Penny Lancaster says she found her TRUE calling. What does Rod think?
Penny Lancaster’s colleagues wondered how long she’d last as a Special Constable – but as she proudly passes out, she says she’s found her TRUE calling and prefers the grit of the beat to the glitz of the red carpet. But what does Rod think?
Penny Lancaster is talking about how she polishes her police boots. Her enthusiasm for the shine you can get, if you polish properly, is quite extraordinary.
‘They taught us to do it like they do in the Army. Same process. You rub the wax on with your fingers, then it goes cloudy and flaky. You spit on it, or you can use water on a sponge, rub it in and let it dry, then with special cloth, tight round two fingers like this (she is demonstrating), you firmly rub round at a whizzing speed. The shine you get is incredible. It’s like patent leather.’
Mr Penny Lancaster — aka rock legend Rod Stewart — has wandered in, bearing non-regulation Mini Magnum ice creams (bless him!) and an adoring but slightly bemused expression. You get the impression that Rod has heard a lot about police boots, polish and the rest.
When he leaves again, she leans over and confides: ‘I get carried away. Sometimes Rod says, ‘Right, that’s enough police talk.’ I do go on and on and on. I can’t help it. It just excites me. It’s changed my life.’
And how. This week, Penny — perhaps the most unlikely law-and-order recruit since they let Private Benjamin into the U.S. military — attended the passing out parade, which marked her official qualifying as a Special Constable with the City of London Police.
This week, Penny Lancaster — perhaps the most unlikely law-and-order recruit since they let Private Benjamin into the U.S. military — attended the passing out parade, which marked her official qualifying as a Special Constable with the City of London Police
She wore her shiny dress shoes (also perfectly polished) and a shiny smile to go with them. Last April she received her all-important police badge, which she thinks is ‘the proudest badge of honour I’ve ever had’ — but didn’t get the opportunity to participate in the passing out parade because of Covid.
She wore very little make-up and her hair was scraped back severely. She demonstrates that one too. ‘It’s not just about looking neat. At the beginning I was told my hair was too loose because there were bits poking out.
‘You have to roll it into a bun, like this. It’s not just an aesthetic thing, it’s so that if someone attacks you they can’t pull your hair.’
Rod, her parents and her younger son Aiden were there to watch Penny march alongside one other Special and 20 regular officers (full-timers) at Guildhall, London. The matching drill training (at Wellington Barracks) for the all-important passing out parade ran over five days and the newly qualified constables were warned before the big day that they might feel overwhelmed by the occasion.
‘The instructors have all been in the Army. They are very, very strict. Beforehand, they apologise for having to shout at you.’
She shouts herself to demonstrate. ‘ATTEN-SHUN!’. I half expect Rod to fall into line, with another batch of ice creams.
Her police journey began in 2019 when she took part in one of those seemingly throwaway celebrity challenge programmes which fling famous folk into worlds they seem ill-equipped for. This one was called Famous And Fighting Crime and involved celebs having a whirl at being bobbies on the beat.
Doubtless Penny — former model, most famous for her long legs and jet-setting lifestyle — was picked for the potential entertainment value.
Actually, she came into her own: not only was she deemed a very good police officer, dealing calmly with being threatened by a junkie with a needle, but she loved the experience. ‘Rod said he’d never seen me like it. He said it reminded him of when he went on stage — that same proper electric buzz.’
I remember interviewing her at the time, and her confessing that she’d signed up to the specials —the volunteers who support regular officers and have the same powers — ‘for real’, with a view to doing it long-term. As if . . . I thought. Yet here we are, with her telling me what it feels like to comfort a vulnerable person, such as a young man on London Bridge, to make an arrest, to support a distressed woman who fears her drink has been spiked. This is ‘as real’ as it gets. She nods. ‘I’m hoping I can do it for nine years. That will take me to 60.’
Penny has been putting in regular shifts in London’s Square Mile over the past one-and-a-half years. Special Constables commit to serving 200 hours a year; she is averaging 350.
Mr Penny Lancaster — aka rock legend Rod Stewart (right) — has wandered in, bearing non-regulation Mini Magnum ice creams (bless him!) and an adoring but slightly bemused expression
They are unpaid (‘although we can claim our train fares’, she says. This is a woman who is used to travelling on private jets!). She acknowledges the sheer ‘craziness’ of her double life. ‘One day I’ll be on the red carpet at some do thinking, ‘Last night I was putting handcuffs on someone in custody.’ ‘
This dual existence was perhaps best illustrated when the Queen died. Penny had been due to fly to Los Angeles to meet Rod, who had been on tour out there, and cancelled her plans. Duty to Queen and country trumped everything.
She was at RAF Northolt, in her shiny boots, as the Queen’s coffin was flown down from Scotland. ‘A very long day — 17 hours. A lot of standing about interacting with the public. I felt my age at the end of the night, but what an absolute honour to serve on that day.’
She was on duty again, on The Mall, right by Buckingham Palace, as the Queen’s coffin began its journey to Windsor. I think she might cry when she is talking about this, not just because she is recalling the emotion of the day, but because her own sense of involvement, of upholding the oath she made, was overwhelming.
‘It was the ultimate example. On the day she died, we all got the message saying London Bridge Has Fallen [the official code for the Queen dying], and they were asking what duties we were available to work.
‘We were reminded that we’d taken an oath to serve our Queen in the office of constable. For me — for every police officer — the ultimate way we could serve was to be on duty for her funeral. It was the greatest honour.’
And the day after the funeral? She hopped on that jet to Los Angeles. ‘It was quite surreal. I was thinking, ‘Did that really just happen?’ ‘
You can be cynical about celebrities who bang on about ‘giving back’ but the interesting thing about Penny’s extraordinary life trajectory is that she openly admits that being a police officer is not just about duty to country.
She finds it personally rewarding to walk the beat, and return home ‘just exhausted. The armour is very heavy’. She even likes the yukky bits. I ask if a drunk has ever been sick on her shiny boots. ‘Oh yes, that has happened,’ she says.
Why does she believe she is a good police officer? She thinks for a while, concluding that she always had it in her (although with her legs most people never saw past them). ‘When I was young, people did always look to me, maybe because I was always the tallest in any group. I’d get pushed forward — ‘Come on Penny, you do it’. I think I’m quite a calm person, good at talking to people, and our training tells us that our most effective weapon is our voice.’
Also, let’s not forget, she’s a 51-year-old woman! People might scoff, but she argues this demographic can make for a great police officer. ‘All your experience dealing with children is helpful.’
She has other empathy and life skills too: in recent years Penny has been campaigning for more awareness about the menopause. She went a bit off the rails herself as hers kicked in, but it’s significant that she joined the police at this stage of her life. She was searching for something, she says.
‘You know what it is like. You are at that stage thinking, ‘Who am I? What is the meaning of life? What am I for?’ Lots of women go through it. I certainly did. I found my meaning in a place I didn’t expect to — the police. Now, it’s such a big part of my life. It’s my family. The sense of belonging, of purpose, is incredible.’
The job sounds as demanding as it gets. ‘I don’t know how full-time officers do it,’ she admits. ‘I don’t know how you have a family at home and still do the job, day in, day out, yet they do.’
She can’t go into too much detail, but she admits she was ‘floored’ when her training detailed how one of her main roles would be to patrol the bridges in her patch.
Yes, we are talking suicide prevention here. ‘It’s not just about being called to emergency situations, but simply being a presence. You do have people coming up to you, who are feeling desperate. If you can be a reassuring voice, you can make a difference.’
The young man she helped was a student. There have been others since. ‘It opens your eyes to life. You do see such despair. Members of the public often want to help. Being a police officer means that you see the good and the bad.’
She tells me she has made her first arrest, and will soon have to go to court to give evidence — another first. It was a drug-driving offence and she was ‘utterly petrified’. That reading someone their rights — ‘the caution’ — has to be drilled in. ‘I learned it and learned it until I was saying it my sleep, but when it came to do it for real, your mind goes blank. I got through it though.’
She has clearly loved challenging people’s perceptions. ‘My colleagues have told me they were saying, ‘I wonder how long she’ll last?’ I appreciate them being honest about that. Most were thinking it.’
What of her husband and family? It’s one thing to wave her off with a TV crew, another to see her disappearing out the door for a night shift. Surely they must worry she won’t come home again.
‘Every police family has it,’ she says. ‘In our station, every time I go on shift I walk past a row of pictures of officers who have been killed in action. PC Andrew Harper’s picture is there [PC Harper was killed in 2019 while responding to a burglary]. I touch it every time I walk past.’
She has got to know his widow Lissie as part of her work with the police charity COPS (Care Of Police Survivors), of which she is patron. ‘It’s hard to explain that sense of the police family to someone who isn’t in the police or military, but I feel it strongly. Everyone has each other’s backs.’
It’s still a sacrifice for your own family, though. Her sons — aged 16 and 11 — and parents are all supportive, she says. But how on earth is this compatible with a rock ‘n’ roll wife’s lifestyle? ‘Maybe it wouldn’t have been in my 30s,’ she jokes, ‘but it’s a bit different now.’
She was at RAF Northolt, in her shiny boots, as the Queen’s coffin was flown down from Scotland. ‘A very long day — 17 hours. A lot of standing about interacting with the public. I felt my age at the end of the night, but what an absolute honour to serve on that day’
What of Rod, though? He has a certain reputation (as a rock god) to keep up with? ‘Ha ha ha,’ she says. ‘I’m not responsible for his actions. I can only advise.’
Dare we ask if he likes the uniform. Nudge, nudge. She looks stern. ‘We established quite early on that it’s not that type of police uniform. The trousers are very unflattering. They are so thick, because they are designed to protect you if you are wrestling someone to the floor.’
She does admit that her police career has rather taken over their household, what with all the boot polishing going on and them being unable to watch police dramas without Penny leaping to her feet and saying ‘that’s not what would happen’. She adds: ‘Rod is great. He has been so supportive from the off, but there are times where he has had to say to me, ‘Remember you have duties at home, too.’ ‘
Good on her, though. The overwhelming feeling, in her presence, is that this is a woman who has finally found her path. Don’t members of the public who recognise her feel weird, though? It’s one thing having ‘that Penny Lancaster’ in the back of your cab. Quite another to have ‘that Penny Lancaster’ waving her finger in your face if you are drunk and disorderly.
‘Sometimes it helps,’ she says. ‘A lot of what we do is about diffusing a situation. I have been in situations where I’ve gone in and the person involved has gone, ‘Are you Penny Lancaster?’. It breaks the tension.’
There have been a few funny moments. ‘Once, a lady had fallen over. She was a bit tipsy and we were waiting with her. My colleague explained that we were Special Constables. She said. ‘Specials? Oh, Penny Lancaster is one of those.’ My colleague said, ‘Have you ever met her?’ and she said, ‘Oh no’, while he was nodding in my direction.’
Tasers are going to be introduced for Specials for the first time, which she would like to train for. I ask if she ever wishes she’d joined the force earlier, maybe from school. She can’t, hand-on-heart, regret her own route. ‘You do look back on the modelling and it all feels a bit superficial now. Some of it is a bit shallow. Everything is about how you look, how you sell a product. But at the same time it was a good income, it allowed me to travel the world.’
And presumably it would have been harder to meet Rod Stewart in those police boots, however much they gleamed.
- Penny’s fee for this interview will go to the COPS charity, which supports the families of officers and staff who have lost their lives on duty (ukcops.org).
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