43-year-old Idris Elba, is a British actor who has climbed from poverty in East London’s Canning Town to the upper reaches of the Hollywood A-list, with leading roles in TV’s Luther, The Wire and the film Mandela. He has even been tipped to play Bond.
But if his professional drive for stardom has seemed relentless, Elba’s private life has been relentlessly troubled – as those caught up in it know only too well.
Just a few weeks ago, he walked out on Naiyana Garth, the British mother of his two-year-old son. And now another casualty in the long-running and chaotic Idris Elba script has stepped forward with a story of her own.
This is Sonya Hamlin, a beautiful property lawyer and the ‘secret’ second wife to whom Elba was married for just a few brief weeks before, she says, he reached the devastating conclusion that she would get in the way of his career. She was heartbroken.
In her first-ever interview, the 44-year-old gives The Mail on Sunday an unprecedented glimpse into the emotional life and, some might say, the ferocious ambition of Britain’s biggest rising star.
‘People were telling him he was going to ruin his career,’ she says. ‘He was being told it was an important part of his image to be a single sex symbol in Hollywood and being married would damage that.’
‘It was very sad. Idris and I were madly in love, but he was getting a lot of flak for being married. Everyone was like, “Dude, you’re the hottest sex symbol! It wasn’t the right look”, that’s what they were telling him. I wanted to save the marriage.’
The two had been introduced by a mutual friend in 2006. Not only was Sonya glamorous, she was an accomplished and ambitious lawyer, and seemed to represent the better life to which Elba, who was born in a Hackney tower block, aspired.
For her part, it was ‘pure chemistry’. By that stage, he was well-known in America through his role on The Wire, an HBO crime drama, but success had been hard-won. Raised in Canning Town, the son of immigrants from Ghana and Sierra Leone, Elba had worked at Ford before turning to acting.
He had a failed marriage behind him, too. Elba brought his first wife, make-up artist Hanne Norgaard, with him when he moved to New York to launch his career. However, he struggled to master an American accent and was reduced to working as a nightclub bouncer.
When Norgaard became pregnant with daughter Isan in 2001, the marriage collapsed, perhaps because of the financial strain. As it turned out, Isan would be born on the very day he secured his role on The Wire, the launch pad for his later success.
A ten-year affair with pole dancer followed, and it was during a lengthy break from this that he met Sonya.
‘I didn’t really know who he was,’ says Sonya, who studied law in London and Washington. ‘My friend just said he was a really nice guy. He wasn’t a superstar back then. Living in Maryland I was vaguely familiar with The Wire, but I didn’t know who he was.’
‘We met at a crowded gathering with a few other people,’ she recalls. ‘But we hit it off. We meshed very well. He’s not shy and neither am I, and we fell very much in love with each other.’
After a whirlwind romance, they moved in together in Maryland.
‘We went on normal dates – dinner, movies – and we used to have fun in the house. We used to co-ordinate our outfits when we dressed. And he was a very good cook. If we woke on a Sunday morning we might go out to brunch, or stay at home and make breakfast. Idris loved eggs and porridge, or would cook Jamaican food: he loved aki and saltfish.’
‘He’s a homebody. He didn’t like to be out at night. He loves to watch TV, and listen to music. We were very casual. We’d lounge around in jeans and a T-shirt.’
Then on April 8, 2006, they jetted off to Las Vegas to watch the Floyd Mayweather Jnr vs Zab Judah boxing match. But it was Elba who was the victor that night, persuading Sonya to elope for a secret marriage the following day.
She says they exchanged their vows as the sun set. Aside from the officiant, the only wedding guest was a complete stranger: Las Vegas estate agent Daniel Krastev, whom they persuaded to serve as a witness.
‘Back at the hotel they called their parents, then celebrated in their suite with dinner, champagne and chocolates overlooking the Vegas Strip. ‘It was very beautiful and romantic,’ she says.
But the pressure on their new marriage was intense, and Elba felt the pull of Hollywood, while Sonya was tied to her law practice in Maryland and could not uproot it to be with her husband in California.
Yet the truth may also more hurtful. She believes Elba was also swayed by friends who felt that he should have a bombshell young starlet by his side, rather than a property lawyer, however attractive.
Only six weeks after tying the knot, Elba decided he wanted to end it all. Sonya sighs: ‘Some people used to say, “Why her?” That’s what they were telling him. It used to upset him. He was like, “Why don’t people just let me be happy?”
But finding someone to be with isn’t the same as finding love. For Elba that remains elusive quarry.
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