MEETING Petra Stunt (still better known as Ecclestone) — and, actually, meeting her daughter, a bright little moppet with blond curls who comes along for our conversation — is a lesson in wealth and health.
Petra is the younger daughter of the former Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, a man whose worth is estimated at £2bn. She is therefore, at 28, among the richest young women on the planet. And her daughter, Lavinia, at four, is the liveliest member of our meeting in a Knightsbridge hotel, expounding on mermaids in a way that makes me wonder if they really are “fake news”.
Yet their fortune could not protect Petra from a near-death experience with meningitis when she was 13. It also could not protect Lavinia from struggling with learning to talk from babyhood. “Money can’t buy happiness,” Petra tells me, “it buys things.”
However — and this is a big guilty “however”, which led Petra to her mission in life — money does affect what happens after a health problem. She and her daughter are living testimony to that. Petra already supplemented the NHS programme on meningitis; now she is now attempting to fill a hole in the treatment of British children with autism. In doing so, she has found a way out of the isolation riches forced upon her.
“It doesn’t matter how wealthy you might be, it doesn’t stop you getting sick,” she says. “Money can come and go, but the health of your children is the most important thing in life. We’re all born the same way, we die the same way, whether rich or not. The rich may be able to employ more doctors, but . . . ”
The “employ more doctors” phrase here is crucial. In Petra’s case, when her “flu” started to take a more serious turn, her mother — a Croatian model — had the money to call a private GP to the family home in Chelsea. Then her father, so used to fast cars as entertainment, got behind the wheel in fear and raced his daughter to hospital. Her rapid decline was halted by a traumatic week in hospital, a month bed bound, and Petra was left scarred only by the story that has made her feel both lucky and wary for the rest of her life.
She loathes hospitals to the extent that any white modernist rooms in her gigantic residences in Chelsea and Los Angeles — when she bought the latter for $85m in 2011 it was the most expensive house sale in the world — are redecorated in sombre tones. Her brush with death has made her an unusual member of the modern super-rich. When I ask what her illness changed about her she replies, “A huge deal,” and starts with the little things. “I don’t like travelling. I hate staying in hotels. I don’t deal well with any sort of public space.”
She does not post photos of her children online. “To me, that’s creepy. I don’t want the whole world seeing what my children look like”
Tamara Ecclestone — who has, by contrast, appeared in her own TV series, Billion $$ Girl, which showed her taking her dogs to a pet spa for facials — calls her sister an old soul. Petra speaks sincerely, with a ghost of a London accent mixed with mid-Atlantic vocabulary.
Straight from a half-term holiday in the Caribbean, Lavinia joins us as she was too tired for nursery. For now, Petra lacks vanity: she has her mother’s thin, runway frame but today she sports her father’s fierce eyebrows, scrunched-back hair and wears a mum uniform of tracksuit, snacks and toys like a pro. She does not post photos of her children — she also has a set of boy twins, now two — online.
“To me, that’s creepy,” she says. “I cut myself off. I have a private Instagram, with ten people. I don’t want the whole world seeing what my children look like.”
What weighs heavily on her mind is that money may have saved her life. “I was lucky enough, a Sunday afternoon, to have a private GP to come to the house, it was caught at the right time. Other people out there aren’t.”
Since she came into her fortune, she has donated significantly to meningitis causes and paid for every new mother to get a card alerting them to meningitis when they go home from hospital.
She met her husband, the entrepreneur James Stunt, at 17 and married young in a £12m extravaganza at an Italian castle (the wine served was £4,000 a bottle). After her lonely stint at a London private school, the marriage was a way for her to retreat to a tiny circle of intimates that she could trust.
Is extreme wealth isolating? “I’ve learnt you can’t trust so many people,” she says. “I have a close group of friends, my husband, sister, the kids.”
She shared a bedroom with Tamara as a child (her mother tried, unevenly, to keep them grounded, between the yachts and boy bands at their birthday parties, by enforcing the household chores). One defining memory is of waking befuddled and alone and going downstairs to find police in the house and blood on the floor. Her father, who would become top of the news for his links to Tony Blair’s government, had been attacked defending his wife from robbers. Petra was eight. Thefts are a constant worry: Petra has had half a million pounds’ worth of jewellery stolen from her house.
But her life has turned darker in the past year. In September her brother-in-law was found dead at his parents’ home in Surrey; the inquest is due to start next month. Her stepmother’s mother was kidnapped in Brazil and threatened with decapitation if Bernie Ecclestone didn’t pay £28m (he did not, she was rescued). Her home in London was hit by an arson attack — “it was pretty bad, it doesn’t normally happen in Chelsea”.
Does she feel her wealth makes her a target for violence? “I think it’s just been a bad few years,” she says. “That’s part of it. Another part is just having bad luck . . . In the last two years there has been so much happiness with the kids’ arrival, but a lot of drama.”
Petra quit the luxury handbag business she started. Having children meant she wanted to squirrel herself away in her Los Angeles home. She knew how she was judged by the British tabloids. I press her to summarise. “That I’m spoilt, that I went shopping too much. That I just live off my parents’ money as I don’t really have a job.”
Yet, at this point, she started to worry about her daughter. As a toddler Lavinia didn’t verbalise as her peers did and was becoming highly frustrated as a result. Petra tells me of her mortification when her daughter had a meltdown at a private members’ club for young families in London. “They took away my membership . . . I was like, this place is insane. But since then I have realised never to judge anyone’s parenting.”
Petra’s maternal instinct sensed something was wrong. In London on a visit, she went to a doctor with her concerns. “Because she was unable to talk at a certain age [when] other children could, she would get frustrated, she would have tantrums, I was pregnant, she was hard to manage. He just said: ‘Get a nanny.’ That was his reasoning. Yes, I was exhausted, but I wanted to get her help.”
In Los Angeles, the attitude could not have been more different. America has pioneered an approach of early intervention for the treatment of autism and other conditions. This is based on the theory that the brain is more plastic the younger the child is. Although her daughter does not have autism, and nor does anyone in her family, Petra found herself attending early-intervention centres and became fascinated by the approach.
“I realised in England there is very little for kids who need early intervention,” she says. “Spending time in America with my friends that were affected by it, I saw the support they got out there. But in the UK they turn almost a blind eye to it in a young child. They say things like: ‘Oh, give it time.’ ”
She loved it in Los Angeles but her husband persuaded her to come home to London. “It’s because of my husband’s business and that’s about it.” James is quite the character. He owns a gold bullion company that was raided by police investigating a multi-million pound fraud last year — he believes the company was targeted by thieves. He collects Pétrus wine, despite being teetotal, and drives in convoy around Chelsea in two black Range Rovers, two Rolls-Royces and a Lamborghini, all with personalised numberplates. “Definitely my husband is an extrovert character,” she says, with a smile to mark the understatement.
“The smallest things I took for granted in LA, but my husband is different. He’s like: ‘Who wants to live in Disneyland?’ He likes the cold, the fact it rains, but he’s not the one pushing the stroller in the rain,” she says. Petra only employed a nanny after the twins were born and that was “literally for someone to hold the other one while I was breastfeeding”. She sometimes allows herself to go to the gym when they are napping.
Her husband drives in convoy around Chelsea in two black Range Rovers, two Rolls-Royces and a Lamborghini. “Definitely my husband is an extrovert character,” she says
Once back in Chelsea, she realised her mission. She likes the NHS. Her top-quality experiences as a normal punter at the Chelsea and Westminster accident and emergency department puts to shame Cedars-Sinai Medical Center emergency room in Los Angeles, “where you wait hours on end”. On an individual level, the expertise of doctors and early-years specialists “in the NHS is even better” than in America.
“That side of things is great,” she says. “But just this aspect: they don’t start young enough. The most vital time for the brain is up until seven or eight, when you can get the biggest progress. I love the UK, but they are behind America in this. There is no cure for autism. But they haven’t realised what helps the child. You get on a waiting list, you don’t know where to go, you lose time.”
So, PS Place, named for her initials, will open this autumn near her home in South Kensington. Not exactly the area of greatest deprivation but Petra hopes it will service Londoners before establishing a chain across British cities that may “grow to about ten”.
It has, so far, been funded by her. She will not disclose how much she is donating. It must be considerable. Directing operations are two doctors from America who are expert in early intervention. I ask her why she has not teamed up with British autism charities, some of which already support this kind of work. She replies that she wanted to import the intensity of the American approach. “There are obviously companies out there, but I haven’t found an amazing place that offers all the different interventions under one roof.”
Thirty children with suspected autism will be offered fully funded help from 18 months old. Choosing the few will be heartbreaking. All Petra will say for now is that they are looking to meet the “greatest need”. Something that felt like levelling the playing field will seem unfair in a cruel new way, but still.
All this, of course, is fairly predictable — heiress turns to feelgood charity work. It’s another aspect of privilege. She readily acknowledges it but it’s hard to knock when the motivation is heartfelt and the need great. Petra tells me that when people meet her they find her “different, less extrovert”. That’s true, but she has found a way to connect with the world. Her daughter “had speech therapy at these clinics. I met all different families with different children affected by it. You get so affected and drawn into it, bonded with those mothers’ suffering.”
The early intervention “is not like it works overnight, but it really did help”. Now Lavinia has to get her mother to translate only occasionally what she is saying, which is very endearing to watch.
For more information visit petrastuntfoundation.com