It’s a wonderful life
The filthy-rich socialite and photographer Amanda Eliasch has made a shockingly frank film about her crazy life, featuring affairs, plastic surgery and sperm cakes
“Should we know who she is?” whispers the woman at the next table, as Amanda Eliasch jumps up, clattering across the dining room at Scott’s in 5in YSL heels, a black minidress, an Alexander McQueen tailcoat, a crucifix and Alexander Wang sunglasses. She is 53 and looks like Marilyn Monroe dressed as a gothic Japanese schoolgirl, as she chases after Tim Rice (the lyricist, her former lover), or Laurence Graff (the jeweller), or Rocco Forte (the hotelier). She’s always up, waving at someone. “Probably not,” I say, shrugging. The woman beside me sniffs snootily. “No, I didn’t think so.”
I Amanda Eliasch her from when I wrote gossip columns; I would ring her to ask who she was sleeping with. She had divorced Johan Eliasch (the multimillionaire Swedish CEO of the sportswear brand Head and a Tory-party donor) in 2007, over a love triangle that featured her affair with the French cosmetic surgeon and Botox specialist Dr Jean-Louis Sebagh (his clients include Madonna and Elle Macpherson) — the result was a reported seven-figure settlement. The game for me was linking her to new men. “I hear you’re dating Salman Rushdie,” I said. “Give me some credit,” she giggled. Michael Nyman? “Purlease.” Boris Johnson? She laughed and said: “Do you want to come to LA?” She flew me to a party at her Beverly Hills mansion where Dita Von Teese stripped in a giant martini glass by the pool. Eliasch throws great parties; like Gatsby, but with a guest list from an Evelyn Waugh novel. Ferzana “Fizzy” Barclay, Kay Saatchi, Tracey Emin, Prince Andrew, Claudia Rothermere and Trinny Woodall are all friends. Eliasch is snapped at Cannes, the Serpentine, the polo, the Venice Biennale, the Oscars. Her houses — in LA, Paris and Chelsea — feature in glossy magazines.
Beyond such gossip, I knew nothing about her. Frankly, I assumed, there was nothing to know. However, now she has made a film about her life — The Gun, the Cake and the Butterfly — that has been to Cannes and the New York City International Film Festival, where it won the award for most imaginative documentary. On July 18, it’s featuring at the Ischia Global Film and Music Fest. Harvey Weinstein, Baz Luhrmann and Roman Polanski will be there. I’ve seen it, and now I’m fascinated by her.
The film is a brilliant, shockingly frank account of her life. It’s dreamy but brutal. Nothing is off-limits, from her upbringing in Somerset — where she was sexually assaulted aged eight by a 75-year-old toothless gardener — to undergoing a fabulous post-divorce crisis, during which she takes lovers in Paris and opium in Thailand, travels to Marrakesh with Belinda Carlisle to see a magic man, has an affair with a Frenchman she meets on Eurostar, and then bakes cakes mixing “the sperm of my husband and the sperm of my lover” to rescue her disastrous love life. “It’s absolutely true. I’ve done it all,” she says. “I thought it was better to use me as the subject, not for vanity, but honesty. I wanted it to be real.” What does Johan make of the film? “He hasn’t seen it. You know what he’s like, he’ll sue.”
I meet Eliasch at Tammam, an atelier in Bloomsbury. She is wearing her uniform: “Punk nun.” Her Daphne Guinness-like platinum and black hair is piled up on her head, adorned with pink feathers. She’s trying on £8,000 dresses to borrow, for Ischia, with the actress Justine Glenton, who plays her in the movie. “I have done a spell so if I buy another dress my oldest son will die,” she says. “I’ve only ever really had one addiction — clothes.” Her wardrobe is worth more than £1m, and is filled with Armani, McQueen and Prada. Her favourite pieces are a Rick Owens mink shrug, a £2,500 Saint Laurent pussy-bow blouse (this season) and Philip Treacy’s hats. “Do you mind breathing in?” says the girl who is fitting her. “Sure. I paid £25,000 for a waist.” She had an extreme makeover with the cosmetic surgeon Dr Steven Pearlman when she was 50. She was 13st at the age of 18, but now she eats only high protein. In the film her son Charles, 21, dressed like a 16th-century vampire, brings pills to her bed on a silver tray. Amphetamine diet pills? “No,” she cackles, thrilled. “It’s not always me in the film. It’s women like me, all over London, in a stupor. Rich girls and pills, like Valley of the Dolls. It’s the kind of film Woody Allen makes about women. I’m proof those women exist.” She slips on a black dress and twirls. “This is what I’ll wear when I get the Oscar.”
She wrote the film 10 years ago as a play, As I Like It, which ran in the Chelsea Theatre and off-off Broadway. “Then I was sitting in bed in LA and thought, ‘I’m in Hollywood, I should make a film.’ ” Her grandfather Sidney Gilliat was a screenwriter and director who worked with Frank Launder (The Lady Vanishes, St Trinian’s) and Alfred Hitchcock. Her mother was an opera singer, her grandmother a concert pianist who played Rachmaninov (“I can only play Bach”). Eliasch studied drama at Rada and photography under Bob Carlos Clarke, snapping the YBAs for a book by Italian Vogue. “Still, what you have to know about the film is that I didn’t know what the f*** I was doing,” she says. “I was just doing it to annoy Johan. He didn’t think a woman like me could make a film.” She wanted to prove him and the male-dominated movie industry wrong.
It cost her £250,000. “It was a big lesson. I’d never made a film before.” She found most of the crew on Match.com — “We made a few errors. Whatever, if I’m slated by critics, it has still been the most extraordinary experience of my life. I learnt you can do anything you want, as a woman. Tracey Emin says if I was called Mandy Brown and lived in the East End, people would take me seriously as an artist.” The art world is full of inverted snobbery, she thinks. She could have made the film for £2,500, “but I don’t like to fly economy”. Still, she considers, “I’m going to try that, too.”
Eliasch is incredibly good fun to be with. We go shopping in Armani, where the shop girls sing, “Hello, Amanda”; to Stephen Webster, the jeweller who made her £18,000 silver lobster ring; to Coco de Mer, where she buys a black silk bondage cushion with pink ribbon ties; to Scott’s, where the waiters know her by name, for lunch.
We go to her Cheyne Walk home, which is fabulous. It looks like Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen has snowballed ecstasy and Viagra and reinterpreted the Story of O: fuchsia velvet sofas, pink leather sex chairs, silver cherubs sprawling beneath gold swan statues with black candelabras balanced on their heads. In the drawing room, a red neon sign flashes “superficial” over thrones with silver lion armrests. There’s a giant Marc Quinn white elephant, Jake Chapman skulls, Tracey Emin etchings, photographs of Kate Moss by Bryan Ferry, and a Polly Morgan taxidermy magpie perched on a phone. She wasn’t brought up rich. Her father, Anthony Cave Brown, a foreign correspondent and a violent alcoholic, abandoned her mother — “a nymphomaniac”, “hippie” — and left her penniless. When she married Johan, aged 25, he wasn’t rich either. He made his money in business, but she didn’t know his worth — £630m in this year’s Rich List — until the divorce. “I don’t read the papers,” she says.
So, what’s next? She’d love to edit Vogue or Tatler. She’d like to be a cat burglar, or gay. She might go into politics. She’s going to make another film. She should. The story — a true society scandal — is fascinating. “It’ll be a thriller,” she says, “but I’ll make it cheaper next time. I’m sick of moving. I don’t want to have to sell another house.”