers weren't exactly pouring in back in 1994. There had been a lead role in the BBC war-time drama 'Christabel' some years earlier, but it hadn't produced much else.

Now, she was about to turn 29 and presumably a little anxious about her career, which expects women either to be young and gorgeous -- or invisible.

So she hit back. She competed. She manipulated. She dominated.

Liz put herself on display, and in setting out to corral the gaze of onlookers, she forced people to pay attention to her.

Using an iconic dress as a prop -- in which she looked stunning -- she sucked up every last breath of oxygen at a premiere where she could have been outranked by actors who actually had parts in the film. Afterwards, she was on the map.

NOT only was it a turning point in her career, it provided her with a new one -- celebrity without portfolio. A prototype WAG before the WAG phenomenon emerged, but one with a savvy business streak. Soon after, she was offered a contract with Estee Lauder.

Then in 1995, Hugh was arrested for "lewd conduct" with a prostitute in Hollywood, coinciding rather awkwardly -- or opportunely, depending on your perspective -- with an Estee Lauder launch where Liz was due to make an appearance.

News editors normally given to binning florid press releases about new perfumes were frothing to despatch reporters. Only magazines which covered beauty products were allowed to send representatives, however.

They were the only ones trusted to stick to the 'how did you get to be so wonderful, Ms Hurley?' script. Don't mention the war.

Liz kept them waiting. And waiting. Apparently, she told them she needed a bar of chocolate and a glass of champagne before steeling herself to meet them -- an admission which won her a round of applause. Then she settled down to answer questions about how she had achieved that state of wonderfulness.

The couple split up five years later, after 13 years together in which Hugh Grant never did manage to outshine her. Probably because he stuck to dinner jackets on the red carpet.

Then again, no man can change his life so utterly by reason of what he's wearing. Or not quite wearing. Neither Liam Neeson in his game-for-a-laugh pink Speedos, nor Prince Harry playing strip billiards could ever match the impact of such a dress. No need for them to feel downcast, though -- not even Lady Gaga managed to ramp it up to the Full Liz effect.

Perhaps Liz would prefer to be remembered for other achievements; but that night outside a Leicester Square cinema was the apex of her career. I met her again a couple of times afterwards: she was always beautiful, always wooden, always in Versace.

Never again did she 'fess up to feeling as jealous as hell. Can't imagine why.

www.martinadevlin.com

Irish Independent

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