Penny Lancaster is talking — with much sense, it must be said — about the lack of diversity in our police force, and why it endangers us all.
‘The problems arise when you have a them and us mentality,’ she says. ‘People tend to see police officers as The Police, a big block, rather than a force made up of individuals.
‘You have to be in a situation where people see a police officer and see a person, a mother, a father, son, daughter, whatever.’
You could query what qualifies Penny, former model, star of the red carpet — Mrs Rod Stewart, for goodness’ sake! — to pontificate about policing. But hold on.
As an almost-member as the police through her work in Channel 4 documentary Famous and FIghting Crime, Penny Lancaster (pictured) talks the lack of diversity in the police force
First, she says she speaks as a citizen, as someone who has homes on both sides of the Atlantic, and a concern about what happens on our streets (she has been following the unfolding drama concerning the death of George Floyd in the U.S.).
More pertinently, perhaps, she is talking as an almost-member of the police force. Yes, really. Last year, Penny took part in Channel 4 documentary Famous And Fighting Crime.
It involved her, and a clutch of other celebs, going out on the beat with British police officers for a reality show. It was a compelling, if curious, watch. Now, she is signing up to become a special constable for real.
In a conversation that lurches from policing and riots, to Rod’s cancer (he had prostate cancer last year) to the trials of trying to get all members of the Stewart clan on a Zoom meeting at once, she reveals that, at 49, she also hit the menopause during lockdown.
She rolls her eyes. ‘I mean millions of women go through it, it’s nothing special but, God, it’s tough.
‘I woke up sweating. Horrific. I actually thought, “Is this Covid?” I had all the menopause symptoms — burning up, feeling wiped out, mood swings that are off the scale. I’ve wanted to scream. You don’t know if it’s just these times we are in. But eventually I had some tests. Yes, I’m in the menopause.’
Penny and I last spoke immediately after the crime documentary. Despite the danger she’d been put in (she confronted a drug addict, who threatened her with a needle), she told me that she’d never felt such job satisfaction. She was even considering signing up as a special constable for real.
Never in a million years did I think she’d meant it. She applied to join the volunteer special constable programme, sat all the exams (‘terrifying. It was like being back at school’) and is waiting for her training to get under way. ‘I was supposed to start training in April but Covid has delayed things.’
I’m reeling. We’re talking on Zoom, and it’s one of those interviews that sums up how surreal life is at the moment. Penny is sitting on the floor of her front room in Essex in a cardigan (a cardigan!) with no make-up, wearing glasses. Her dogs wander in and out.
It’s a rather grand room. They have a rather grand life, outwardly. There are usually housekeepers and, until lockdown, there was a personal chef. We’ll get on to how life has transformed the Stewarts (brace yourselves: it involves Sir Rod washing dishes). But for now, let’s talk more about Penny the police officer.
So she will be on the beat, for real? ‘Yes. I have to commit to a certain number of shifts with the City of London Police. Special constables are paired up with experienced, full-time officers but they’re able to make arrests, offer support, have the same power as regular police officers do.
‘I will be in full uniform, of course, Boots, hi-viz, hat, badge and name tag. I’m not sure what name to go under, Lancaster or Stewart. I use Penny Lancaster for work and Lancaster-Stewart for more personal occasions.’
Whatever name is on the badge, it would be an odd situation when a burglar clocks the arresting officer and says: ‘Aren’t you Mrs Rod Stewart?’
‘At the interview stage, we went through all that. They pointed out I could be at risk if people know who I am, and where I live, but I actually think it could work to everyone’s advantage. The police need to break down barriers. If someone sees me as Penny, wife, mother, just a woman, then surely that’s a good thing?’
‘I didn’t expect that programme to lead to this but I honestly came away feeling that I’d just found my calling. It’s two-fold. When you live like I do — I know I live in a bubble, in the middle of extraordinary privilege — you try to do your best to give something back.
‘You can write a cheque. You can get involved in charity work. I do. We do. But when I was working with the police it was the first time in my life I’ve felt that something I was doing directly was making a difference. And I was good at it. I have empathy. I can connect to people.’
Interestingly, she also found that standing on her own two feet — having a job that took me away from the norm — was exhilarating.
‘I love those roles. I’m a wife and mother, but I’m not only those things. It made me feel like you do when you leave school, and have to stand on your own two feet. It’s scary but powerul.’ Especially if you have police boots on. She took the boots from the programme home. They have steel toecaps, quite a departure from her usual red-carpet, sparkly heels.
Good on her, but what does Rod think? ‘Well he is a worrier, so when I was doing the filming for the show, which was in Peterborough, he’d be phoning to check I was OK. But he also saw how much I got from it. I think he understands. The kids are the same.
She wears it well! Penny (left) at a gala with husband Rod Stewart (right), who she describes as a ‘fighter’
‘At first, Alastair (who’s 14) said, “Why would you want to do that?” but when I explained, he got it.
‘My parents have obviously been concerned. But I’ll be trained up. No one is going to put me in a situation that I’m not ready for.’
She keeps returning to the subject of diversity in the police. She helped out on a recruitment day recently.
‘What they desperately need is more black officers. Asian too, but it’s the black community that needs to be targeted. It makes sense. When I was out with the officers, I saw first-hand that being a woman could be an advantage.
‘If you have a victim of domestic abuse, say, she is going to be more comfortable if a woman is there to deal with her. It’s the same with any section of society really. A black suspect being arrested by a black officer could make it easier.’
I don’t doubt she has the people skills necessarily — but is she tough enough? ‘Only time will tell,’ she says. ‘I hope so.’
I suspect she has just the right amount of steel in her. Penny is no pushover. For all the princess-in-the-tower suspicions, she is quite down-to-earth in conversation, and has a wicked sense of humour.
She also has experience of being a victim — she was assaulted when she was a child. Ditto bullying. It makes for a more rounded personality than you might expect. Recently, she has been dealing with another physical and mental trauma: the menopause.
‘I had a period which lasted just two days in March, and then I woke up sweating. Then I found out I was in menopause.’
How has Rod dealt with this: ‘Rod’s been brilliant actually, but it’s hard for a man to understand, isn’t it? As well as the sweats, I have to keep explaining why I can become so cross all of a sudden.’
We get on to chatting about family relationships in lockdown. Suffice to say it’s easier to live the lockdown life when you have a country mansion and acres of land.
‘Your heart goes out to people having to school their children in small flats,’ she says. ‘I know exactly how lucky we are. We have all this space. We can get out.’
When the crisis hit, they were holed up in their Florida mansion. Rod’s children Sean (from his marriage to Alana Stewart) and Ruby (daughter of Kelly Emberg) were there, too. Then ‘when the government guidelines said UK citizens should return’, they returned to England.
This time round, Renee and Liam are in the mix (‘Rachel’s kids,’ she explains, referencing his other ex, Rachel Hunter, well aware that Rod’s family life takes some explanation). ‘We have cottages in the grounds, so when they first came they could isolate there, and then after two weeks we could all meet for meals and play football.’
In some ways it’s a hoot. Rod and his children have been playing guitars and singing together, doing charity challenges and auctions — and posting the results on social media.
Many of our entertainers have been having a good and productive lockdown. Rod has been recording again, laying down tracks in a ‘singing booth’ they have installed. Another link-up with a mix of country and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is in the offing.
Being Rod Stewart, evergreen entertainer, though, isn’t enough. He wants to be out there, on stage. ‘He’s a workaholic, so there is a frustration there. He just wants to be out on stage. He feels he’s had retirement forced on him, as his upcoming tours this year have been cancelled, which he doesn’t like.
‘I’ve actually been finding it difficult to get him to social distance. He’s of an age where he is in the high-risk category, and being a man increases the risk, too. He won’t have it. He thinks he’s Mr Invincible.’
Of course he isn’t. In recent times, Rod has gone through prostate cancer, and has had a knee replacement. Penny reveals he now has to have an ankle replacement, too.
‘The doctors say it’s quite usual to need one after you’ve had the knee done.’ Will it slow him down? Will it heck. ‘Nothing will slow him down. Never.’
When they first got together, no one held out much hope that the Rod and Penny show would be a long-running one. With his track record, how could it be? Yet they have been together for 20 years now. They renewed their wedding vows while they were in the middle of their cancer nightmare.
‘It had been planned anyway but then everything happened. It was awful, such a terrible time. It was the shock of it. Rod isn’t like one of those men who will never go to the doctor. He has more check-ups than anyone I know. And yet, when they picked it up, it wasn’t just contained in the prostate. It had come through — but, thankfully, not to the point where it spread throughout his body.’
He had radiation treatment. He coped in a very Rod Stewart way. ‘He just charged through. He said, “Oh well, could be worse.” That’s very him. He knows he’s had a good life, and is very grateful for everything he has. His attitude was, “What will be, will be.”
You — the hold-it-togetherer of the household — found it harder?
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘It’s hard to go through that anyway, but when you are in the public eye there is that worry that you won’t be able to deal with it privately. We were worried about the boys finding out had it got in the news. We never told them. We never wanted to say “Daddy has cancer” until we had dealt with it.’
The entire Stewart clan, including Rod (third left) and Penny (second right), applaud the NHS whilst living in lockdown
Normally, they are an open couple. Rod has since been very open. ‘He tells other men “get the finger up the bum”, urging them to go for check-ups,’ Penny says, shrieking with laughter.
When she chats about their daily life, it’s clear she is in charge. She is the one who does the kids’ schooling. When their personal chef was not able to work because of lockdown, who cooked? It was Penny.
‘I do the practical things but Rod has the vision, the overview. He’s good at delegating. We make a good team. It works because I respect him. He is a great businessman and family man.’
She puts in the effort with the family, too. Imagine taking on all those stepchildren, and the ex-wives to boot.
‘I knew what I was getting into,’ she says. ‘I don’t like to use the word “baggage” because it sounds negative, but from the off, we knew that to make it work we had to be on the same page.’
Their domestic set-up is fascinating, and often hilarious. I ask if Rod is spending more time with his famous train set.
‘You can’t call it a train set,’ she says. ‘It’s a model railway system.’ Alas, no is the answer. The model railway system is at their house in the States.
Is he pulling his weight around the house, though? She says she has been cooking, and loving it (‘I only cooked occasionally because Rod always had a chef and we go out a lot’). I had to break it to the kids, “Sorry, Mummy is cooking.” But, actually, it’s been a revelation. I’m not bad.’
Rod doesn’t cook? Erm. ‘He lays the table,’ she grins. ‘And he will open the wine and light the candles. We are quite formal, all getting together to eat. We have afternoon tea every afternoon at 4pm.’
Gosh. Does Rod vacuum? My hopes aren’t high on this one but, blow me, he does. Or has done. At least once. ‘Well, he will at something like Christmas because he likes things to be tidy. He has been doing the washing-up in lockdown.’
Seriously? Is he a good washer-upper? Erm, again. ‘When he did it by hand things weren’t as clean as they should be so I said, “Darling, I think it would be better to just rinse the plates and put them in the dishwasher.”
And with Penny planning to put in more hours on the beat, there will be plenty of opportunity for Rod to get the practice he needs. Strange times indeed.
Penny has donated her fee for this article to the smaller charities she supports that are suffering in the pandemic.