In an exclusive interview with HELLO!, billionaire heiress Petra Ecclestone has opened up about the importance of keeping her children grounded. She also credited Lavinia, five, and three-year-old twins Andrew and James for helping her through the emotional fallout following the highly-publicised divorce from art dealer James Stunt. "They understand that they're fortunate compared to other people," she told HELLO! in October 2018. "They're polite and respectful. And I really believe that love is the most important thing you can give to a child. That matters so much more than money". She went on to talk about the launch of Petra's Place, a new centre for children on the autistic spectrum, before reflecting on the collapse of her six-year marriage.
Petra explained how it was "very difficult" dealing with the emotional fallout from her very public separation. "I think it was the kids that made me cope," she shared. "I didn't have the option of lying in bed, being depressed and feeling sorry for myself. I had to wake up for them. They kind of pushed me through it." Introducing the subject of new boyfriend Sam Palmer, she added: "Life comes in unexpected waves and turns. And luckily I’ve found someone amazing…"
"I was totally not expecting it," she said of their whirlwind romance. "I honestly thought I'd just be single for the rest of my life. I was like: 'I'm happy with my kids,' and that was it." Petra met Sam through her sister Tamara's husband, Jay Rutland, the creative director of London-based international art dealers Maddox Gallery. "Jay and Sam are best friends so we met through him. He's just an amazing person. He's very loyal. He's brutally honest and sometimes that offends people, but I find it refreshing."
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Sam now lives with Petra and runs the LA branch of Maddox Gallery. The double-dating opportunities will undoubtedly be exciting for both sisters, who maintain an extraordinary bond despite living on different continents. "It's funny because we are so close, but we are completely different people. It's like: 'How are we even sisters?'" Petra joked. "Tamara's very organised. She knows everything that she's doing six months in advance. I drive her mad because with me everything's last minute. Our personalities are totally different. I guess that's why we complement each other."
Their closeness is perhaps strengthened by their inability to trust many outsiders. "It's sad, but I don’t expect much of people," Petra revealed. "I learned from an early age that people are greedy, and they’ll do things for money…" When asked if people have exploited her, she replied: "Definitely. My dad told me not to trust people, and I guess that’s a protective mechanism." Her mother’s advice was more sanguine. "She always told Tamara and I to treat everyone the same, regardless of where they came from or what they do," Petra said. "I tell my children the same thing."
READ: Exclusive: Tamara Ecclestone and husband Jay Rutland reveal baby plans
The sisters share similarly hands-on parenting philosophies, with Petra eschewing nannies – " I don’t really trust anyone with my kids" – and Tamara being a vocal proponent of extended breastfeeding. "It’s so funny because she was the complete opposite when I was pregnant with Lavinia,” Petra recalled. "She would say: ‘When I have a child there will be no breastfeeding… I’ll have a nanny…’ She totally changed when she had Sophia. As a mum, you just never know how you’re going to feel until you actually go through it. I don’t judge other parents, because you never know what situation they’re in."
It was a challenging situation that compelled Petra to launch her new charitable endeavour – Petra’s Place, a treatment centre for children on the autism spectrum, which opens on London’s Fulham Road later this month. As a toddler, Lavinia was diagnosed with global developmental delay. "She had difficulties… she was delayed in every single way," Petra said. "Learning, talking… we were living in the States until she turned two and there was a lot of support available. We moved back to the UK for my ex-husband’s work, and the difference was shocking. There were so few treatment options."
Her voice wavers when she recalls difficult conversations with British medics: "One doctor told me to just employ a nanny if Lavinia’s behaviour was so bad." The few treatment centres that Petra located were cold and sterile facilities. "Every time Lavinia went, we’d have a whole tantrum ordeal because she was scared." Harnessing her frustrations, Petra decided to consult experts and fund Petra’s Place, which offers evidence-based treatment and support for children and their families in a bright and inviting environment. "Lavinia doesn’t have autism, but I learned that children who are diagnosed in the UK often have a hard time accessing early intervention treatments, which are so important,” she explained. "We’re starting off with about 20 kids at Petra’s Place, and then growing to about 70."
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Petra then reflected on the "all-consuming" role of being a single mother. "I’m incredibly fortunate," she confessed. "I don’t work 9 to 5, so I can base everything around my kids’ schedules, but it is really hard. You never sleep the same way again. Sometimes they’re all just fighting, and I’ll say: ‘Can’t you just get along for a minute?'" Even so Petra’s face lights up when she talks about her offspring. When asked if she’d like to have more, she said: "It’s always been a dream of mine to adopt. Maybe have a few more of my own, too. Tamara is happy with just one child, but I’ve always envisaged having a big family… I think five or six would be a good number." Bernie is "a really good granddad", she said, smiling broadly. "My son Andrew looks exactly like him. He’s methodical, and he even stands like him." James is "really cheeky, a boys’ boy, into girls already!", while Lavinia is "funny, stubborn, and a total sweetheart".
For more information on the Petra Ecclestone Foundation or to purchase a t-shirt by Mr Brainwash to fund Petra's Place in Fulham visit www.petrasplace.co.uk.
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