‘I DIDN’T BE­LIEVE IN DI­VORCE’

Heiress PE­TRA EC­CLE­STONE’s first in­ter­view since her multi­bil­lion-pound break-up

The Mail on Sunday - You - - Front Page - PHO­TO­GRAPHS DAVID VENN I

Pe­tra Ec­cle­stone, daugh­ter of for­mer For­mula 1 bil­lion­aire Bernie, looks ev­ery inch the spoilt daddy’s girl as she ar­rives at the swish Chelsea gym where we’ve ar­ranged to meet in a con­voy of black Range Rovers (one for her, one for the body­guards) with per­son­alised num­ber plates. She may be in the ‘mum’ uni­form of hoodie and leg­gings, but the for­mer is clearly de­signer and the lat­ter are edgy PVC. Thick blonde locks tum­ble over her shoul­ders and her fin­gers, dec­o­rated with henna tat­toos, are en­hanced by inch-long nails and stacks of di­a­monds.

Yet, as soon as she starts talk­ing, I find my­self warm­ing to Pe­tra, who comes across as con­trolled but friendly, with an ap­peal­ingly dry sense of hu­mour. She’s cer­tainly a far more un­der­stated fig­ure than her el­der sis­ter Ta­mara, whose re­al­ity show Ta­mara’s World treated view­ers to glimpses of her 57-room man­sion con­tain­ing a three-storey soft-play area, which re­port­edly cost £50,000, for her four-year- old daugh­ter Sophia. ‘I get asked to do that kind of programme all the time, but they’re just not me,’ Pe­tra says. ‘I find the idea quite cheesy.’

At only 29, Pe­tra – now the sin­gle mother of Lavinia, five, and two-year-old twins James and An­drew af­ter her di­vorce from her hus­band of six years James Stunt – has founded two fash­ion lines and sup­ported menin­gi­tis char­i­ties (at 14 she nearly died from vi­ral menin­gi­tis). She has funded cards for new moth­ers in­form­ing them about symptoms, and a cam­paign to raise aware­ness among stu­dents, who are more vul­ner­a­ble to the con­di­tion. Now she’s throw­ing her­self into a new pro­ject: Pe­tra’s Place, a cen­tre that is due to open in July near her Lon­don home to pro­vide treat­ment for young chil­dren with autism and other devel­op­men­tal dis­or­ders.

It’s to Pe­tra’s credit that she has found time for the cen­tre, given the chal­lenges of the past cou­ple of years. In 2016, her step­mother’s mother was kid­napped and threat­ened with de­cap­i­ta­tion in Brazil (she was rescued); her brother-in-law Lee

Stunt died of an ac­ci­den­tal drug over­dose, and her £100 mil­lion Chelsea home was at­tacked with a petrol bomb. ‘That was quite dra­matic – things like that nor­mally don’t hap­pen in Chelsea, we’re not in Baghdad,’ Pe­tra says in her soft, mid-At­lantic tones. ‘Luck­ily we were at our home in Los Angeles be­cause it ex­ploded lit­er­ally out­side my boys’ win­dow.’

Then, last year, news emerged of her ac­ri­mo­nious di­vorce from en­tre­pre­neur James, 36, whom she’d mar­ried in a £12 mil­lion cer­e­mony in Rome that even Bernie, 87, deemed ex­ces­sive. The cou­ple, who had been to­gether since she was 18, split amid al­le­ga­tions of James’s drug-tak­ing and abu­sive and vi­o­lent be­hav­iour (which he de­nies). Bernie had al­ready re­vealed how dur­ing a row his son-in-law had threat­ened to ‘blow her head off ’.

James was or­dered by a judge to leave the fam­ily home, while Pe­tra was granted sole cus­tody of the chil­dren. Since then he has hit back with digs about his ex and her fam­ily, call­ing 5ft 2in Bernie a ‘dwarf ’, his ex-wife Slav­ica ‘Lady Macbeth’ and Pe­tra a ‘C-list celebrity’s daugh­ter’. The Ec­cle­stones jumped to Pe­tra’s de­fence, with Bernie say­ing that he felt ‘sorry for him’. More an­grily, Ta­mara an­nounced ‘un­less he stops telling lies about my fam­ily, we will have to start telling the truth about him’.

Pe­tra won’t com­ment on the in­fight­ing (and man­ages to avoid even us­ing her ex’s name dur­ing our in­ter­view) but her calm aura is one of some­one who is re­lieved to have moved on. ‘It’s been a bad year,’ she says. ‘But it’s get­ting bet­ter. Once you have kids there’s no op­tion but to be strong. You can’t feel sorry for your­self, you just have to do what’s right for them.’

Since late last year Pe­tra has been pho­tographed with Sam Palmer, a vin­tage car dealer who is friends with 33-year-old Ta­mara’s hus­band Jay Rut­land. ‘It’s very early-on dat­ing,’ she says. ‘The whole thing is quite strange be­cause my life didn’t pan out the way I ex­pected it to. I thought I wasn’t the type who be­lieved in di­vorce. I go to church and I got mar­ried think­ing I would be with that per­son for the rest of my life. But things hap­pen for a rea­son and, what­ever that rea­son is, I’ve now got my three kids.’

It’s easy to roll your eyes when one of the wealth­i­est women on the planet tells you how ex­haust­ing her chil­dren are, but there’s no doubt that Pe­tra is a hands-on mother. She

I GO TO CHURCH AND MAR­RIED THINK­ING IT WOULD BE FOR LIFE ” Left: Pe­tra with her fa­ther Bernie and sis­ter Ta­mara

only em­ployed a nanny – whom she prefers to call ‘an ex­tra pair of hands; I don’t like the idea of nan­nies, I’m too much of a con­trol freak’ – af­ter the twins were born eight weeks pre­ma­ture ‘and were in hospi­tal a lot’.

‘Be­ing a sin­gle mother is hard,’ she con­tin­ues. ‘There’s no day off. You can’t take your eyes off them – it’s drain­ing. Things like go­ing on hol­i­day are tough. Last week we were in Dubai and I had a nanny, but it’s not the same. You’re not a fam­ily.’ Ta­mara was also there. ‘Yes, but she was pre­oc­cu­pied with Sophia, so she wasn’t much help,’ Pe­tra laughs.

She’s up with the chil­dren ev­ery morn­ing at 6am, does the school and nurs­ery run, then – af­ter meet­ings and pos­si­bly ex­er­cise – re­turns to nurs­ery for a noon pick-up. ‘Ba­si­cally I’m a chauf­feur,’ she smiles rue­fully. At night, she says, ‘I’ve got into a rut of col­laps­ing and watch­ing TV in bed. I have to force my­self to go out. When I ac­tu­ally do it I feel great.’

In that spirit, she’s putting her all into Pe­tra’s Place. ‘My mum says, “You don’t have time to be deal­ing with this,” but when you have kids you’re in such a bub­ble, and I feel I want to use my brain to fo­cus on some­thing else. I want the kids to be proud of me, to know that their grandad was re­ally suc­cess­ful but that their mum made a dif­fer­ence.’

The idea for the cen­tre came to her from her ex­pe­ri­ences with Lavinia, who was slow to start talk­ing. ‘It was so hard. She was three and I’d never heard her say “Mama” – that’s heart­break­ing,’ she says. At the time, Pe­tra and James were liv­ing in Los Angeles in their 123-room house The Manor, which they bought for £61 mil­lion in 2011. ‘We saw sev­eral speech ther­a­pists, so we had some in­ter­ven­tion be­fore Lavinia reached the age of two. At that point we had to move back to Lon­don, where I was shocked at how few ser­vices they had for fam­i­lies. I’m lucky I can pay for the best doc­tors but even then they didn’t re­ally of­fer that much sup­port.’

Even­tu­ally Lavinia was di­ag­nosed with global devel­op­men­tal de­lay, the term used for chil­dren who take longer than their peers to reach cer­tain devel­op­men­tal mile­stones. ‘She’s do­ing OK. She has had to learn how to po­si­tion her tongue when she talks. It’s so hard with par­ent­ing; it’s like a com­pe­ti­tion with other peo­ple say­ing, “My child can talk bet­ter, or read more.”’ Want­ing more chil­dren to be able to ac­cess such help, Pe­tra ap­proached var­i­ous doc­tors about set­ting up a cen­tre. Did they not dis­miss her as a ditsy heiress? ‘No, they were ex­cited. It’s so hard here even to get a di­ag­no­sis for autism at a young age and while you’re on the wait­ing list you’re

miss­ing a cru­cial win­dow.’ In­deed, the cen­tre – funded largely by her char­ity, The Pe­tra Ec­cle­stone Foun­da­tion – boasts an im­pres­sive ad­vi­sory team, headed by Pro­fes­sor Si­mon Baron- Co­hen, the direc­tor of Cambridge Univer­sity’s Autism Re­search Cen­tre. Each year it hopes to cater for 96 chil­dren aged be­tween 18 months and four years, 80 per cent of whom will be se­lected by Pe­tra’s lo­cal coun­cil, Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea, the re­main­der be­ing pri­vate pa­tients. The plan is to roll out a group of cen­tres na­tion­wide.

Early in­ter­ven­tion for autism is a hot po­tato, not least be­cause many in the com­mu­nity are fight­ing for ac­cep­tance and dis­like the idea that their con­di­tion can be ‘trained out of them’. Is Pe­tra – who is pro­mot­ing World Autism Aware­ness Week – ready for flak? ‘I am. With any­thing to do with par­ent­ing, peo­ple have some sort of opin­ion,’ she says; she doesn’t look wor­ried.

There’s a low-key but steely con­fi­dence to Pe­tra, who turned down a place at the pres­ti­gious Cen­tral Saint Martins art school to launch her menswear brand Form, only for it to fold two years later. ‘It was re­ally hard to make a suc­cess of a smaller brand,’ she says with can­dour. ‘I prob­a­bly could have gone beg­ging to my dad for more money, but I have some dig­nity.’ She later launched a hand­bag line, Stark (which she dis­solved this year, af­ter it ran up debts of more than £4 mil­lion). ‘But then I got preg­nant and I wanted to give 100 per cent to Lavinia. I didn’t see the point in hav­ing a busi­ness just for the sake of hav­ing a busi­ness.’

Soon she is hop­ing to re­lo­cate the fam­ily to LA, lured by warmer weather and what she thinks is a less pres­sured at­mos­phere for chil­dren to grow up in. ‘But then again, my fam­ily and friends are here,’ she sighs. She has tried to per­suade Ta­mara’s fam­ily to move with her. ‘But she wants Sophia to have an English ed­u­ca­tion.’

Grow­ing up, she says, the sis­ters ‘fought con­stantly’, but now are ‘re­ally close’, with Sophia and Lavinia see­ing each other vir­tu­ally ev­ery day. Ta­mara has an­nounced she will breast­feed Sophia, with whom she still shares a bed, for as long as pos­si­ble. Pe­tra chuck­les wryly. ‘Be­fore she had Sophia she was, like, “Why would you breast­feed? Just leave the baby at home with a nanny, go out and have a life!” I said you can’t judge un­til you’ve been in that po­si­tion. I breast­fed the twins un­til they were two, but then they didn’t want it any more. At the time I was heart­bro­ken. Look­ing back it’s pa­thetic.’

She is staunchly non­judg­men­tal of her sis­ter, even though their ap­proaches to life are very dif­fer­ent. Ta­mara pa­rades her fam­ily life on tele­vi­sion and so­cial me­dia, while Pe­tra has a pri­vate In­sta­gram ac­count. ‘The idea that other peo­ple can see your kids freaks me out. There are so many sick peo­ple in this world. But I don’t talk to Ta­mara about it; we’d only have an ar­gu­ment.’

The sis­ters are de­voted to their mother Slav­ica, 59, a Croa­t­ian for­mer model and daugh­ter of a mar­ket trader (Pe­tra says she feels more Croa­t­ian than English), who fa­mously es­chewed hav­ing a nanny and did all the wash­ing-up her­self – ‘I’ve no prob­lem with hav­ing a dish­washer!’ Pe­tra laughs. Hav­ing di­vorced Bernie nine years ago, to­day Slav­ica lives in Switzer­land – ‘but we see her all the time. She’s so good with the kids and is the only per­son I com­pletely trust with them.’

Bernie, she says, is be­sot­ted with the twins, his first grand­sons. ‘He’s fas­ci­nated by them. They have quite sim­i­lar per­son­al­i­ties to him. You see such hap­pi­ness in him be­cause of them,’ Pe­tra says. She doesn’t talk about her fa­ther’s sec­ond wife, Brazil­ian Grand Prix mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive Fabi­ana Flosi, who is 46 years his ju­nior, but, when dis­cussing the dif­fer­ence be­tween sons and daugh­ters, she re­marks tellingly: ‘Boys are much less in­de­pen­dent than girls. Men can’t re­ally care for them­selves. A man al­ways re­mar­ries or finds a new girl­friend as soon as pos­si­ble, whereas a sin­gle woman just gets on with it and sorts her­self out.’

Still, Pe­tra is def­i­nitely not rul­ing out fu­ture ro­mance for her­self. She would like – even­tu­ally, she says – to have more chil­dren. ‘Right now the process is so over­whelm­ing, but it has al­ways been my dream to adopt, so maybe I will in the next five or six years, you never know. If you’re in love I guess it’s un­fair not to give a part­ner a child of their own. But first I’d like to be able to breathe a bit and have a shower on my own.’

She’s plan­ning to mark her 30th birth­day in De­cem­ber with a huge 1980s-themed bash. ‘Maybe in my 30s I can have my life semi-back,’ she muses. ‘Maybe I’ll have a midlife cri­sis and start danc­ing on ta­bles.’ With that Ec­cle­stone drive em­bed­ded in Pe­tra’s DNA, I some­how doubt it.

For more in­for­ma­tion on Pe­tra’s Place, visit pe­trasplace.co.uk. World Autism Aware­ness Week runs from 26 March-2 April; autism.org.uk

BE­ING A SIN­GLE MOTHER IS HARD. THERE’S NO DAY OFF. IT’S DRAIN­ING ”

PE­TRA WEARS DRESS, Dolce & Gab­bana. Pre­vi­ous spread: JACKET, Michelle Ma­son. ALL JEWELLERY, Jaimie Geller Jewelry

From top: Pe­tra with her mother Slav­ica, and with Ta­mara

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