Katie Price has had a set of cards printed, which (when she remembers) she keeps in her bag so that when she sees people staring at her son, Harvey, she can simply hand them one and walk away. The card says: “You’re obviously looking because you’re interested. This is his condition… Look up what’s wrong with him and if you want to donate to a charity that supports children like this, then do it.” It’s an efficient way of dealing with the ignorance and incomprehension that she confronts surprisingly often. She has noticed that the hostile stares are worse in places such as Selfridges and Harrods.
Price – ex-glamour model, reality TV star, heroine of her own endlessly promoted life story, with its relentless updates splashed on the magazine covers stacked by every supermarket checkout in the land – is famous for her brashly outspoken tone. But she is particularly unsentimental in the way she talks about her 10-year-old son, who has septo-optic dysplasia, which causes blindness and growth hormone deficiency; Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder that means he is likely to eat to excess and is prone to obesity and diabetes; as well as ADHD and autism.
Price’s default position on how she has coped with bringing up a child with serious disabilities is a robust, “Well, you just get on with it, don’t you?” Her hopes for his future? “Oh – he’s going to have a shit life. Isn’t he?” she says, laughing and turning to her mother, Amy, and older brother, Danny, who are sitting next to her around the large circular table in her kitchen – a setting familiar to anyone who watches her reality television shows, now in their 11th year. She adds after a pause: “Ha ha. No, I’m joking.” But she’s very blunt in her assessment of the likelihood of Harvey ever finding a suitable job. Her mother is explaining that she thinks, given the progress he has been making recently, she could see him working as an assistant in a garden centre, for example, until Kate interrupts her: “Mum, he won’t be working in a shop at the moment, because if someone says something to him, he’ll turn around and bash them one. We all know what he’s like.”
Her other children, Junior, seven, and Princess, five, have learned to be wary of Harvey, she says. “Any kids that come to the house, they run a mile from Harvey. He might be sitting here one minute, then he’d turn and whack them one because he likes to hear kids cry – he finds it funny.” She says she can’t remember the number of televisions he’s smashed during a tantrum (“Don’t know. Lost count”) and a handyman has just been over to replace the kitchen television, which Harvey broke by headbutting it over the weekend, managing to crack the glass screen, even though it was protected by a shield of Perspex.
This brutal honesty in her description of bringing up a son with profound disabilities is far removed from the whispery way with which the subject is often dealt. She doesn’t like to “pussyfoot” around the issue, she says, and her experience of bringing up her son under the critical scrutiny of the public eye has forced her to develop a toughness that can be a bit disconcerting. It’s less surprising when you remember that when he was first diagnosed as partially blind, at around two months, a newspaper blamed her for causing the problem by partying when she was pregnant; that magazines have mocked her son’s appearance cruelly; and that she has been involved in a long-running dispute with Channel 4 over its decision first to broadcast comedian Frankie Boyle making exceptionally crude jokes about her son, and its subsequent refusal to apologise.
“He basically said that the only reason I married a cage fighter was to stop Harvey from raping me. He’s insinuating that because he’s got disabilities, he’s more likely to rape his own mother,” she says, flatly. She has repeatedly invited Boyle (whom she describes as “that dickhead of a comedian”) to come and meet her son, an invitation that has received no response.
“It’s all right him taking the mickey out of people who can answer back, but Harvey’s a kid and he can’t speak for himself. I need to defend him against that.” She thinks Boyle’s humour stems from ignorance, adding with sharp candour, “If his wife or kids got in an accident and got paralysed from the neck down, it would absolutely change his life, and I’m sure he’d think twice about making jokes about people.”
Beneath the thick-skinned exterior, there is – of course – an absolute, unwavering devotion to Harvey, who comes across as both occasionally difficult and really lovely, and who clearly stands at the centre of his mother’s life, loved not only by her, but by her extended family.
Normally when Price gives an interview, it’s because she’s promoting something she’s selling, and obviously her entire business model is based on her willingness to lay bare uncomfortable bits of her existence for general consumption. Today, it seems that she might really only be talking about bringing up her son because she genuinely believes it’s better if people confront the issue, rather than sweeping it under the carpet. But it’s hard to be certain.
She’s still in the bath when the photographer and I arrive, so we’re ushered to wait in the silver room (thick silver carpet, silver velvet sofa, two floor-to-ceiling mirrors in silver velvet frames and a massive silvery portrait of Price) and her mum comes and chats for 10 minutes about how she’s just got back from three months working with slum children in Goa, until Price runs down the curved stairwell, bursting with friendliness and charm, red nails gleaming, wearing nothing except a tiny white towel. I’m assuming that she’s going to take a while to get dressed before we start talking, but she wants to get on with it, so we move into the kitchen where two hairdressers are waiting to dry her hair.
“I’m going to have the hairdryer on while we talk,” she says, and I say, “Sure, fine.” Which is a mistake, because I haven’t appreciated quite how much hair she has and how long the process takes. Conversation is occasionally rather puzzling, because it goes “I think…” – psshsshshshshs – “What I mean is…” – ppsshshshshssssh – as the senior stylist scorches her hair dry.
Meanwhile, friends and family drift in and out of the large kitchen; at one point later on, there are seven people and Price’s three children milling about, putting on makeup, cooking, chatting around the big marble island in the centre of the kitchen – which, as viewers of Price’s reality television show will know, is themed with snakeskin fittings around the fridge, stove and kitchen units. The TV shows don’t convey the strong smell wafting from the many scented candles that are lit on the counters, and the cameras probably don’t zoom in so much on the disability living allowance application forms and statement of educational needs documentation which is piled up today next to a vast pink makeup suitcase, overflowing with false eyelashes and blusher.
Harvey appears later, after Price has nipped out to collect her younger children (rushing upstairs to put on an explosively orange T-shirt, electric blue three-quarter-length trousers and a baseball cap, and shouting, “I don’t look like the typical mum at the school gates” as she runs out, prompting her mum to mutter a friendly, “Oh my God”).
Harvey rings the doorbell before he comes in, walks to the kitchen and announces: “Harvey close the door.”
“Harvey close the door – good boy,” says Danny, who is also Price’s manager and whom the children know as Uncle Dan Dan.
Price has explained that this is how it will be. “When he comes home, we have to shut the door and he has to ring on the doorbell. If anyone comes to the house, they can’t just come through the back door, they have to ring on the doorbell otherwise he goes mad – he controls everything. Some people would say, why let a kid be so controlling? It’s not that I’m letting him – it’s just him. That’s autism.” Plans have to be explained patiently in advance to avoid distressing him.
“We do have to warn him. If I want to go shopping on Saturday and he doesn’t want to go, I can’t go, because he’d smash the car up and then he’d go for you.”
Harvey makes a wailing noise as he walks through the kitchen to a side room where his toys and computer are laid out for him. “Use your words. Do you want to use your words?” says Lizzie, his calm and experienced nanny. He turns on a synthesiser, which plays a repetitive drum beat, sits in front of his computer, tips out a packet of iced gem biscuits and counts them before he eats them.
The keyboard is specially adapted for visually-impaired children, with big keys. Harvey, whose sight loss is only partial, flicks on to a colouring and drawing program on his computer, and begins a meticulous drawing of a rainbow with a sun, with the colours of the rainbow correctly ordered and every space of the screen sky coloured blue. He spends around 20 minutes, concentrating closely on what he’s doing, talking to himself as he works.
“Thank you, everyone. What an excellent week,” he says, in the voice of an enthusiastic primary schoolteacher. “Thank you, guys. What amazing work today. I think that was great. Well done, everyone.”
He’s silent for a while before starting up again, in a new voice, artlessly catching Kate’s lilt. “Heeeey, hello. Oh my God! So sweet! Well, thanks for coming! Wow!” And a few minutes later: “Thank you very much, everybody. What a good ride and good rollercoaster. I think that’s good. Thanks, guys! What a fantastic day!”
Price has been gone for an hour and a half, and her friends, hairdressers and makeup assistant are still waiting in the kitchen, trying on makeup and discussing the difficulties and expense of ordering a cake in the shape of a Big Mac for a friend’s 50th birthday that night. After a while everyone falls silent; the nanny is getting supper ready at the stove and the five other people sit waiting for something to happen, playing with their mobile phones. The only sound is the occasional “ribbit” noise from Harvey, who is very interested in frogs and spends much of his time drawing them.
“It’s peaceful without Kate around,” Danny says. The friends look up from their phones and smile. “It is, though, isn’t it?”
After half an hour at the computer, Harvey begins to get hungry, so he drifts into the kitchen. “Lizzie, what’s for dinner?” he asks.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” she replies, but he notices a slice of cake in a Tupperware tub and is momentarily reassured, before discovering, to his dismay, that there will also be mashed potatoes.
“It’s time to say goodbye to the mashed potatoes,” he says, suddenly furious, and before anyone can stop him he’s thrown himself to the floor, where he begins to smack his head on the marble, kicks the cupboard doors so violently that they whack again and again against the wall, and wails a high-pitched wail.
The nanny, efficient and cool, pushes everyone to the side and shouts, “Someone get the dog out of the way.” She addresses Harvey in a low, authoritative voice. “Do you want to go to your room?” She reminds him about the slice of cake that they have looked at together. “Where’s that cake?” she says. “I’m putting it in the dustbin.”
This does the trick. He suddenly stops the tantrum and mutters, “Sorry.”
If a tantrum continues, whoever is looking after Harvey will try to manoeuvre him on to his stomach. “That way, he won’t headbutt the floor because he can see the floor with his eyes. We have to move everything away so he doesn’t hurt himself. Kate is brilliant at dealing with it,” Kate’s mother, Amy, says. “If you get through two hours without one, you’re lucky.”
The moment of tension in the kitchen is over quickly, no one is particularly disturbed by it and everyone swiftly gets back to looking at their phones, yawning and flipping the soles of their flip-flops against their feet.
Price says she likes having a crowded house, and her packed schedule helps her cope. “There’s always something going on. That’s the way I live my life, on adrenaline.” Over the afternoon, she encourages her friends to spend the night, get changed at her house, come back for a barbecue on Saturday, return to hang out on Sunday. “It’s good for Harvey to have all that going on around him – I try to make him sociable,” she says. She asks her mum to come over at the weekend; Amy says she’ll think about it, but has a lot of housework to get through and needs to change her sheets.
One reason Price wants to talk about her experiences is to encourage other parents of children with complex needs to seek help and search out parental support groups, because it was only through meeting other parents whose children had sight problems that she really began to understand how she could help her child. “I can’t fault the NHS. Even though when Harvey was younger, I thought they were a bit shit,” she says, and thinks about it for a while as the hairdryer roars. “They were shit, actually. We didn’t get any support. I remember the health visitor who first looked in his eyes, who said, ‘Oh, he’s not really following. I think you need to go and see your doctor.’ So I went to see my doctor, he did the same thing and said, ‘No, that’s not right. I’ll make you an appointment for the hospital.’ We went up there and it was like, ‘Yeah, he’s blind.’
“And my mum and I were like: so what do we do now? And they said, ‘Well, there’s not really anything you can do.’ Do you remember that?” she asks her mum. “And we left there feeling really shit. We were like, can you not help us? Is there any help? Where can we go? We should have been offered support.”
Price claims she never had any difficulty in coming to terms with her son’s condition. “He was diagnosed. It was like, deal with it. We just looked at each other and went, ‘Oh, it’s such a shame.’
“What can you do? I can’t sit in the corner and cry and go, ‘Oh, Harvey’s blind.’ I can’t change anything. I didn’t dwell on it. Fortunately I’m the kind of person that gets on with things.”
But her mum reminds her that she used to respond in a peculiar, brittle way if anyone complimented her on her son. “I remember Kate used to take Harvey out in a pram and people used to go, ‘Oh, what a lovely little boy.’ And she’d say, ‘Yes, but he’s blind.'”
Danny shouts over the hairdryer to add: “Kate says we’re very hard – we just deal with it – but there would have been days when I’m sure she would have curled up and sobbed in her bedroom, facing her pillow.” And Amy agrees: “Me and Kate, we’ve both admitted that we did that, but separately, not in front of each other.”
The three of them are used to performing together, contemplating chunks of Price’s life for the cameras. Everyone here seems so familiar with having an observer around that visitors melt into the furniture and you slip into feeling that you’re watching an episode of her show unfold on television. It’s a very lulling experience, and it can be hard to squeeze in a question, because the performance plays out automatically, with her mother and brother helpfully prodding Price to remember things that might be interesting.
The only thing she admits to being upset by was the suggestion that the disability was somehow her fault. “The newspaper was the worst. They called me a bad mother and said it was my fault that he had disabilities. Anyone who has a child with disabilities knows there could be many reasons. It wasn’t my fault. That was awful.
“When he was first diagnosed as blind, there was a story saying it was my fault. Probably because I was out partying and stuff. People can go out and party. If they actually look at the pictures, I was driving. But they never printed those pictures, so people blamed me. I knew it wasn’t true. But unfortunately people believe what they read.”
She has repeatedly asked doctors about what might have caused Harvey’s condition. “I asked the doctor the other day – is there anything in what people have done during the pregnancy, or anything why they’re like this? And they said no, it’s just a gene in me or Dwight [Yorke, the former Manchester United footballer and Harvey’s father, who disputed paternity until a DNA test showed otherwise]. It’s weird, they don’t really know. It’s nothing I’ve done.”
Danny says that much of his sister’s breezy resilience is a front she’s developed after years of public hostility. “The tabloids in particular have been quite aggressive, so she never shows emotion, never lets it get to her. So when she became a mother, that was kind of inbred. She was so used to having the barriers up to the outside world and that mirrored into her personal life in relation to Harvey’s medical issues,” he says.
When Price gets back from the school run with her children, it’s obvious that she’s fed up with being interviewed; her effusive friendliness has been turned down to polite coldness and she races through being photographed with Harvey. But she agrees to talk for a bit more while her stylist puts on her makeup for the party she’s going to later. Her daughter Princess sits on the marble counter watching the process, which stretches over 45 minutes, whacking on a thick layer of foundation herself, frequently complimented by the makeup artist. Price doesn’t appear to give a toss about the Daily Mail’s outbursts of faux outrage about her daughter wearing lots of makeup, and merely remarks that her son also enjoys putting it on, much to the disgust of his friends at school, and laughs at the silliness of it.
Across the room, Amy and the nanny sit by Harvey at the kitchen table as he eats his supper, displaying his new dexterity with a knife and fork, something he’s learned over the summer while his grandmother has been away; she is tremendously impressed.
“It’s remarkable how much progress he has made, given how low expectations were for him when he was born,” Danny says. “You forget that five years ago he couldn’t tell you what was wrong. We didn’t think he’d ever be able to say, ‘Mum.'”
Price clearly relies on the support she gets from her family. Amy gave up her job 10 years ago to help her look after Harvey. “She said, ‘Mum, I can’t cope.’ Well, she needed help. She didn’t have anyone else. I would do one night, she would do the next, and we’d be up two or three times a night. If Kate wanted a babysitter, she couldn’t get one because there wasn’t anyone who could cope with him. There was no question of thinking about whether to give up work – I had to do it,” Amy says.
She is particularly involved in the time-consuming business of making sure Harvey gets the correct educational entitlements, and goes with her daughter to tribunals, fighting for the correct support, helped by the Blatchington Court Trust. No one responsible for allocating resources to Harvey cares in the least about Price being a high-profile parent, she says. “They’re trying to wiggle out of things. They’re not bending over backwards to help. You’ve got to fight for everything you want. No one will give anything to you unless you fight for it.
“We had to fight for a statement [of educational needs]. We had to go to a tribunal because I didn’t want to put him in a shit school,” Price says. She’s aware that the image of her at a tribunal, arguing over the technicalities of her son’s diagnosis and the severity of his needs, might surprise people. “People think I just do my job, but I am a parent, I am a mother, I have got a life as well away from all the bollocks, as I call it… that industry.”
Earlier this year, they found out that Harvey’s school, where he’s always been happy, is set to close. “We were devastated,” Amy says. “A lot of the parents were crying.” They are now working with other parents to see if it will be possible to set up a free school to replace it. It is an immensely time-consuming process and their first application to the department of education was turned down in the summer.
It’s a fight to which Price says she is committed. “Anyone – able child or not – you want to start them off the best you can in life. Just because you’ve got disabilities, that’s no excuse to think, ‘Oh well, I’ll just put them to the side’ because you think they can’t do anything. That’s wrong – we’ve proved the more stimulation you give them, the more you push, that’s what causes progress.”
She breaks off to focus on her right eyelash, which isn’t sticking on properly. She and the stylist look at it, puzzled, and Price wonders whether the foundation could be stopping the glue from working.
She remains “disappointed” at Channel 4’s refusal to take her side, although she has noticed that since Boyle made similarly ill-received jokes about Paralympians, the channel has distanced itself from the comedian. She still feels that there is generally a willingness to allow jokes about disability to go unchallenged in a way that would be unacceptable if the target were race or gender. Boyle “would have been bollocked” if the joke had been racist, she argues.
Throughout her description of her life with Harvey, Price is at pains to portray herself as just a regular mum who faces the same challenges as any other parent of a child with complex needs. On one level she’s right because, as she says, “I don’t think if you’ve got money it makes it easier. All the money in the world isn’t going to buy him a pair of eyes. All the money in the world isn’t going to change his autism.”
But on another level, this is frankly delusional, because having money obviously cushions her against the strains of having a challenging child in the family – it pays for the extra space; for the huge garden where Price’s boyfriend, Leondro Penna, can take Harvey riding on a quad bike; it pays for specialist computer equipment, specialist childcare, holidays abroad, a cinema room, extra help so that she can pay attention to her other children; and it makes the frequent need to stock up on new flatscreen televisions something Price can laugh about.
She won’t accept that wealth makes a difference. “Not at all. You get respite care anyway. There’s lots of support,” she says, revealing a very hazy grasp of the way local authority cuts are slashing services. “As for the TV, well, I’m sure everyone’s got home insurance and you can get it on that. At the end of the day, money doesn’t buy health, does it?”
But it does help in securing Harvey’s future, and she’s built what she describes as a cabin on a patch of land near the stables where she hopes he will live when he’s older. She is wary of residential homes, has seen plenty of grim documentaries about them, and remarks, “There are a lot of evil people out there.”
Besides, she doesn’t want him to go anywhere. She says several times, “He’ll always live at home. He’s not leaving me.” She doesn’t see her other children as taking any of that responsibility from her in time. “It’s not their role to be carers. They’ve got to enjoy their lives. I’m the mother. I deal with it. I’m the lioness and they’re my cubs.”