Few among us could move seamlessly from balancing on a single vertiginous Jimmy Choo stiletto in a silver mini-dress with a kitchen whisk in hand to strapping on steel toe-capped boots and heading out on patrol with the police.
But flitting between a glamorous photoshoot and a gritty shift on the beat is all in a day’s work for Mrs Rod Stewart – with no fuss, no nonsense and certainly no pretension.
As soon as today’s photoshoot finishes, Penny Lancaster is packing her heels and her silk Dolce & Gabbana evening gowns into a suit carrier and swishing out of the dressing room, trailing her wheelie suitcase packed with her pressed police uniform behind her.
There’s no time for any diva-esque behaviour – she must be suited and booted bang on 4pm to go out with her fellow officers. ‘Sometimes I have to pinch myself,’ says Penny, the stunning 6ft 1in model and Loose Women panellist.
Penny Lancaster is preparing to take part in Celebrity MasterChef
‘Like today. I’m in all these glamorous outfits, and then I’ve got to get to the police station on time. I’m on duty tonight, doing road traffic duties, and I’ll probably finish at 11pm.’
She was inspired to join up after appearing in Channel 4’s Famous And Fighting Crime reality show in 2019, in which celebrities were trained to provide assistance to regular officers.
Afterwards Penny, who turned 50 in March, put her money where her mouth was and embarked on a rigorous eight-month training course, eventually qualifying as a special constable with the City of London Police. Now she’s out on the beat once a week, doing her bit for society and raising the positive profile of the force.
She’s become just as at home on the mean streets of London as she is on the red carpet or lounging around poolside at the Beverly Hills, Palm Beach and Essex mansions she shares with Rod, even if the uniform doesn’t quite fit like her designer dresses.
‘I know it serves a purpose and it’s not a fashion show, but the trousers are the worst fit and they’re super-thick, like cardboard, because they expect you might be rolling around and grappling on the floor. They don’t fit where they’re supposed to fit,’ she says, holding them up.
‘One of the girls advised that maybe I should try the men’s trousers as they fit better. I’ll have to give them a go but it’s a lot of heavy stuff as you’ve got your metal baton, cuffs, radio and everything else as well as the stab vest.
‘This is my shirt,’ she says, pulling it out. ‘I stick my police constable badges on my sleeves and upper chest.’
She doesn’t have her boots with her, but rather wishes she did.
Penny on the beat in June
‘I like to wear open-toed shoes like my Jimmy Choos for photoshoots because I’m uncomfortable in pointy sandals, but even they’re not as comfy as my police boots,’ she laughs.
Penny has largely managed to go unrecognised on patrol as the uniform makes her look like any other ‘regular’. Does she feel like a regular though, and not just a star craving a dose of reality?
‘Yes I do. Putting a uniform on is like putting a disguise on, it’s like an escapism too. Occasionally people do recognise me but they’re very respectful. They just say, “Oh, Penny, hi.” And I say hello back because we’re all human.
‘Just because my husband and I are in the position we’re in, it doesn’t make us any better or different than anyone else. What I try to portray is that the police are the public and the public are the police.
‘My only concern was how my fellow officers might have treated me as they could’ve been a bit wary. But I’m bona fide now and they’ve welcomed me into the family.
When Rod washes up he says, ‘Elton would never do this’
‘I hear them saying, “She’s one of us,” because I’m completely down-to-earth when I get in there just as I’ve always been, honest and straight up. I absolutely love it.
‘Even though I’m calm and collected, I describe myself as a kind of force of nature in that I always run towards the danger.’
The latest danger on Penny’s horizon is taking part in Celebrity MasterChef (which is why she’s brandishing a whisk for the photoshoot), competing against 19 other stars including actresses Su Pollard and Michelle Collins, presenters Melanie Sykes and Joe Swash, former model Katie Price and TV journalist Gavin Esler.
Broadcast over six weeks, the series will feature new cookery challenges designed to stretch the celebrities’ ability to its limits, as well as special guest judges including Nisha Katona and the Michelin-starred Nieves Barragán and Tom Kerridge.
‘My friends said, “Penny? MasterChef? No!” But I like to take on a challenge, that’s why I married my husband. It’s one thing being able to prepare a dish and thinking, “OK, I’ve got this” but there are daily challenges with no rehearsal. It’s just, good luck and give it a go.
Penny (pictured) joked that she agreed to take part in Celebrity MasterChef to escape the rigours of home-schooling her and Sir Rod’s two children – Alastair, 15, and Aiden, ten
‘There were moments where it was more stressful than I thought it was going to be, but I’m so grateful for getting to know Melanie Sykes because we went through the stressful bits together and really had each other’s backs.’
One of the show’s new challenges, Under The Cloche, gives each contestant a different ingredient to showcase in a dish. Penny got lemons.
‘I like adding a little squeeze of lemon but this had to be predominantly lemon. I was at a loss really, the first challenge nerves got to me.’
But she rustles up a decent lemon and herb roasted cod, with mini Parmesan baked potatoes and broccoli with lemon zest, served with a white wine cream and lemon sauce.
TACO NIGHTS IN FLORIDA
Rod’s eldest son Sean taught Penny his signature dish during lockdown in Florida. ‘He said the one thing he was really good at was doing a Mexican dinner,’ Penny recalls.
‘So I said, “Show us how you do it.” We all mucked in, everyone passing the stuff around the table to each other, and Rod saying, “Pass me the envelopes,” meaning the taco shells.
‘ Everyone was coming together which was great because when you have staff doing all that it separates everybody off. It’s rewarding to provide food that brings everyone together – it gives you a warm, tingling feeling.’
And Penny’s culinary skills have been appreciated.
‘One of my friends asked my boys, “What’s been the best thing about lockdown?” and they both said, “Mum’s cooking.”
‘So when I was offered MasterChef, they said, “You can do this, Mum,” even though I’m just a recipe follower.’
In another round, The Dinner Party Challenge, contestants must cook food they’d create at home for friends, and Penny serves up an impressive pan-fried fillet of sea bass with cumin-spiced ratatouille, pine nuts and raisins, and a basil pesto with sweet potato chips.
‘My husband’s tried it and he loved it so that’s a tick for me,’ she says.
She jokes that she only agreed to take part to escape the rigours of home-schooling her and Sir Rod’s two children – Alastair, 15, and Aiden, ten – but in fact it was because Rod’s Scottish chef Stuart was off the scene because of lockdown that a whole new skill set was required.
‘I met Rod 21 years ago and he’s always had a chef,’ she says.
‘That’s kind of the ultimate in luxury, isn’t it? We’re very fortunate to have him work for us four days a week. So on his days off, and especially during lockdown, we didn’t have a chef for a while and I thought, “Well, I’m going to have to up my game.”
‘When the chef’s not around, you can get away with doing the boys’ breakfasts and lunches. But I could never cook to the level my husband expects because he dresses for dinner every night.
‘We eat in the main dining room with the candelabra lit, with proper place settings and music. It’s always a very romantic dinner, three courses.
‘There’s a lot of preparation and everything else so I wouldn’t have time to do all that stuff. But lockdown changed things, so I started going through recipe books and trying new things. It was a bit nerve-racking, but I just started off doing a taco night and a curry night.’
Not any more though, as Penny’s stint on the show meant she now has a few go-to fancy dinner dishes she can trot out.
‘There were some dishes I did on MasterChef that I keep redoing, like the sea bass. I was even thinking of having a dinner party for friends to come and watch the show when it airs and I’ll actually cook the food I’m cooking on the show. How fun would that be? And they could judge it!’
Penny’s at pains to stress though that Rod will not be joining in the cooking, just the dining.
‘Rod has nothing to do with food. He likes to lay a nice table. He’s very good at saying, “Darling, I’ll take care of the table and I’ll sort the drinks out.”
Penny and Rod in London in 2019
‘Throughout lockdown we gave each other jobs, so I’d say, “Rod, you’re going to help with the washing up afterwards,” and he kept saying, “Look at me! Look, film me, take photographs. You wouldn’t see Elton John doing this.” He wanted a medal for it,’ she laughs.
‘But when I start cooking I say, “Right, everyone leave Mummy alone,” and I put my music on, get a glass of something and zone out. It’s actually quite therapeutic.’
Could it be that chef Stuart is now almost redundant? ‘Not at all. He’s back, and I feel a lot more confident stepping in knowing that I have a little helper in my back pocket because I can say to him, “This is what I want to do, what do you think?” Then I’ll test it on him and he’ll make suggestions about adding this and that.
‘When I do my police service once a week, the night I’m out he’ll always make Rod a Scottish dish or something I wouldn’t like. He’ll do haggis, black pudding or liver and onions, so Rod looks forward to that.’
I wanted to have children, and Rod knew that from the start
That said, Rod, now 76, never seems to put on an ounce. He’s stayed around 12st throughout his life despite his three-course feasts. ‘I’ll eat a whole bar of chocolate whereas Rod will just have one square,’ she says.
‘Maybe it’s because of the singing, you’ve got to keep your diaphragm empty, so he’s trained himself in that sense. And then he works out five times a week.
‘He’ll have a meal in front of him, eat so much and then say, “I’m full up.” Whereas I’ll eat everything and then finish his. It’s terrible.
‘I’ve put on so much weight, not just because of lockdown but I’ve just got this extra amount of anxiety that’s come on because of the menopause.
‘So food has become a sort of comfort thing for me, almost like a hug, like, “It’s all right, Penny, just feed yourself.” Will I have a dessert? Yes, and then I can’t stop myself.’
CHICKENS, GOATS… NOW ROD WANTS SOME LLAMAS
Penny’s number one job is her family and she’s something of a supermum. She not only juggles her careers as police officer and presenter with Rod’s tour dates, but also has a firm grip over their home life in Essex where she keeps goats, chickens, three horses, two budgies and two dogs.
‘The chickens were my saviours in the first lockdown and then I got the goats for the second. Rod’s very encouraging – even now he’s saying, “Maybe we should get sheep or llamas.” But my mum, who lives nearby and does everything when we’re not around, says, “OK, so who’s going to look after all the animals when you go away on holiday?”’
It’s hard to imagine Penny covered in mud amid the menagerie and easier to picture her in flip flops by the pool. How does she do it? ‘It’s like jumping between cars.
‘Rod’s got a Rolls, a Ferrari and a Lamborghini, but we’ll also happily jump in our old white van with its wind-down windows,’ she explains.
‘I’ll have high heels on, then be putting my steel toecaps on. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it makes life way more interesting.
‘Rod’s very down-to-earth. He’s happy chatting to a taxi driver and then sitting next to royalty. So when we go out we don’t wonder what the dress code is.
‘We like to dress up, but equally Rod says, “We’re going down the pub, we’ll just wear a tracksuit.” We don’t live this glamorous life all the time. Most of our life is very day-to-day, whether it’s sitting with the chickens, ploughing through emails or doing the school run.’
She laughs when I mention Rod posting pictures of himself doing a garage clearout during lockdown dressed all in white.
‘White is Rod’s black. He’s got the biggest white wardrobe. He hadn’t got up thinking he’d clear out the garage. He was in his whites and then the moment just took him and off he went.’
She’s being too self-deprecating. Her endless legs are taut and toned, her skin flawless and her blonde hair voluminous. She’s 50 but still effortlessly rocks a mini-dress. ‘I’m fit,’ she admits.
‘I work out three times a week and then I’m out on the beat. I did 17,000 steps one night, carrying that really heavy armour as well.
‘I keep moaning about my weight and Rod says, “Darling, you’re gorgeous in my eyes, I love you.” But I think that’s not good actually because if he said, “Sweetie, you’ve got to start looking at yourself in the mirror more often and you can’t wear that dress as it doesn’t fit properly,” I’d be mortified, but I’d do something about it.’
Rod begins performing again in October, with dates in Las Vegas, and he’s been writing songs for a new album during lockdown. Naturally there’s one dedicated to his wife.
‘During lockdown Rod lost his other family, which is his band. They’re all living in America and that separation was really tough. But he was writing songs like a beast, with piles of books of lyrics.
‘I think the song is called Precious Memories and in it he sings, “You were gorgeous then and you’re still gorgeous now.” We’re lucky, aren’t we?’
They are indeed, with 21 years of partnership and 14 years of marriage under their belts. Part of that is they both still enjoy a mischievous sense of fun, as well as a solid family life with their children, who range in age from 41 to ten.
So what did it take to tame Sir Rod, who’s been married twice before and has eight children by five mothers? ‘He’s a rock star and everyone adores him,’ smiles Penny.
‘I never imagined in the beginning it would be what it is today, who would? But I’d just come out of a nine-year relationship and wanted to have some fun and not make too much of a point of wondering what was going to happen in the future.
‘I think what worked for us was we had quite a long-distance relationship for the first year. After I stopped modelling at 25 I became a mature student.
‘I was studying photography in England and he was living in America full-time so I’d fly out at half-term. Otherwise we’d just be on the phone endlessly.
‘I knew he had a great love of Pre-Raphaelite art and we had the same book which we’d flip through together.
‘Rod also loves making buildings for his model railway so on tour, for example, we’d be on the 16th floor of a hotel looking over all the rooftops in New York or Chicago and Rod would be pointing out all the fire escapes and water tanks and I’d be taking pictures so he could replicate them on one of his models.’
But Penny always wanted to have children, even if Rod already had a brood. ‘The only thing I knew I wanted to have one day was children and Rod knew that from the start,’ she recalls.
‘But we just had fun and then he grew to love me enough to say let’s make babies. Alastair came easy, first time, boom, there he is. Then it took a couple of years and three IVFs to make Aiden. So that was it, I couldn’t possibly do that again.
‘And we’ve got all the other children as well, which was especially lovely in lockdown as we got to spend so much time with them, and they really did bond.
‘They never referred to each other as their half-sister, half-brother from another mother and all that, they just said, “My brother, my sister.” I’ve now recognised there’s something about half-brothers and sisters that’s sometimes a stronger bond than with your natural brothers and sisters. It’s very special.’
My police boots are comfier than Jimmy Choos
Despite having houses in California and Florida, Penny considers Essex to be their true home.
‘We’re most grounded there because all of our family are there. We have family members that work for us. Rod’s older sister Mary is around all the time, so are his brothers Don and Bob.
‘We’ve got a couple of cottages on the property so we had Renee and Liam [Rod’s children by Rachel Hunter] and their other halves to stay when we got back to England a month after the first lockdown.
‘We couldn’t mix but we could meet outside so we’d have afternoon tea by the badminton net or Pimm’s by the table tennis,’ recalls Penny.
‘I was trying to find things for Rod to do because he’s not good at sitting still. Every day there was a different itinerary and I was texting everyone, “We’ll meet here at 4 o’clock.”
Penny cooking up a storm for our photoshoot
‘In the end my husband said, “Penny, will you stop with the Butlins?” So I just went silent for three days, then I was getting these texts saying, “What’s happening tomorrow?” I told Rod, “See, someone’s got to pick everybody up.”’
And therein lies Penny’s forte –she’s the go-to person in a crisis, which is why she makes for an excellent police officer.
‘Whenever there’s a problem, people tend to turn to me because I tend to stay calm and collected and see things from both perspectives.’ In many ways, she says, her training as an officer has been cathartic.
‘I’ve gained more confidence on the beat and I see myself doing it for ten years. I used to feel anxious going out. I’ve had all the training but we just never know what’s going to happen. I feel I’m ready for it though, and I feel safe and protected.
‘Aiden said, “Mummy, do you have to do this police thing at night?” So I talked him through it all and how half the time we’re dealing with victims, not chasing after bad guys.
On the beat you never know what will happen
‘When I was in Famous And Fighting Crime I attended an incident where I had to give chest compressions to a guy who had a heart attack. They didn’t show it on the television, but he didn’t make it and I was working on a dead body.
‘I’m quite good at following instructions and taking all the emotion out of it. Afterwards I cried. But the police force are really good as well because they help you deal with your emotions after any traumatic event.’
She feels transformed by the experience so far, and even Rod’s stopped worrying as he’s seen the difference Penny is making.
‘He’s got over the initial nerves of, “I’m not going to be able to sleep until you come home.” I can’t really message him on the job, but I always text him when I get back to the station to reassure him before he puts his head down so he doesn’t need to wait for me to get back home.
‘He sees the joy I get out of it. But now he also sees my confidence. And he’s proud I’m raising the positive profile of the police and helping support police charities.’
Penny is also patron of Care of Police Survivors (COPS), a charity dedicated to helping the families of police officers and staff who have died in relation to their duty.
By comparison, MasterChef must have been a bit of a breeze, so what’s Penny’s biggest fear? ‘The only thing I’ve been nervous about in life is saying no. You’ve just got to turn up,’ she insists.
Celebrity MasterChef returns to BBC1 and iPlayer next month.