At 8am last Friday, Kate Middleton completed a tough one-hour training session with an all-female Chinese dragon boat team,then helped carry the heavy canoe out of the Thames in Chiswick, west London. Despite such an early start after partying at London’s Mahiki nightclub until midnight the night before, Prince William’s girlfriend still managed to look immaculate.
“Oh she’s stunning,” says Emma Sayle, leader of the crew, while talking exclusively to HELLO!.
“The thing about Kate is that she’s naturally beautiful. She doesn’t turn up caked in make-up.”
Kate has fitted seamlessly into the team, known as The Sisterhood and comprising successful, down-to-earth, friendly young women. Each member has been introduced to the group through a friend or family – Kate joined in April after a recommendation by Alicia Fox-Pitt, with whom she attended Marlborough College in Wiltshire.
“She’s a gorgeous girl, she’s got an amazing aura about her,” says Emma, who invited HELLO! along to watch a training session. “There’s no diva-ness or anything. She’s just a lovely girl with a great sense of humour, a great personality. She just fits in perfectly. She’s very sporty, yet also very feminine.”
The women take on challenging sporting events – as well as socialising together – and they aim to raise as much money for charity as possible along the way. On 25 August they will be crossing the English Channel in the dragon boat, competing against an all-male team known as The Brotherhood.
All of the crew need to be physically and mentally strong – and Kate has proved to be an invaluable member of the team. “When Kate joined we were very firm that she trained and she was capable, otherwise you can’t justify giving her a place,” explains Emma. “It wasn’t a case of us saying, ‘Let’s get a token celebrity.’”
Kate attends the early morning training three days a week. She will “100 per cent” be taking part in the cross-Channel paddle – in spite of newspaper reports to the contrary – and she and Emma will take turns to man the tiller at the back of the boat.
Emma says that they’ve both been chosen to take on that role because it’s “hard work”.
“The tiller is very heavy and you’ve got to be pretty co-ordinated, because it moves in the opposite way to how your brain works – if you go left, the boat turns right. Plus, you’re moving the boat from the back so you’ve got to have that whole spatial awareness.
“Both me and Kate are big tennis players, so we have the hand-eye co-ordination. Plus, mentally, standing on the back of the boat is tough.
Kate has experience of sailing, so she’s perfect for it. We’ll be mic-ed up so that everyone can hear us giving instructions and keeping people motivated.”
Their longest training session so far has been four and a half hours and they are expected to cross from Dover to Cap Gris Nez, near Calais, in about seven hours. “Dragon boats aren’t designed for the sea,” laughs Emma. “So standing on the back with the waves, one of us could go flying off at some stage. If I knock Kate off the back, I’m not going to be allowed back into England!”
There is a great camaraderie in The Sisterhood, which also includes Bean Sopwith, a freeclimber who appeared inJack Osbourne: Adrenaline Junkie 2, and Debra Searle, who has rowed single-handedly across the Atlantic Ocean, and was awarded the MBE. Alicia Fox-Pitt sits in the boat alongside her sister, actress and fashion buyer Laurella – their brother is William Fox-Pitt, a three-day eventing champion. Goes Emma explains that “what goes on in the boat stays in the boat” and they don’t quiz Kate about her relationship with William.It’s her private life. She probably gets so many people asking about it, but on the boat she can just switch off and have a giggle.
“All of the girls are very successful in what they do – and Kate is one of them,” she adds. “If she had been some stuck-up diva, it would have been different – but she’s not, she’s great.
She’s a very switched on, intelligent, down-to-earth girl.
“There is a lot of gossiping in that boat,” adds Emma. “So we will talk – and sing – our way across the Channel.
Some of us did the Vogalonga race around the Venice canals, and we sang our way around with songs like Rule Britannia and Jerusalem.”
There are 19 in the boat, with two reserves. “Considering there are 21 girls, there has been no bitching,” says Emma. “They might look high-maintenance – they’re a really attractive bunch of girls – but they’re not. You won’t find anyone complaining about breaking a nail.” They have been good-natured about the paparazzi attention they’ve received since Kate joined the team. Photographers are frequently spotted on the side of the Thames and Emma says that Kate copes well with her fame. “And none of the other girls have suddenly started wearing make-up to training or sucking up to Kate.” They are amused by the fact that they have a potential future Queen in their boat. “It’s quite ironic that one of our sponsors, a fashion label, is called Queen,” laughs Emma. “Something like that just sums us up, we’re very tongue in cheek.”
Emma is no stranger to media attention herself – she created a stir by founding two adult entertainment companies. She has also been named in London listings magazine Time Out’s Movers and Shakers list. She now runs a club for extreme sports enthusiasts, Destination Mars, and spends much of her time organising events for The Sisterhood such as cocktail and canapés evenings. “I just love it,” she says. “And mum tells me that I’ve been organising my teddies since I was two.”
Emma founded the crew after taking a group of people to Cornwall last September to take part in a quadrathon. “One of the guys, Richard Pullan, heads up The Brotherhood and said he wanted to do something involving the Channel this year. I was with a couple of other girls and we said we’d launch The Sisterhood and race them. We’ve done an event pretty much every month since.” This Friday, they will hold a fundraising party at the Adam Street private members’ club in Central London – Kate is unable to attend due to a prior commitment. The Sisterhood is also preparing a 2008 calendar, The Art of Sport, in which the crew (though not Kate) will be naked – apart from bodypaint and photographed with various professional sportsmen, including England cricketer Andrew Flintoff.
Two weeks after the Channel crossing, they will take part in the Thames Great River Race. The Sisterhood – including Kate – all socialise together. “We’ll all go for breakfast,” says Emma. “A lot of us live around the Fulham, Chelsea area.
There’s a restaurant we go to that doesn’t normally open until lunch or dinner, but they’ll cook us breakfast and we all end up in there.”
Emma says it helps that all of the women are well connected – they have managed to get sponsorship for their boat, free wet weather clothing and even champagne for their after-race party. Of course, Kate’s participation has helped with the publicity.
“I’m not going to deny that that is brilliant,” says Emma.
They are hoping to raise £100,000 for two charities. One is the CHASE Ben Hollioake Fund, which helps provide support for children who are not expected to live beyond 19, and their families. One of the “sisters”, Catherine Loveless, is the charity’s fund manager.
Emma was influential in the choice of the second charity, The Babes in Arms Appeal, which carries out research into cot death, still birth and infant abnormalities. “They do amazing work,” says Emma, who works voluntarily to promote the organisation. “There are some big charities where you give money and around 90p per £1 goes on fat cat salaries, but with this charity around 95p per £1 actually goes straight into the research.”
The crew has raised around £60,000 so far. As Prince William inherited his share of his late mother’s estate on his 25th birthday in June, will he be making a substantial donation? “Who knows?” laughs Emma. “All of the girls are asking friends and family – perhaps I should have a word with Kate!”
Brunette Kate, also 25, who works as an accessories buyer for high street store Jigsaw, is expected to join William at a secret holiday location soon – he finishes his armoured reconnaissance troop leader’s course in Dorset on 1 August.
While William was involved with his army training last week, Kate was partying at Mahiki on both Tuesday and Thursday nights – but still managed to fulfil her Sisterhood training duties. “That pretty much sums up the girls,” says Emma. “We’re a group of girls with big social lives, but it’s about balancing it out. You can go out till midnight or 1am and as long as you don’t really drink, you can get up at 6am and you’ll be fine.” They are planning a big after-race party. “We’ll be high on adrenaline,” says Emma. “We’ll party hard.