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On a Tuesday night in the poshest part of Paris, Emma Watson is making her way through a party. I can’t actually see her, only the throng of photographers in her orbit. It’s a peculiar scene. The 400 other guests barely chat, too obsessed with getting a glimpse of Lancôme’s latest “ambassadress”, who was once the world’s most famous little girl. “Hermione!” cries an onlooker spontaneously, while I elbow my way past Alber Elbaz, the Lanvin designer, for a better look. Someone stomps on my foot. I turn around to berate them and discover it’s Mario Testino. It’s getting pretty intense, but then Watson has been famous for much of her 21 years. Perhaps she’s used to being celebrity carrion?
Suddenly, she’s coming towards me, tiny and superpretty in Azzaro. She could easily pass for 15, even in make-up. She shakes my hand and keeps hold of it sweetly, like an anchor. For someone who’s been doing this for years, the nerves still flicker about her face. Her palm is endearingly clammy. “You’re doing well,” I say. “Oh, gosh, I hope so. Look at all this.” She marvels at the stage, the cameras, the champagne-rinsed crowd, her name in enormous neon letters. She looks pleased — and ever so slightly scared.
It’s surprising, really. A year ago, Watson, a terribly nice girl from Oxford, didn’t appear to want this life any more. She finished school, as well as Hogwarts, and put fame on the back burner in favour of a “normal” university existence at Brown, an Ivy League college in Providence, Rhode Island. Now, she is taking a term off, back in glitz’s grasp, the face of a luxury brand and filming a movie. With a reported £20m in the bank, she could afford to retire. So why bother? “See you tomorrow,” she says, bestowing two shy kisses on me before she is instantly enveloped by the crowd.
We meet in a ginormous suite at the Ritz, where I’m determined to discover what changed Watson from child star to devoted swot to shy-eyed glamazon. She is more relaxed today, understandably. Cute lace dress, bare feet tucked up underneath her, lovely profile. Her pixie hairdo is growing out, while her voice tinkles like a pretty piano riff. But how come you’re here at all, not living the campus life you seemed so desperate for? “I was in denial,” she says. “I wanted to pretend I wasn’t as famous as I was. I was trying to seek out normality, but I kind of have to accept who I am, the position I’m in and what happened.”
You mean Potter? “Yeah,” she replies, “but I feel more comfortable with the fame now. It used to make me really uncomfortable. It’s interesting. My dad’s always giving me a hard time about my posture. The way I used to stand, it was almost as if I was apologising to everyone. I wanted to hide myself, but now — it’s difficult, I still feel shy, but I feel more like I can accept it.” Nevertheless, she doesn’t feel like a natural for stardom. “Sometimes I think I am the worst person to be in the position I’m in. I’m shy, I’m sensitive and I’m self-critical. It’s a terrible combination.” She pauses for emphasis. “But those qualities also make me want to be better.”
I immediately understood the sense of responsibility. My brother says I’m an eager beaver. It’s true. I’m very driven Bingo. Watson’s addiction isn’t to celebrity, obviously. It’s to self-betterment, to doing the “right thing”. She is the definition of propriety, so when offers flooded in while she was at uni, she realised it would be a mistake not to maximise on her moment. Hence the decision to take time out. She says she’ll be back to her studies in the autumn, although she won’t confirm where. It hasn’t been a universally admired move. She says someone had a go at her the other day for accepting the advertising gig if her aim was nobly to sidestep public life. But she has made her peace with it. “I said, ‘Do you honestly think that me doing a Lancôme campaign is going to make me any less or more famous than doing Harry Potter?’ I have to accept Harry Potter is the biggest film franchise of all time. I have to just roll with it.”
That has taken more than a decade: the first film came out 10 years ago, when she was 11, though she won the part when she was nine. I tell her child stars always seem both overly mature and emotionally stunted. “That’s such an interesting observation,” she nods. “I absolutely agree with you. I’m this very weird mix. In some senses, I feel as if I’m 100 years old. In others, I still feel incredibly young, very naive, and as if I haven’t seen much of the world at all. I’ve been incredibly protected, but in other ways I’ve had to be in situations that nobody my age would, to deal with pressure that nobody my age should usually deal with,” she says.
Did you grow up fast because of work? “I was lucky — I matured very early because of my parents’ divorce,” she says. “I had to grow up more quickly than I would have done. I’m the eldest of seven [five half-siblings and a brother, Alex, who is three years younger], and I felt that really brought me up.”
Born in Paris to a pair of British lawyers, she moved to Oxfordshire at five after her parents split. She didn’t have a pushy stage mum; rather, Watson was the self-starter, a devoted member of her local children’s theatre group, where the Potter casting department found her. After eight auditions, she won the part of the mustard-keen, Muggle-born Hermione Granger, practically a carbon copy of Watson. “I immediately understood the sense of responsibility,” she says of getting the role. Are you one of nature’s nerds? “Yeah, totally, 100%. My brother says I’m an eager beaver. It’s true. I’m very driven.”
Recently, rumours did the rounds that Watson left Brown because she was being given a tough time for her star status. This infuriates her. “It made me so sad when all this stuff came out that I left Brown because I was being bullied. It made no sense at all. Brown has been the opposite. I’ve never even been asked for an autograph on campus. I threw a party for nearly 100 students and not a single person put a photo on Facebook.” She rolls her eyes. “Anyway, even if I was being given a hard time, I wasn’t going to wuss out of university because someone said ‘Wingardium leviosa’ to me in a corridor, or ‘Ten points for Gryffindor’. I’ve been dealing with the media since I was nine. If I can’t stand up to a few people giving me a hard time, it’s a bit pathetic, really. I’ve had so much worse.”
Still, there’s no denying she’s appealingly square. Between the compulsion to behave, to never fall out of taxis and to work every day of the year, does she feel as if she’s losing some of her youth? When, for example, was the last time you got drunk? “The last time I got drunk?” she laughs. “Probably my 21st.” That was weeks ago. “I know. My friends saw it as their mission. They were like, ‘Emma, if you can’t get drunk on your 21st, when can you do it?’”
And boys? Do they pursue you? “No,” she says, giggling. “I say to my friends, ‘Why hasn’t X called me? Why doesn’t anyone ever pursue me?’ They’re like, ‘Probably because they’re intimidated.’ It must be the fame wall,” she muses. “It must be the circus that goes around me. Me, as a person, I find it hard to believe I would be intimidating.”
What would a man have to do to woo you? “Oh, gosh! Be brave,” she cries. Have you ever had a ridiculous chat-up line? “So, so many. I constantly get stuff like, do I have a magic wand I can sort things out with? Or guys come up to me and go, ‘Where’s Harry? Where’s Ron?’ Sometimes, maybe because they feel intimidated, they feel they have to knock me down. They know perfectly well who I am, but they’ll ask me, ‘How are the Narnia films going?’” Pause. “I’m single at the minute.”
No wonder. Still, hearing her natter on, you can’t help thinking she’d make someone a fantastic girlfriend. Loyal, hard-working, polite to a fault — and, let’s not forget, with some serious dough in the bank. She also, rather Britishly, downplays her fame, the reasons it exists and what it means to her. “It feels so scary stepping out of Potter, it really does,” she says, with the last film out in July. “But people have been so kind. Lancôme saying I’m the icon of a generation, Glamour saying I’m the best dressed... I just hope I can be everything that everyone wants me to be, I guess.”
She looks about the giant suite, the view over Paris, the intoxicating luxury of her life. “But I’m really not pretending to be anything other than someone who got very, very lucky.” How sweet, Emma. But the little girl is growing up. I think there might be more to you than that.
Emma Watson is the new Lancôme ambassadress and face of the Trésor Midnight Rose fragrance, which launches on October 1