It's been a while since Sally Ridge has opened a newspaper without feeling a cold sense of dread about what she might read. During the toughest months of her life, the designer and mum-of-four has been in the headlines far too often for her liking. There were the house building dramas and the end of her clothing line, James & August. But nothing could have prepared Sally for the devastating whirlwind of interest and innuendo whipped up around her sudden separation from former Black Cap Adam Parore (39) in late February.
With her most private heartbreak being picked apart by strangers, in print and online, Sally (38) could easily have crumbled. Instead, she made a brave decision that helped her to ignore the rumours and focus solely on what matters most to her - her beautiful children, Jaime (16) and Boston (13), from her marriage to rugby league legend Matthew Ridge, and Astin (6) and oclane (3), from her relationship with Adam.
It was a strategy that saved her. Four months after the split, it's a much wiser and somehow more serene Sally who is chilling out at home with Jaime on a wild, stormy Auckland night, a few days before she heads off to the UK to stay with friends. Not usually one for going out on the town, Sally's newly single status hasn't changed that. The three younger children are with Adam for the night, and the highlight of her evening has been watching Gordon Ramsay roast wannabe chefs on the TV show Hell's Kitchen, with Jaime beside her on the sofa, finishing her homework.
Sadly, this beautiful house is the one she and Adam fought so hard to build, taking on planning wrangles and petitions, believing in their hearts that this would be their permanent family home where they'd raise the four children together.
That hope, like the possibility of a future wedding, was shattered when news broke in February that the seemingly perfect match had suddenly fallen apart. The rumour mill went wild about the catalyst for the split and it has been the subject of much gossip since. But only Adam and Sally truly know what went wrong and, whatever happened then to end the relationship, Sally is refusing to dwell on it for the sake of the children.
"It has been hard and I do have times when I have to remind myself that there's another day ahead. We all make mistakes and you just have to move on from them," she says, revealing for the first time her true feelings about her split from Adam.
"It's how Adam and I are now that matters, and we're great, excellent, really good. I loved him for nine years. He's the father of Astin and Mclane, and I love him for that. I still love Matthew, too, for the same reasons. Life is too short to carry baggage, and letting go of any bad feeling makes it so much easier.
"Not many couples stay together these days and, if you're able to keep it amicable, why wouldn't you? It's so easy when you remain on good terms, like I've done with Matthew. When it comes down to it, Adam and Matthew are part of my life and the kids' lives, and that's how it will always be."
When news of the separation first came out, Sally admits she needed to hide away for a while to come to terms with it. "People can go one of two ways after a relationship ends," she says. "They can either go out and party a lot or they can hibernate and heal. I've been hibernating.
"It has been incredibly hard over the past couple of years, emotionally and mentally. I didn't realise how much I'd taken on board until recently, when it suddenly hit me, what I'd been through. All I could think was, 'Far out!'
"But, at the end of the day, I do believe that things happen for a reason and it ultimately works out for the best." While her split from sportsman-turned financier Adam may have seemed sudden and unexpected to other people, Sally reveals it had actually been on the cards for some time.
"Adam and I were under a lot of stress and pressure. It was a natural progression of the relationship. We grew apart as a couple, but we're still really close as parents. Very little has changed for the children other than they now have two houses instead of one.
"Adam and I are both very hands-on parents, very involved in the children's lives. Adam still spends a lot of time here with the children, hanging out with them, doing family stuff. He picks them up after school. The kids seem to find living in two houses exciting rather than an upheaval. Children can be far more resilient than we give them credit for, as long as you stay positive. They don't need negativity around them; that's what unsettles them."
As part of that, fiercely protective Sally has tried hard to shield the kids from the gossip in the press, which she believes has been unnecessarily personal, hurtful and inaccurate. "It's all been so far from the truth. I get an empty feeling inside when I think of some of the stuff I've read. It's been very upsetting for Jaime in particular because she reads what's been written and worries about what people, especially her teachers, might think. It hurts her - it hurts all the kids, because they adore Adam and I.
"I have the view that if people need to write awful things about me and my life then that's their problem. I am not the person they write about, it's not who I am at all. I know I'm a fantastic mum and that's what counts. I also know what goes on behind my own closed doors - they don't. But sadly, gossips pick up on the tiniest thing and expand it, then they take sides.
"At the end of the day, only the people involved need to know the details. Quite simply, it's nobody else's business." She pauses for a moment, then, with complete frankness, adds, "I'm seriously thinking that I could leave New Zealand, after all the rubbish that's been written. It gets me down."
Bleak moments of wanting to escape are rare for Sally, who believes her new singledom is a precious opportunity to find out who she is. She was swept off her feet by bad boy rugby star Matthew when she was a shy young artist, then found love with suave Black Cap Adam shortly after her marriage to Matthew ended in 2001. Now, at the age of 38, she has the chance to rediscover herself and it's an opportunity she's relishing.
"I've not been on my own for so long, and I became a mum when I was 21. In a way, I've grown up with my kids and now I can find out who I am," she says. The decision to close her clothing line James & August has also been a harrowing ordeal and it's something she cannot discuss. But once again, Sally's making the most of a bad situation.
"My goal has always been to give my kids the very best I can, and I don't just mean material things, I mean emotionally, mentally and by being with them, giving them time. Now I have a chance to spend more time at home with them," she says philosophically.
"I love everything about being a mum. Jaime and I are so close. She is a fantastic kid, my best friend. Boston is a delight, really into his sports and fun to be around. Astin is a thinker, he loves learning, and Mclane is a princess, full of love. She is very attached to Jaime. Tonight, she went up to Jaime so that her face was right up against hers and said, 'I just love you, Jaime.' She is very cute. The children all have great bonds with both Adam and Matthew too, and it works well."
Sally has also discovered a new love of running and now clocks up 8km to 10km on the treadmill every day. "I get up at 5.15am, put the iPod on and start on the treadmill. It's wonderful thinking time before the day starts," she says.
Another love Sally has revived is her passion for art. An art college graduate, Sally first made her mark years ago as a painter, creating huge colourful canvases that became sought-after items among savvy art buyers. Sadly, the pressures of her business projects and parenthood meant she had to put down her brush, although she keeps her creativity alive with her Weekly craft column.
But her lifelong passion for painting is never far from the surface and she's currently working on transforming two plain shop mannequins into fabulous creative artworks. "They're unrecognisable now," she laughs. "I had forgotten how satisfying it is to take on a project like this and work on it until it becomes a final, completed work." Although Sally is a firm believer in seeing something through to the end, she has no regrets that she and Adam, who were engaged for several years, will never actually get married.
"I'm not sad about it. It just is what it is," she says. "Having said that, I actually wouldn't mind getting married again one day - only this time it would have to be the right person, 100% and forever."
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