When TOWIE star Kate Wright fell in love with widowed football legend Rio Ferdinand, her life took an unexpected turn. She tells Julia Llewellyn Smith how, in just 18 months, she’s gone from bikini-clad playgirl to hands-on stepmother of three.
Fresh from dropping off three children at their school breakfast club, Kate Wright is sitting in a London photographic studio, smiling with both delight and disbelief about the events of the past couple of years. ‘It’s crazy,’ says the former reality TV star. ‘If someone had told me a few years back that I was going to be the stepmum of three children, I would have just laughed. You don’t see something like that coming.’
Certainly no one could have predicted the extraordinary but, as she stresses, ‘amazing’ turn that 27-year-old Kate’s life would take. Two years ago, she was a bubbly, bikini-clad star of ITV’s The Only Way Is Essex, constantly breaking up, then making up, with her co-star boyfriend Dan Edgar – the pair were dubbed Essex’s answer to Barbie and Ken.
But then, in early 2017, Kate met former England and Manchester United footballer Rio Ferdinand through mutual friends. He was a widower since losing his wife Rebecca, 34, to breast cancer in 2015, and was bringing up their children, Lorenz, now 11, Tate, nine, and Tia, seven, on his own.
‘Rio and I just clicked,’ Kate says. ‘I knew about the children and what had happened but at first I didn’t give it much thought. When you meet someone you’re just enjoying the moment, not thinking about how serious things might become.’
But things became very serious indeed. ‘I fell in love with Rio, then I met the kids and fell in love with them,’ Kate says. ‘I realised, “Wow, my life is going to change.” I couldn’t be part of his life and not part of theirs. I knew it would be a challenge, but if you love someone you go with it and deal with the difficult stuff.’
For several months the couple kept their relationship under wraps, but in September Kate announced she was leaving TOWIE to concentrate on Rio, 39, and the children. ‘People probably thought I was crazy, but it was the best decision I could have made. It didn’t feel right for the children to see their dad’s girlfriend out and about, creating all this drama on TV.’
Kate and her beloved chihuahua Ronnie moved into Rio’s Kent mansion and overnight her life was transformed from one of nightclubbing and exotic holidays into one of supervising homework, organising playdates and cooking dinner. ‘I wasn’t a good cook at first,’ she chuckles. ‘I’d always eaten out or at my mum’s. It took a while, but now the kids say I do better lamb chops than Rio. It’s certainly full-on. My friends who haven’t got kids say, “I can’t believe how much you have to do,” but it’s my life now and I’m really happy. Rio helped me a lot with learning the ropes and a couple of mums at school have been really supportive.’
Wrapped in a dressing gown with her hair in rollers before she’s made up for the YOU shoot, what’s striking about Kate is her megawatt smile and unaffected manner. Funny and warm, her cheeriness is even more impressive given that we’re meeting during the World Cup, with Rio in Russia for the BBC for a month and Kate in charge, a situation that would bring any mother to her knees.
‘I was a bit worried about Rio being away for so long, but it’s been a great opportunity to bond with the kids,’ she says. ‘Normally life is quite structured, but because it’s the end of term we’ve been going out a lot, doing activities, visiting friends. We’ve had a lovely time.’ Presumably, they’ve also watched a lot of football? ‘Not really; I’m not into it at all. People think it’s weird, but everywhere Rio goes people talk football to him, so I think he finds it quite nice not to have me going on about it.’ Did they not even watch Rio’s punditry? ‘No! Every now and then he’d pop up on the screen, but the kids and I just take the mick. Watching your dad on TV is weird. Having said that, both boys are very sporty; they want to be footballers and we hope they will be.’
From Hornchurch, Essex, Kate stresses that – just like Rio, who came from a council estate in Peckham, South London – she’s from ‘a very normal background’. An only child, she was raised by her mother Jacqueline, who works in finance, her parents having split when she was three. Her father, meanwhile, remarried several times. ‘I’ve had a few stepmums but they weren’t in my life majorly,’ she says sadly. ‘When I was nine I wasn’t even invited to my dad’s wedding; I was very upset. My experience has helped define how I want to treat Rio’s kids and how I want them to see me.’
Kate left school at 16 and – before Dan persuaded her to join TOWIE – worked for seven years at a bank in the City. ‘I was a PA, so I’m super-organised. I always go extra for things like birthdays – I like everything to be personalised and in cute little bags. Rio thinks I’m addicted to doing nice things for people but, with all that he and the kids have been through, I want them to have the best.’
The family has suffered almost unbelievable heartache, first with losing Rebecca, who’d been cleared of breast cancer in 2014 only for it to return the following year when it spread to her bones so aggressively that she died within ten weeks. Then, last summer, Rio’s mother Janice St Fort, who’d taken on much of the care of the children, also died of cancer, aged 58. ‘There’s been so much pain,’ Kate says as she holds back tears. ‘Kids are adaptable, but it’s so hard for them.’
But through it all, Rio was always there for his children: within weeks of Rebecca’s death he announced his retirement from professional football. In last year’s BBC documentary Being Mum And Dad he talked movingly about how, having always prided himself on his ‘cold’ demeanour, he suddenly had no choice but to get in touch with his emotions to show his children that repressing them would only lead to more anguish. ‘It’s allowed me to speak and show a vulnerability that people are probably not used to,’ he said when the programme won a Bafta. ‘Being a sportsman, you’re built up as an indestructible athlete.’
‘The way Rio’s coped and brought up his children is amazing,’ Kate says. ‘Without Rebecca being there, he had to take on a softer role. His children need to see love, and if you’re a hard man you can’t show that.’
The more Kate talks, the more I’m impressed by her wisdom and sensitivity as well as Rio’s. The couple prepared her introduction to the children carefully. ‘We’ve involved them in everything. First I visited with friends, then Rio said, “I’d like to take Kate on a date, is that OK?” Whenever we did something together, like go to the pub and have a roast dinner, we’d come back and do something fun with the kids, so that every time I spent time with their dad they’d look forward to it.’
Not everything has gone smoothly. In the early days one child told Kate, ‘You don’t know how to look after children because you don’t have any.’ ‘That upset me,’ she says. ‘But touch wood, they wouldn’t say that now. They know how much I do for them; I bring fun into their lives.’ Their appreciation was made clear recently when Tia gave Kate a mug bearing the legend ‘Not a Stepmum – a Bonus Mum’. ‘That made me want to cry! I use it every day, and if I don’t Tia wants to know why. It means so much because it shows that what I’m doing is working.’
Out of respect, Kate won’t speak about her relationship with Rebecca’s family, but she’s honouring her memory. ‘Their mum is irreplaceable; we celebrate her birthday, we go to the cemetery together. Tia and I have a code word she’ll use if she’s feeling sad, and we’ll talk about her mum or her nan – they know I’m always there for them. And they have a special mum and nan room, with tons of pictures of both, where they often do their homework and we sometimes go together to play or watch YouTube.’
Kate’s 907,000 Instagram followers are regularly treated to snaps of her and the children (with faces obscured) having fun together, as well as ones of Kate showcasing her trademark full-on glamour. But these days, she says, she’s far less hung up on appearances. ‘I have wet hair on the school run, sometimes I’m dropping off the kids in my slippers. I think, “If people could see me now,”’ she laughs. ‘It used to bug me if I couldn’t work out three or four times a week, but now I don’t beat myself up. I’ve learnt from Rio and the children that terrible things can happen in life so you can’t take it for granted – you have to appreciate it.’
In fact, Kate says that she had been planning to quit TOWIE before she met Rio. ‘I’m glad I did the show but it gave me anxiety. Playing out your relationship with your ex on TV is never a good thing. Now I feel calmer.’ She’s ready to return to work, but this time doing something involving her passion – fitness. She’d also like to become involved with bereavement charities. ‘I had a break from work because it was a crucial time to get to know the kids, but now I want some me-time. I’ve always been an independent person and I think that as a mother you can lose your identity a bit.’
In the meantime, Kate is looking forward to a long holiday in Portugal ‘enjoying quality family time’. Many are wondering if she’ll return with an engagement ring. There’s no doubt of Rio’s adoration – at the Baftas he paid tribute to his ‘beautiful girlfriend’ – but Kate waves away my questions about marriage. ‘The kids would like a little brother or sister; they say “I dreamt that you were pregnant,”’ she admits. ‘But right now we’re just happy with our little unit.’
All I can say is that no family could deserve a woman like Kate more.
Kate’s strategy for stepmotherhood
Always ensure that the children are involved in decisions regarding you and your partner. They mustn’t feel pushed into a corner.
Set boundaries early. It’s easier not to discipline them, but they won’t respect you long-term. The kids have to do certain chores; if they don’t, no pocket money.
Have regular one-on-one time. I lie down alone with each kid in bed most nights to get to know them as individuals. They really appreciate not having to compete for attention.
Try not to get too caught up in the seriousness of your role. Sometimes you can be consumed by the school run, supervising homework, cooking dinner. Remember to have fun.
Don’t forget about yourself. If you can’t look after yourself you can’t look after anyone else. You need your own escapes: at the beginning I was so caught up with Rio and the children that I forgot to see my own friends. And make time just for you and your partner, otherwise what’s the point?