HELEN BOSHOFF: How Emerald Fennell dazzled her way to the Oscars

HELEN BOSHOFF: How Emerald Fennell dazzled her way to the Oscars

How Emerald Fennell dazzled her way to the Oscars: She’s stormed the movie world, triumphed on TV with Killing Eve AND written three bestsellers aged 35. But with an impeccably well-connected upbringing, failure was never an option

Emerald Fennell was locked down with her family at their country home near Newbury, Berkshire, when the news came through.

Her debut feature film, Promising Young Woman, has been nominated for five Oscars, with Emerald herself nominated for screenplay and direction.

It is part of a storm of appreciation for the film, an exercise in ‘poison popcorn’ in which actress Carey Mulligan plays a woman attempting to avenge the rape of her friend.

Emerald Fennell was locked down with her family at their country home near Newbury, Berkshire, when the news came through

Her debut feature film, Promising Young Woman, has been nominated for five Oscars, with Emerald herself nominated for screenplay and direction. Pictured: Josh O’Connor and Emerald Fennell on the set of The Crown

Hailed as Thelma And Louise for the #MeToo generation, it has propelled Fennell, until now mostly known for her role as Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown, into the Hollywood stratosphere.

She’s one of only seven female directors to be nominated in Oscar history (prior to Emerald and fellow 2021 nominee Chloe Zhao the total was only five). 

The low-budget film, which Fennell says she ‘coughed up like a hairball’ and then directed, boasts Margot Robbie as a producer and was filmed in just 23 days while Emerald was heavily pregnant — giving birth three weeks later.

‘There’s no way of describing it without sounding immensely cheesy, but it means so much and I’m so proud,’ she said on Monday.

 ‘I think I’m going to have to lie on the floor and cry because I don’t drink or smoke any more or do anything fun.’

She’s one of only seven female directors to be nominated in Oscar history (prior to Emerald and fellow 2021 nominee Chloe Zhao the total was only five). Pictured: Fennell in Call The Midwife

You can’t doubt her excitement at being thrust into the Tinseltown spotlight. But did it come as a surprise? 

This very well-connected young woman has been surrounded by famous and wealthy people all her life. 

This is no rags-to-riches tale — rather a story of gilded youth reaping success upon success.

And as for privilege, Emerald, 35, acknowledges it freely — and feels endlessly guilty about it. 

‘I’m very aware that part of my luck was that I had parents who lived in London who were able to support me. I have to work really hard because that head start that people like me get, you need to prove you deserved it.’

Those London-based parents are celebrity jeweller Theo Fennell and his novelist wife Louise, whose A-list circle of friends, including Sir Elton John, Sarah Ferguson, Dame Joan Collins and Lord Lloyd-Webber, were familiar faces to Emerald from an early age.

Take Emerald’s work on the script of a new musical, Cinderella. That’s been written for Lord Lloyd-Webber and she pitched the idea to him at a dinner party.

Her big break as a screenwriter came courtesy of friend Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She and Phoebe became friends after meeting on the set of the 2011 film Albert Nobbs.

When Phoebe stepped away from writing and producing Killing Eve after one series, she gave the job to her pal Emerald.

Killing Eve’s producer Sally Woodward Gentle, said: ‘Emerald and Phoebe are really great friends, but they’re different people as well. They’re both ferociously clever, have a wicked sense of humour, they get complicated relationships.’

This very well-connected young woman has been surrounded by famous and wealthy people all her life. Pictured: Fennell in Albert Nobbs, alongside Phoebe Waller-Bridge

As if that were not enough of a royal connection, Emerald was at Marlborough College with Kate Middleton, now Duchess of Cambridge. Pictured: Emerald Fennell with Hugh Grantat a book launch in 2012

And although she never talks about the Royal Family, her portrayal of Camilla in The Crown takes us into ticklish territory as her father Theo is a society jeweller and was friends with Camilla’s rival, the late Princess Diana.

He and wife Louise also remain on very good terms with Fergie, the Duchess of York.

Fergie’s former dresser, Jane Andrews, was actually working as a shop assistant at Theo Fennell’s Fulham shop when she killed boyfriend Tommy Cressman in 2000.

As if that were not enough of a royal connection, Emerald was at Marlborough College with Kate Middleton, now Duchess of Cambridge. 

Those London-based parents are celebrity jeweller Theo Fennell and his novelist wife Louise, whose A-list circle of friends, including Sir Elton John (pictured), Sarah Ferguson, Dame Joan Collins and Lord Lloyd-Webber, were familiar faces to Emerald from an early age.

Emerald and her advertising director husband Chris Vernon are living with their baby son and her family in a spectacular country house with a folly and many acres.

Emerald had moved to Los Angeles last year after making Promising Young Woman but returned to the UK in February to workshop the Cinderella musical.

Lockdown followed and she was ‘stuck’. She said: ‘We were only supposed to be in London for a couple of months while I worked on Cinderella. All our stuff is still in America, my hairbrush, my knickers . . . It was a frightening time, we still have a mad sign on the door about leaving the post outside.’

She is currently adapting her book, Monsters, into a film, and also working on other films and a TV show. Her mum, dad and sister are helping to look after the baby.

She attended the Golden Globes remotely in a flowing yellow dress and looks likely to do the same for the Oscars, which will take place in Los Angeles on April 25.

She and Vernon, and sister Coco, a fashion designer, and her comedian partner John Robins, have formed a lockdown family unit.

Dad Theo founded his jewellery business in 1982 and built up a following of close friends and clients. 

Sir Elton John is said to have dropped £200,000 in a single visit to his store one time, plus party stalwarts including actresses Joan Collins and Liz Hurley and Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood.

Her family of eccentrics 

GLAMOROUS MOTHER

Author Louise Fennell was a photographer’s assistant who ran a designer sample sale firm, before reinventing herself as a novelist.

She said: ‘Emerald was writing Shiverton Hall while I was writing my first novel, Dead Rich. We sat at either end of the kitchen table on our laptops.’

Author Louise Fennell  (pictured with Sarah Ferguson) was a photographer’s assistant who ran a designer sample sale firm, before reinventing herself as a novelist

FLOPPY- HAIRED PATRIARCH

An old Etonian and the son of an Army major, Theo Fennell is famous for his social energy and bright clothes — and for his jokey jewellery.

One of his best-sellers is a £135 sterling silver Marmite lid. He also sells ebony and diamond dominos. In the 1990s, everyone wore his diamond crosses — from David Beckham to Sir Elton John.

His company went into administration in 2017 but was rescued by a management buy-out. Sir Elton threw him a 50th birthday party in Nice, France.

DESIGNER SISTER

Holly Willoughby and Kylie Minogue are devoted to Coco Fennell’s vintage-style dresses, which sell for around £150. Emerald says: ‘She’s a very visual creature.’

Holly Willoughby and Kylie Minogue are devoted to Coco Fennell’s vintage-style dresses (L – R: Emerald Fennell, Sally Miura and Coco Fennell)

She said: ‘Mum and Dad were so glamorous. I remember them getting ready to go to parties; Mum would have an amazing beehive, and wear Dad’s gold jewellery, a Versace dress and would smell of Chanel No 5. I thought, “That is so cool.” ’

School was £39,000-a-year Marlborough College. ‘My husband calls Marlborough “Hogwarts”. 

‘He’ll say: “What?! They sold a Gainsborough to build a water-polo pool?” At the time, you don’t realise how unbelievably lucky you are. 

‘Now I’m ashamed because I spent the entire time smoking in the bushes and trying to sneak into my boyfriend’s house in the middle of the night. 

‘And the moment I started working, I became aware that I had been skipping round in a candy land.’

Her 18th birthday party featured in Tatler. It was at the family’s Chelsea home and guests included Sir Richard Branson’s son Sam, and Sting’s daughter Mickey Sumner.

A few years later, agent Lindy King saw her in a theatrical production at Oxford, where Emerald was studying English. 

Lindy snapped her up on the spot. From there, she was cast in Call The Midwife. She later begged Lindy to get her an audition as Camilla Parker Bowles.

‘As a person who, to a fault, cares what other people think of me, I felt sympathy for Camilla,’ she said.

‘I found her so interesting. She was head girl of her school, a debutante, gorgeous, and then she got cast in this role, torn between two very demanding men. 

‘I’ve known women like that growing up. Very stoic, stalwart, country women, so I felt an understanding for her. 

‘I’m basically playing a chain-smoking posho standing in a corner making cutting remarks, so it’s not a stretch.’

Alongside her acting has run a parallel writing career. ‘I’ve always written . . . ever since I was small, and always horrifically violent. There was lots of my parents being called into offices asking if I was OK.’

Emerald published Shiverton Hall in 2013 followed by The Creeper — both young adult books. These were followed by Monsters, about a 12-year-old orphan fascinated by a series of murders. After quitting Call The Midwife in 2017, she wrote series two of Killing Eve.

Now comes Promising Young Woman. ‘It’s been kind of life-changing,’ she says. ‘I started out writing books and moved into screenwriting. Whenever I’ve been on a set as an actor I’ve been actively learning about what the director was doing.

Directing seems to me to be the ultimate way of telling a story, particularly if it’s something you’ve written yourself.’

After the candlelight vigil held in honour of Sarah Everard at the weekend, Emerald believes her film tells a story whose time has come.

She says: ‘Suddenly, it feels like people are listening for the first time. It feels like people are receptive to the conversation. I’m incredibly upset, as everyone is, with what’s going on. 

‘And if any of us can contribute to that conversation, if any of us can make it easier to have this kind of talk, then that’s incredible.’

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