Millions saw the former England captain's heartbreaking documentary about bringing up his three children after his wife's death. Then he met reality TV star Kate Wright, who became their stepmother at 26. She tells Louise France about grief, love and why she's written a book.
It wasn't the big TV or the glossy white breakfast bar or the floor-to-ceiling windows that caught the viewer's attention in Rio Ferdinand's Bafta-winning documentary Being Mum and Dad. It was how empty the footballer's mansion felt.
The absence of the former England captain's wife, Rebecca Ellison, was palpable. We heard heartbreaking taped messages from Rebecca in hospital to the children ("Love you loads and loads and loads. Sleep in my bed if you want"). This was a brave film about grief – Ellison had died in May 2015, within ten weeks of finding out her cancer had returned. She was 34. Here was Ferdinand with their three children – Lorenz, Tate and Tia, who were 9, 6 and 4 – and they were all traumatised in their own different ways.
Six and a half million people watched the documentary when it aired, another three and a half million more on catch-up when word went round about how moving it was. It showed a different side to the former England and Manchester United defender and football pundit. A vulnerable side even Ferdinand might have been surprised to see come spilling out on television. He described how as a professional player he forensically cut off his emotions. How he'd been blindsided by grief. Had tried to deal with it by hitting the brandy bottle after the kids were in bed. Understood why people would feel suicidal. How he felt helpless seeing his children mourn. Ashen, his tears flowed and every time he wiped them away, more came. He looked wrung out in every sense.
Perhaps, too, he was knocked sideways by the very process of making the documentary. There was a sense that the opportunity to talk – and to weep and meet other grieving men in the same situation – provided some kind of catharsis. Maybe even a turning point.
Cut to a beach in Dubai, a few months later. The documentary had been made but not yet screened when Kate Wright met Ferdinand on holiday. Her friends had met him on the plane. "That's Rio Ferdinand," one of Wright's mates whispered. (She says she had no idea; she never watched football. "Growing up, we didn't even have sports channels on TV. Obviously I knew the name, but I didn't recognise the face.") But they got on. "We just clicked. Straight away."
Before she died Ferdinand's wife had told a friend that she wanted her husband to meet someone else. It was his sister, Sian, who asked Wright if she could take her number for him.
"Maybe I was a bit naive," Wright says, looking back. "There was so much that I had to learn and understand."
We're sitting in a photographic studio. Wright, dressed in a cropped sports top and leggings, is curled up on a sofa, under a fleecey comfort blanket that she often takes with her (Ferdinand has an identical one, as do each of the children). In some respects she epitomises what we might think of as a WAG. She already has a clothing line. Now she is launching a health and fitness book, her first foray into publishing. Before she met Ferdinand, she was playing out a souped-up version of her private life on The Only Way Is Essex. Her on-off relationship with her co-star Dan Edgar meant they were dubbed Essex's answer to Ken and Barbie. On her Instagram page there are carefully curated pictures of her, phone in one hand, other hand on her tiny waist. She is curvy like an egg timer and looks knockout in a bikini.
So far, so predictable. Behind the scenes, this has not been the usual former footballer meets reality TV star story. It was more than two years after Rebecca had died. When news first broke that Ferdinand was dating someone – and a personality from Towie at that – there were a few snide comments. There may have since been all the trappings of a millionaire footballer's lifestyle, replete with Christmas in the Maldives and a three-day wedding bash (including photoshoot in OK!) but when she crossed the threshold of that same Kent mansion, Wright's life changed dramatically.
In the glare of publicity, she was hooking up with a man fast becoming a public figure beyond football – not only had he become Britain's best known single dad, he was in the process of writing a very moving book about grief, campaigning against leaving the EU and knife crime (he knew Stephen Lawrence, growing up in south London), visiting schools and prisons. Ferdinand, then 38, may have been through the most terrible loss but family life – and someone to share it with – was familiar territory. Wright was 26 and had no children of her own. She was taking on the task of looking after someone else's children, who were desperately missing their mum. By anyone's reckoning, it must have been daunting.
"I don't think I realised," she says now. "I just thought, I can adapt. I'll be fine. Then after a while, I thought, wow, this is hard." Especially when, not long after she met Ferdinand, his mother, Janice St Fort, died suddenly too, aged 58.
"That was a big double loss. Rio was fragile, really fragile … She had been like a mum to the children when Rebecca passed away. It was really difficult – even more grief." Her eyes fill with tears. She started to stay over more because the children couldn't bear for her to leave. "They thought something was going to happen to me too. It was a very, very difficult time. There was a lot to take on … When you see kids for small bits of time you can't see the grief. It's only when you're with them all the time that you can understand."
Falling in love and having to deal with a grieving family at the same time was surreal. What's clear is that – never mind the snipers and the trolls – Wright has taken her new responsibility very seriously. Partly, possibly, because of her own childhood – she is an only child, brought up by her divorced mum.
It wasn't long before she moved in for good – everything was speeded up because of how much the family was going through. What was the hardest thing? "Simple things, like I forgot to cut their toenails," she says, underplaying how much her life had changed. "I was so busy trying to do everything perfectly and someone pointed out they needed their toenails cut. Or cooking. I couldn't cook very well when I met Rio and the kids. I would burn everything. And kids are honest, aren't they? I would go, 'Is it nice?' and they would say, 'Not really.'" There was a Mummy's Chicken and a Nanny's Chicken – neither of which she had a clue how to make.
On one car journey, back from seeing friends with Ferdinand and the kids, there was an argument. The same kind of argument all blended families might recognise, but this one came freighted with loss. "You don't know," said one of the children (she won't say who). "Because you're not a mum." She recalls, "The minute they said it, there was a gasp. They've never said it again. I'm not their mum. But I act like a mum and I see them as my children."
Soon after meeting Ferdinand she gave up Towie. "I just realised I couldn't be a good stepmum and be on a TV show full of little disputes and arguments and be out of the house six days a week. It wasn't healthy for the children to read headlines about me." Some of her friends said she was mad to give it up.
None of them were going through anything similar. They either didn't have children or were having babies of their own. Six months before she'd been the bubbly one with the bikini body on reality TV. Now she was doing the school run; the new woman in a house fraught with emotion. She decided to go to a therapist when she realised how lonely she was – the family was suffering and she wasn't always coping. Like Ferdinand in the documentary, she knew she needed help.
"I've had lots of counselling," she says. "I felt like I was taking on a lot of their grief. I wouldn't know what to do when they were crying about their mum. At the same time I knew I couldn't bring her back. I felt I was bottling everything up and trying to be perfect for the children. But the more I did that, I couldn't be a good mum to them. I had so much going on in my head.
"What I had to learn is that the grief comes at times you really don't expect it to." In four days' time it will be Ellison's birthday and they will go to the cemetery with her family and take balloons and cake. But it isn't then the children will get upset. "It comes at random moments. It's when we're sitting on the sofa and Mummy's favourite song comes on the radio." You can't prepare for it, she says. They have invented coping mechanisms. Tia has colour codes for her mother and grandma. "She will say green or purple because those were their favourite colours. When she says that I know she needs to go somewhere and talk."
In the house there's a special room where the children have put pictures of their mother and grandmother. "Rebecca and Janice are present in the house. We talk about them every day," she says. "I don't want them to say, 'Kate, we never talked about Mummy.' I want it to be the opposite of that." She says she is never competitive with Ellison's memory.
"I love the children too much. I want what's best for them, and what's best for them is remembering their mum and not denying it."
It's the mental health aspect of exercise that she champions the most in her book, Fitter, Happier, Healthier. She talks about growing up with anxiety: "The smallest thing would happen and it would play on my mind. The same thoughts would go around and around in my head. Exercise seemed to help." The book is eminently relatable, despite the fact that for her going to the gym means stepping into the tailor-made exercise studio at home, usually with a former Premier League footballer in tow.
There are non-faddy, easy to cook recipes and a well-explained and do-able exercise programme. Sensible, accessible, with a smattering of shots from her Instagram account, it would be a great book for social media-obsessed teenage girls and young women who are fascinated by TV stars but unsure about their own bodies.
Wright talks about having bad skin, hating her legs, being embarrassed about her top-heavy figure (no surgical enhancement here, she is adamant). She recalls binge-eating when she was growing up but this is not a book about losing weight. Wright says, "It's more about having a healthy life. I've yo-yo dieted. I've done everything. I always struggled with my weight. I felt I was big but I wasn't. Maybe I had a bit of body dysmorphia. This has been years in the making – me feeling happier and more relaxed with who I am."
She grew up in Hornchurch, Essex, and had her own experience of stepmothers – her parents divorced when she was three and her electrician father remarried several times. She was, she says, "cheeky and distracted … naughty" at school. "I was quite tricky, partying from a pretty young age. I started going to clubs in the West End as a young teenager. I'd wear a halter-neck bra that would make my boobs look even bigger. Take it from me – there was no need for that." She was working as a PA in the City when she was approached to go on Towie. Ferdinand never watched it.
In September the couple got married. (She went to the gym on the morning of the wedding: "It calmed my nerves.") It was a three-day bash at a five-star hotel in Turkey, with music by R&B singer Ashanti, flown over in secret by Ferdinand. "I cried as soon as the day started. There was just no going back on the emotion," he told OK! magazine (he kept his sunglasses on for fear of everyone seeing). His sons walked their stepmum – or bonus mum, as Tia calls her – down the aisle. Tia was maid of honour. All the children made speeches – "Everyone was emotional. Everyone was crying. To have the kids stand up and make a speech in front of everyone was so moving …"
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Ferdinand made a speech – in many ways, as a result of what he's been through, he sounds far more in touch with how he feels than he was in his first marriage. "I know a different Rio to everyone else," she says.
"He was on his own with the children for two years before he met me. He has had to change a lot. We always say this, but I don't think we'd have clicked if we had met before."
She says Tate ended his speech with, "I love you Dad and Kate … and when's the baby?"
"They really do want us to have a baby, but we'll see. At the moment we're just enjoying being a unit." These days the former footballer's pad is busy again. "We call it the crazy house," says Wright. On any given weekend, Tia will be getting ready to go horse riding. Tate will be rapping or going to football practice with his brother. On a weekday morning there's the dog to walk and the kids to get off to school, homework packed.
"I know what you do, but I don't know how you work," Ferdinand memorably told the washing machine in his documentary.
"I still have to remind him to pick up his pants," says his second wife.
It sounds like a (fairly) normal life has resumed. Good for them.
Fitter, Happier, Healthier – the Ultimate 4-week Body Transformation Plan by Kate Ferdinand is out now.
Written by: Louise France
© The Times of London