To many she's pushy, attention-seeking, and talentless. To others, she's the object of erotic fantasy. Whatever you might think of the actress and model Liz Hurley, she is one of the most beautiful, most photographed, and most talked-about women in the world.

We know all about her private life, from her relationship with one of Britain's most successful film stars to the humiliating paternity battle she fought with Steven Bing, the father of her son - whose first birthday is tomorrow. She earns millions of pounds a year. Yet paradoxically, she's generally recognised as being famous just for being famous.

All of which, of course, makes the life of Elizabeth Hurley a satisfactory subject for a piece of withering analysis - which is why

Alison Bowyer, who already has Delia Smith, Dawn French, and Graham Norton under her belt, has chosen her as the subject for a new biography.

''Hurley typifies our hollow fascination with celebrity,'' says Bowyer. ''She's in every newspaper and magazine you see, and she's always

jetting in or out of Heathrow first class, looking fabulous. We love to look at her, yet everyone wonders how on earth she ever got to be so famous. I wanted to find out.''

From all accounts, it isn't from her acting ability. Jonathan Ross described Hurley's performance in Bedazzled as ''incredibly, unbelievably, mind-numbingly bad'', and concluded: ''Liz Hurley cannot act.''

Modelling has been more lucrative - earlier this month she signed an advertising contract for Estee Lauder Perfume which will earn her (pounds) 1.5m each year until her 40th birthday in 2006. She also features on the cover of the current 15th anniversary issue of men's magazine GQ.

But how did she actually get to the heights of ubiquity? It appears Hurley's quest for fame started

early. Her elder sister Kathleen remembers Hurley as a ''determined attention-seeker'' who would have ''outrageous tantrums'' if she was ignored as a child.

As a teenager, she formed the Vestal Virgins - a raunchy dance act for which she wore stockings, thigh-high boots, and whips. Hurley never wore underwear, even under tiny leather miniskirts. ''She was an exhibitionist,'' says her friend Debra.

She still has a hole in her nose where her nose ring once was.

Hurley's classic Home Counties accent, like her English rose image, is all meticulously cultivated, says Bowyer. Despite appearances, she was raised in a bungalow in a district of Basingstoke and went to a comprehensive.

Her working-class roots go back to southern Ireland and the east end of London. Interestingly, Hurley's great-great grandfather died of exhaustion - one thing she is never likely to do. When she failed at a string of jobs after leaving school, she said: ''I did try to work hard, but I wasn't very good at it.'' She said of motherhood recently that she loved doing Damian's ''little laundry'', and expressed amazement at how fantastic ironing is. ''I don't think I've ever ironed anything in my life,'' claimed the 37-year-old single mother.

While menial jobs were clearly not for her, the one thing Hurley has always worked extremely hard at is building up her own image. As a youngster with her eye on a career as a famous actress, she told her friends to start calling her Elizabeth instead of Liz when she started amateur dramatics classes.

Her fascination with the English upper classes, fed by the novels of Evelyn Waugh, led her to adopt

an aristocratic accent and affected words like ''horrid'', ''ghastly'',

''beastly''', and ''frightful''.

It was when she met Hugh Grant, though, that her desired lifestyle really began to become a reality. Bowyer says meeting Grant was ''like an act of God - as if God were her PR agent''. She felt totally at home with his Oxford friends and when in LA, trying to break into the American scene, she fell in with an English aristocratic crowd (including Henry Dent-Brocklehurst and William Cash) who studiously eschewed the American lifestyle.

According to Bowyer, they were unbearably snobbish. Even in the blazing Hollywood sunshine they would have long indoor lunches, ignoring everyone else around them. They even christened themselves The Viles, in honour of Waugh's Vile Bodies. Typically, Liz was the only female in this clique.

She has never allowed herself to be seen looking fat or unglamorous - after Damian's birth, she retreated to Elton John and David Furnish's country retreat for seven weeks to get herself back in shape, only emerging once she had regained her figure.

In many respects, Hurley fills the visual void left by Diana, Princess of Wales - a fact that Bowyer hints that Hurley is aware of. When on American national television after the Bing debacle, she said: ''I adored him,'' just like Diana had said of James Hewitt. A rumour that Hurley was considering converting to Catholicism after Grant's humiliation at the hands of Divine Brown also echoes Diana.

Hardly surprisingly, Hurley remains fundamentally alone despite her wealth and beauty. ''I find it sad that at her son's christening, usually a family occasion, Liz was surrounded by the rich men she'd chosen as his godparents. None of them, apart from Hugh,

has been her friend for very long. Tellingly, none of them are women,'' she says.

Nevertheless, Bowyer admits she has a grudging admiration for Hurley for ''making so little go such a long way''. Her energy and drive have ensured she sticks to her regime of watercress soup and cold showers, and her knack for self-publicity ensures she gets the desired result: being in GQ's anniversary issue, in a series of uncompromising poses accompanied by an interview by her friend David Furnish, is an ''outstanding coup''.

But Hurley is facing 40. ''I do find the fact that she continues to strip off for the cameras faintly ridiculous, because we've seen it all so often,'' she says. ''It will be interesting to see where she goes from here - partly because we never got to know how Diana fared after 40.''

Having a biography written about you, whether flattering or not, is an acknowledgment that you have achieved something with your life. But here's the final indignity: while her favourite author Evelyn Waugh's biography took 10 years to compile, Hurley's took a mere six months.

Liz Hurley: Uncovered, by Alison Bowyer, is published by Andre Deutsch on Thursday, April 17, priced (pounds) 16.99