A staff member dressed in a grey and white striped uniform and starched white apron opens the door to the cream-pillared, garden-square house in London’s upmarket Knightsbridge. A house keeper is in the hallway. And Christelle, the smiley personal assistant, offers tea and coffee.
With so many staff in attendance, it is slightly disappointing when the actress-turned-hotelier/interior designer Anouska Hempel, or Lady Weinberg as she is also known, arrives without fanfare. A petite figure, wearing black puffed sleeves, black skirt and black ballet pumps with kohl-ringed eyes and blonde hair in a loose chignon, she schleps into the black lacquered kitchen-breakfast room.
“Christelle, you have to come. I forget what I’m doing,” she says, imploring her assistant (her “old friend” and “minder”) to sit down with us, before snapping at her: “Would you keep quiet?”
Christelle apologises. “No, I’m just being naughty,” Hempel says. “Take no notice”. (Later she confides “how dear that girl” is to her).
I ask Hempel whether she is difficult to work for. “I can be very demanding ... I’m a control freak ... We do it my way unless you’ve got a better way ... Every now and again one of the little people [suggests an alternative way of doing things]. I say, ‘You are brilliant, thank you!’”
Hempel’s maxim is to “never let anyone go home feeling bad at night. You can bark away during the day but you must always put that right.”
A friend once described her as a diva. Is that fair? “I should think so.”
Being in her company is both invigorating and exhausting. One moment she is girly, wide-eyed and dippy, referring to her “tiny, funny brain”, and the next she is flashing her teeth and jabbing a metaphorical finger in your chest. Despite the grandeur of her current lifestyle, one can imagine that if she lost it all tomorrow she’d scrap her way back to the top again.
Hempel’s origins are some distance from the exclusive address she presides over today. Brought up in Australia by a sheep-farmer father and housewife mother, she describes herself as a “nightmare child”. Her design interest stems from the fact that she didn’t “like anything around me [in the family home]. I rearranged everything”. The young Hempel, or Geissler as she was then known, “had a bit of a [design] eye. I had some, as my mother and father would say, fancy ideas.”
A “domineering father”, she says, drummed practical skills into her. “My father wanted a boy. I was supposed to be called Albert. That was probably the beginning of why things got so complicated, because I wasn’t a boy. But I do think, funnily enough, underneath all [my] nonsense, there is a masculine approach that gives me strength, stamina to keep going.”
Among her practical skills, she explains, are using the lawnmower, putting up barbed wire to contain the swans and “telling everybody what to do with the electric fence for the sheep” on her country estate in Wiltshire.
Her escape to boarding school was her salvation. “I met thousands of new people.” (She peppers her conversation with hyperbole.) “It was simply wonderful. I loved the teachers, I loved all the kids that went to school.” And at the age of 17 she left with her sister for London, which, she says, turned out to be “an eye opener”.
Once there she set up a stall in west London’s Portobello Road antiques market before becoming an actress in commercials and films, including an “angel of death” in the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
In 1978 she opened Blakes Hotel in South Kensington with her first husband, Constantine Hempel, an Irish journalist and property developer. Blakes was one of the first boutique hotels in London, and it became a refuge for actors and well known for its bohemian style. She was briefly married to the theatre producer Bill Kenwright, before marrying the South African-born British financier Sir Mark Weinberg in 1980.
Soon after, she opened the Hempel Hotel. In contrast to Blakes, it was fiercely minimalist. The dual styles appear to have reinforced rather than diluted her brand. “You can always tell it’s my hand: whether it’s got nothing in it or full up, you know I’ve been there, I confuse people. Of course I do, that’s my job in life, isn’t it?” she declares.
She seldom reads things about herself. “I don’t let many people in. I don’t discuss everything. If I don’t want to discuss it, I’m not discussing it. I think that annoys the hell out of an awful lot of people.”
On some matters there seems to be deliberate obfuscation. Take her age: she says she is 62, though previous interviews have put her nearer to 70.
Has the downturn had an impact on Hempel’s business? “The what?” she replies. The downturn. “No.” She is as busy as ever, trotting off a list of interior design projects for a palace in Tangier and the Grand Theatre in Beirut, in addition to designing “furniture and baths and taps and outdoor furniture, indoor furniture, outdoor rooms. Wonderful. A big lovely conglomeration of designing: little things to big things.”
There is no difference, she says, between designing for clients or her own home. Hempel relished the opportunity to redesign her current home, which she describes as “a black and white house” with a Japanese orientation, when she moved there from Notting Hill two years ago. She does not see the design as ever being finished. “It evolves constantly. You go a year with nothing happening at all, and then you have six months and it goes mad again.”
She rarely sets out to buy things but prefers to collect objects when she spots them: “Anywhere and everywhere I travel – in the souk, in Beirut, in mother-of-pearl factories. I have such a fantastic life, I find things every time I go anywhere. Even walking down to Harrods I will see something in that horrible, flash old joint [and buy it].”
Her country residence is very different to her London abode. “It’s cosy down there. There are thousands of books in sort of rickety bookshelves, there is lots of paisley, old shawls all over the place and an eclectic, funny old mix of things, whereas this [London house] is a bit more strict.”
She never lets her husband Sir Mark interfere in the design of their homes. Nor indeed in her business, despite the fact that he has funded a number of successful financial services companies. She likes to keep things separate. “Not in a bad way, that’s just how it is.”
Anouska Hempel is reluctant to choose just one favourite thing. “I’ve got lots of things I like. I like the scroll tables, I like my little yellow bowls from China, and all kinds of funny little bits and pieces.”
She is a collector of Elizabethan portraits, tortoiseshell and ivory but insists she doesn’t go out looking to put collections together. “I haven’t got time.”
In the end, she decides on one object, an art deco black cat’s head. “He’s just an Abyssinian 1920s little bit of nonsense,” she says.
Her reasons for choosing him seem to be less aesthetic than emotional – the cat reminds her of her rightful position: “I really should have been a pharaoh – do you know that?”