'We still have the same connection that we had when we met'
Penny Lancaster won the heart of rock star Sir Rod Stewart 17 years ago and their relationship - his third marriage - has stood the test of time. She tells Gabrielle Fagan how they keep the romance alive
When they met in 1999, cynics dismissed Penny Lancaster as just another leggy blonde in the turbulent romantic life of Sir Rod Stewart - especially considering the 26-year age gap between the two - but as the couple prepare to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary next year, she declares proudly: "We're happier than ever."
They've already renewed their vows - in a ceremony last month at their home, an 18th century estate in Essex - but the re-staging of their 2007 wedding in Portofino, Italy, will be the grandest romantic gesture by the rock idol for the woman he describes as his 'soul mate'.
"Rod's extremely romantic. I'm so very lucky. Keeping the passion alive is very important to both of us," says Penny, 45, who met her 71-year-old husband (who already had two failed marriages and six children) when she was a 27-year-old model and aspiring photographer.
Such a complex personal life would have daunted many women. Instead, Lancaster embraced it and now describes herself as the extended family's "sort of Mother Hen - a fixer and problem solver". She and Stewart also have two sons together, Alastair (10) and Aiden (5).
"Ours is the longest relationship Rod's ever been in, so that's a record. Rod and I still have the same great connection we had when we first met. We're particularly good at communicating with each other and very open about how we feel. We're never shy about expressing our opinions to one another, and that prevents having rows," she reveals.
"We also make a dedicated effort to regroup and connect as a couple in the midst of the madness of our life, which is crazy busy sometimes with his career. It might be breakfast or dinner or a weekend away together, and it's very important."
Lancaster even insists their age gap is part of the secret of their success. "It helps that Rod's older - I've always preferred older, more mature men, and he's such a gentleman," says Penny, who became Lady Stewart when her husband received his knighthood this month, although she says her title will be reserved for formal occasions.
"It was an unforgettable day, and I'm so proud of him. You initially fall in love with someone and have an idea of your ideal man. Rod's fulfilled all and more of what I wanted. He's in his 70s, but when you say that age, you don't picture a person like him who travels the world, constantly touring, producing albums and being an amazing father.
"He works out four times a week, plays football with our boys and certainly isn't like an old dad who can't keep up. Retirement's not a word in his vocabulary - he loves what he does - if he has anything more than five days off he starts crawling up the walls! He's vigilant about his health and is younger and fitter than most men my age. Also, he's so goofy at times - like a schoolboy - and I joke I have three boys to look after."
Her care and support extends to the wider family she inherited when they got together. Rod's marriage to model Rachel Hunter, with whom he has two children, Renee (24) and Liam (22) crumbled after eight years, just months before he and Penny met in 1999. He has two children from his five-year marriage to actress Alana Stewart, Kimberly (37) and Sean (36) as well as a daughter Ruby Stewart, (29) from his relationship with model Kelly Emberg. He was also reunited with his eldest daughter Sarah Streeter (52, who was given up for adoption) a few years ago.
"It's taken time to blend the family together, but like any good relationship, you've got to build from the roots up and take it slowly. That's what I've done. When I met Rod and was introduced to them all, I was determined to be myself so they could accept me for what I am," says Lancaster.
Their own positive experience of blending the family and, for Sir Rod, later-life parenting, led them to encourage his long-term friend, Rolling Stones legend, Ronnie Wood (69) who already had four children and one adopted son, to have children with his 38-year-old wife, Sally Humphreys. She gave birth to their twins, Gracie Jane and Alice Rose in May.
"We said, 'Look Ronnie, if you're going to marry a young girl, she's going to want to have babies. And even if young girls say at the time, 'No, no, I don't mind', then they hit a certain time in their life and really do want a child. Thankfully, they did have them - we can't wait to meet the girls. Ronnie and Rod are so close and are like peas in a pod. It's incredible when they get together - they sort of morph into one person," she says fondly.
The Essex-born model who, in 2002 became the face of lingerie brand, Ultimo, won a legion of fans in 2007 when she appeared in Strictly Come Dancing and currently relishes her role as a regular panellist on ITV's Loose Women, a series she joined in 2014.
"I've never tried to be anything I'm not, and this is a great platform. Yes, I'm Rod Stewart's wife, but I'm still a woman, approaching the menopause, experiencing issues with children or their schools, just like millions of other women," says Lancaster, who's often been entertainingly candid about their life together while on the show.
"There's laughter, tears and moments when I show my vulnerability, and I hope that helps other people. Rod loves me being on the programme, so I don't feel I have to hold back. I was very shy and under-confident when I met him, but he's always encouraged and supported me. Rather than him feeling, 'I'm the star and must have the limelight', instead, he always wants to push me forward, and constantly says how proud he is of me."
Despite originally finding fame for her looks, she has no concerns about ageing. "The only time I've ever been conscious of my age was when I was trying to have children, which proved difficult, but thankfully I have my lovely boys now," says Penny, who's launched a new public health awareness campaign, Transforming Eye Health, with Specsavers and the RNIB.
"I focus on trying to stay fit and healthy, and am conscious of my diet. I've cut down on pasta and bread as they make me feel bloated, and I start every day with a glass of hot water and lemon juice. I used to be a manic gym person, but since having children, there are other priorities, so I rely on always being on the move - rushing around after the boys and travelling the world.
"This is a wonderful time in my life. Rod and I have such a great understanding - we're both totally honest with each other. There are no games, and we show each other care and respect. It makes for a very happy family life."
Penny Lancaster, vice-president of the RNIB has launched a new public health awareness campaign, Transforming Eye Health, with Specsavers and the RNIB. Visit www.specsavers.co.uk or www.rnib.org.uk