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 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.
The benefits of early intervention for autism
The advisory board for Petra’s Place, headed by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, explains…
How common is autism in the UK? Autism is diagnosed in one in 100 children.
Why do we need early intervention services for autism in the UK? Autism is partly genetic and how a child’s brain is wired from before birth and during development. But if a child receives early intervention they can learn to socialise and communicate more easily, cope better in a world they otherwise find overwhelming and become less anxious, so that they can fulfil their potential.
What does early intervention for autism involve? The best therapy centres offer a range of approaches. These might include speech and occupational therapies, the arts (music, art and drama), fun activities (cooking, play) and family therapy for parents.
What are the signs of autism in young children? Not making eye contact, very rigid behaviour and not showing reciprocal social action, such as taking turns in play. But none of these are diagnostic. Concerned parents should discuss with their GP, who can decide if the child needs a full assessment.
For more information on Petra’s Place, visit petrasplace.co.uk. World Autism Awareness Week runs from 26 March-2 April; autism.org.uk
Interview by Julia Llewellyn Smith