Meeting the parents: it’s a fraught business at the best of times, but when you’re a middle-aged divorcee with three kids and your new boyfriend is 18 years your junior, just imagine the tension.
We have, on the distaff side, expertly blonded and Botoxed Caroline Stanbury, 44, friend of the royals, socialite and millionaire businesswoman, being introduced over a less-than-relaxed restaurant meal to the man who could be — who knows? — her next father-in-law.
Caroline’s boyfriend, all rippling muscles and taut torso, is Sergio Carrallo, 26, a Porsche-driving former Real Madrid footballer with a master’s degree from an elite university and legions of female admirers of child-bearing age. And goodness me, the encounter with Sergio’s dad in his native Spain is not going well.
‘I don’t think it’s any parent’s dream, is it: their golden boy going out with a woman who’s more the age to date his dad?’ observes Caroline with some asperity. ‘In fact, we looked like we were a couple having dinner with our son.’ Sergio interjects: ‘Dad offered me a good amount of money — anything I wanted — to give Caroline up.’
‘I think he thought I was a crazy old woman desperate to walk down the aisle with his young son or keep him as some kind of sex slave,’ puts in Caroline. ‘I was floored. I thought I was quite a good catch. But then I thought: “Imagine if it was one of my boys — I wouldn’t like it either.”’
Caroline has twin sons, Aaron and Zac, aged ten, and a 14-year-old daughter, Yasmine, from her 18-year marriage to her fabulously wealthy ex-husband, Cem Habib, 45, who works in the oil industry and splits his time between a mansion in Wentworth, Surrey — the former marital home — and Kazakhstan.
Multi-millionaire socialite Caroline Stanbury, 44, has twin sons, Aaron and Zac, aged ten, and a 14-year-old daughter, and lives just across the hall from her toyboy boyfriend, former Real Madrid footballer Sergio Carrallo, 26
But back to Meet The Parents and that meal: ‘I said to Sergio’s dad: “He can leave whenever he likes.” And then I asked if there was any money on offer for me to go, too.’ She’s joking (I think.)
Meanwhile, what was Mama Carrallo’s reaction when her adored Sergio broke the news that his new girlfriend was old enough to be his mum?
‘She actually cried, and not in a good way,’ recalls Sergio. ‘She said: “Why do you have to do this? Why not get a normal life with a younger girl and build a family?” And I was like: “But Mum, I love her!”
‘She said all this before she met Caroline. But now she has and she’s super in love with her,’ cries Sergio with puppy-like enthusiasm.
‘When you see a woman my age with three children taking your 26-year-old son, you basically have a complete heart attack. I just think she hopes it will all fizzle out in time,’ adds Caroline, who is a little more battle-weary than Sergio in matters of the heart.
Before she was married, she was linked to a diverse range of men, from Prince Andrew (although she has always insisted he was merely a friend of her parents) to Hugh Grant — no romance there either, apparently — and footballer Ryan Giggs.
Caroline is wonderfully frank — both to me and Sergio — about her beauty regimen, which is extensive. ‘I wanted Sergio to know exactly what it takes to make a 44-year-old woman look like this,’ she tells me
I’m talking to Caroline, star of Ladies Of London, a reality TV series which showcased the lives of our capital’s stupendously rich, from her new-ish home in Dubai. She lives there, in a sunny apartment, with her three kids, while Sergio has decamped to the flat next door. (In the United Arab Emirates, pre-marital cohabitation is illegal.)
Caroline’s PA rings to defer our Zoom chat by 15 minutes because ‘we are getting Caroline ready’, which makes me think of the grand levee of some French monarch attended by dozens of courtiers.
When she emerges, she looks ageless, like an animated Barbie doll — plumped lips, flawless skin, eyes fringed by false lashes. She has the figure of a teenager: long, coltish legs, pert bosom; not a hint of wrinkle, sag or cellulite.
Caroline is wonderfully frank — both to me and Sergio — about her beauty regimen, which is extensive. ‘I wanted Sergio to know exactly what it takes to make a 44-year-old woman look like this,’ she tells me.
‘I thought: “As soon as he sees me with grey hair or without my make-up, he will be out of here.”
‘Let’s face it. It’s not going to get any better, is it? And if he can’t accept it, he should walk. But he doesn’t care!’ she adds.
‘So I took him to one of my sessions with my doctor. They were injecting fillers, Botox — and he passed out!’
Before she was married, she was linked to a diverse range of men, from Prince Andrew (although she has always insisted he was merely a friend of her parents) to Hugh Grant — no romance there either, apparently — and footballer Ryan Giggs
‘Oh my God! I ended up on the floor with someone feeding me macarons to get my blood sugar up,’ wails Sergio. ‘I hate her with make-up on! I love to see her natural beauty.’
‘I’m a fake tan, bleach-blonde girl and he’s not going to take that away from me,’ says Caroline waspishly. ‘I have an image to keep up. I’m the face of lots of cosmetics companies here in Dubai.
‘I’ve had my boobs done, Botox, filler in my cheeks, my jawline sculpted. There are little extensions in my hair. It’s my job. I’m paid not to age gracefully.’
There is something bracing about her candour — no one likes women who’ve clearly been surgically enhanced telling you it’s all down to healthy living and yoga.
She is equally honest about her relationship with Sergio, which she defends robustly. ‘If I was a man you wouldn’t bat an eyelid,’ she says.
‘We’re definitely in love. Sergio is incredibly mature for his age. If anything, I’m the lunatic.
‘There’s a lot of sex,’ she adds. ‘His testosterone is through the roof!’
‘I want sex all the time,’ confirms Sergio. ‘I used to burn off a lot of calories when I was playing football, so I have to find another way. Sex is the way and I need to score!’ he laughs.
‘And I tell him to slow down,’ adds Caroline dryly.
‘She is British, I am Latino. She likes me more from a distance,’ Sergio explains.
‘I agree,’ chimes Caroline. ‘He’d like to sleep like a koala bear on top of me, but I over-heat.’
‘She says: “Oh my God, I’m too hot!’ Sergio verifies.
‘Are you perimenopausal?’ I ask and Caroline pauses to explain to Sergio what that means. ‘It’s when your insides start shrivelling up. But I’m not. I’ve been to a clinic and had all my bits checked. I’m not perimenopausal. I’m just hot.’
I’m agog at the intimate turn of the conversation — and there’s more. ‘I’m going to propose to Caroline, so get ready honey. Obviously at some point I want to build a family, too,’ Sergio announces.
‘But I’ve already got three kids, three dogs, a chameleon and a tortoise!’ protests Caroline.
On cue, a dog barks and one of the twins — arriving home from school — waves at Sergio on his Zoom screen. He’s about to go into a business meeting and is chatting from the lobby of a hotel room in front of an exuberant floral display, looking gorgeously groomed and handsome.
‘I’ve told Sergio I’m probably too old to have more children. We’ve had the discussion. I said: “What about a surrogate?” But I don’t want to be the oldest mother on the planet,” and he said, “You won’t be.”
‘It sounds ridiculous until you see us both together, and everyone who’s met him loves him,’ she goes on.
Has she looked to a future when she’s old and he’s still in his prime? ‘I’ve thought about what he’ll do when I’m 80. He’ll have to bejazzle my wheelchair,’ she jokes.
She’s faced a slew of online vituperation, of slurs that her ‘toyboy lover’ wants something from her, but she defends the relationship forcefully.
‘He’s not here for the lifestyle or my money. He was a professional soccer player, for goodness’ sake. (He played for Real Madrid’s under-21s.) He has his own money. There were women on tap,’ she says. ‘And he’s amazing with my kids. He’s so sporty, it’s insane! And he has so much energy!
‘If we’re on the beach, he doesn’t want to lie on a sunbed. He wants to play with the kids. And they love him.’
There really is something endearing about her admiration and his palpable devotion to her.
They bicker like a long-married couple, interrupting each other — occasionally she ticks him off. ‘Stop talking!’ she commands when he gets a bit carried away with the ‘she’s so amazing’ shtick.
‘The very rich’, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once noted, ‘are different from you and me,’ and Caroline and Sergio are not, indeed, like the rest of us. Their gilded lives feature luxury global travel, holidays on private yachts, dates in South Africa and breaks in the Maldives. Their paths first crossed a while back when Caroline was at Newport Beach, California, touring with her ‘all-woman empowerment show’, Divorced, Not Dead.
‘Sergio was in the audience. I don’t think he understood what he’d signed up to see,’ she laughs.
Sergio had by then lived at Newport Beach for three years, studied there for his masters’ degree — in media and global communications — and was establishing himself in venture capital.
He and Caroline got chatting; she had him in mind for a friend of hers. Sergio had other ideas. ‘I was the one pushing for a date,’ he says. ‘I had to lie about my age to start with. I said I was 31, because I knew she wouldn’t talk to me otherwise. I have a house in Marbella and I went there that summer. Caroline, by coincidence, was staying there (in the city) with a girlfriend.’
The friendship evolved and, when Covid struck, Sergio faced a stark choice. ‘I knew we might not meet again for months. So that was when I went to see her in Dubai.’
‘Covid sped everything up,’ Caroline says. ‘He came over to see what it was like. We asked each other: “Are you in or out?” and he moved in next door.”’
It was, indeed, a radical change in life for him. Abandoning California, he has set up home and started a new career in the food and beverage industry, his father’s line of work, which is coincidental, because Caroline is from the Vestey food producers’ dynasty.
‘I really do love her!’ he says. ‘She’s strong, hard-working and she has a beautiful heart.’
Caroline, meanwhile, is a realist. ‘I’m not thinking about when I’m 60. Why does everything have to be for a lifetime? We’ll have a wonderful time until we don’t any more.
‘In the meantime, we’re very much in love and we’re having a wonderful time.’
You might imagine Caroline’s parents Elizabeth and Anthony, the former managing director of Jaeger, the high-end fashion group, would have balked at their daughter’s new relationship.
Apparently, however, they couldn’t be happier for her. ‘They love him!’ she says, thrilled. ‘My father’s only words were: “Be happy, darling.” We went to stay with them (the family has a manor house in Dorset). They’re conservative, but also modern. Besides, I’m 44: what are they going to do — ground me?’
Sergio was, he says, ‘excited’ to meet them and not remotely nervous. He points out: ‘I come from an established family, too.’
His grandfather founded ESIC, the prestigious private business school in Barcelona. .
You cannot help but warm to them both with their ardour, their hope; their love.
‘People are sick and dying of Covid so you grab your chance of happiness,’ says Caroline.
‘And the women who criticise me? They’re just jealous bitches.’