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At Home With Kelly Emberg & Mike Padilla


At Home With Kelly Emberg & Mike Padilla

Posted May 9, 2013

It began as the seed of an idea, one that is now beginning to bloom. Former super model Kelly Emberg, now a Rancho Santa Fe wife, mother of three, interior designer, and avid gardener, is about to debut a national radio show aimed at teaching us how to grow, or at the very least, to appreciate the earth’s bounty. Called “Kelly Emberg, The Model Gardener,” the show will air this spring on iHeartRadio, an Internet radio platform owned by Clear Channel Broadcasting. “I want to inspire people to understand their food,” says Emberg. “That’s where it started.”

Kelly Emberg
Kelly Emberg working in her garden

Emberg’s passion for gardening began when she and her husband, attorney Mike Padilla, moved to their Fairbanks Ranch home in 2007. Padilla built a greenhouse so she could grow orchids. The greenhouse proved too hot for the flowers, but Emberg’s produce thrived, an experience that transformed her. “When I water my plants, the hummingbirds dance in the water,” she says with wonder. “So all of a sudden, it brings you back to the simple things, back to nature.” She soon carved out beds in the couple’s expansive backyard, amending the soil and installing irrigation. Now, almost daily, she harvests colorful fruits and vegetables by the basketful: yellow cauliflower, deep green kale, white onions, red beets, purple kohlrabi, and plump blueberries. There are citrus trees heavy with tangerines, lemons, and the limes that make their way into Padilla’s killer margaritas.

Kelly Emberg
Emberg harvest colorful fruits and vegetables by the basketful almost daily

Emberg’s peaceful garden in Rancho Santa Fe is far from the cacophony of New York City, where fresh out of a Houston high, she signed with John Casablancas’s Elite Model Management in 1978, a move that would launch her career. Her athletic, All-American, girl-next-door-good looks catapulted her onto the covers of British Vogue, Bazaar, Mademoiselle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and Sports Illustrated. Her assignments took her all over the globe — Egypt, Jordan, Japan, Costa Rica, Bora Bora — where she worked with such legends as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Francesco Scavullo, Patrick Demarchelier, and Annie Leibovitz. “I was very young,” she recalls. “And I traveled the world and worked with the best photographers and makeup artists, and really creative people. That also made me who I am today. The reason I have it in my head that ‘it’s possible ‘is because I watched it.”

Kelly Emberg

Emberg’s longtime relationship with rocker Rod Stewart produced a daughter, Ruby, now 25 and a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles. After the couple split in 1990, Emberg bought a house in Manhattan Beach, and studied architectural and interior design at UCLA, working as a paid intern for top Santa Monica interior designer Michael S. Smith. Over the past 20 years, her clients have included such celebrities as Patricia Arquette, Pam Dawber and Mark Harmon, Julianna Margulies, and, ironically, even her ex, Rod Stewart and his wife, Penny. “I was cheaper than other interior designers,” Emberg says with a hearty laugh, a fact that, she says, appealed to the singer’s thrifty Scottish side.

Kelly Emberg
Emberg fills the house with pitchers of flowers

Padilla, who grew up in the Imperial Valley, moved to San Diego to attend San Diego State University and never left, earning his law degree at the University of San Diego. A top civil trial attorney who was twice named “Outstanding Trial Lawyer,” Padilla is a founding partner of O’Mara & Padilla. He and Emberg met through a mutual friend, dating for two years before they were married at the Del Mar Country Club. The couple bought their 8,100-square foot home in Fairbanks Ranch (which Emberg remodeled in just four months) to accommodate their family — her two sons and his three grown children and seven grandchildren. (They also have two dogs, a tankful of fish, and a cockatoo named Jackson.) The couple also blended their tastes, marrying his heavier, Tuscan-style furnishings and oil paintings with her lighter side, including Mucha posters from Paris. To fill in the gaps, the two traveled to San Francisco, buying antiques at auction from Bonhams and Butterfields, and fine 18th century antique reproductions from Burton-Ching. Emberg fills the house with flowers, many grown herself, expertly arranging pitchers of lilacs and sunflowers, sweet peas or tulips. The result of their efforts is a traditional, eclectic home that is both elegant and livable.

Kelly Emberg
Emberg and Padilla blended their tastes

Now, in her 50s, Emberg is still drop-dead gorgeous and physically fit, with a down-to-earth, unassuming manner, boundless energy and a big, hearty laugh. She left the bright lights of Los Angeles and New York behind, but she definitely did not move to Rancho Santa Fe to retire. “I don’t think it’s in me,” she says. “I get excited about life, and I think there are so many possible things to do.” With two careers under her belt, Emberg is busily working on the third, with plans for a television show, books, and branding based on her gardening. Her iHeartRadio show, which can be downloaded on free apps, features step-by-step instructions on how to start and nurture your own garden. There are also interviews with chefs like Andrew Spurgin, farmers, nutritionists, scientists, and Emberg’s modeling pals including another Rod Stewart ex, Rachel Hunter, who is a beginning gardener. “The response [to the show] is so amazing,” says Emberg, “because people who deal with food are extremely passionate about the planet, doing the right things and eating the right stuff.”

Kelly Emberg
The couple’s Fairbanks kitchen

Are you re-inventing herself?” Emberg is asked. “Absolutely,” she says without hesitation. “Always. Why stop? People who are my age, I want them to believe they can do anything they want — there is so much opportunity out there. You just have to want it, and believe it, and go for it big time.” As far as Emberg is concerned, you never stop growing. “One seed,” she insists, “will change your life.” kellyemberg.com   Andrea Naversen

Kelly Emberg



Photography by Vincent Knakal

Three Comments

  • Dr Larence Lassa


    Fantastic!!!! Kelly Congrats! You have come a long way since Westchester Jr : )

  • Jeanie


    You have been one of my favorite women to follow. I model low key, traveled, and lived my life. I use to live in N. San Diego County, but moved to MT 2005. You look stunning!

  • Manny Alvarez


    My blind date with Kelly. In the late 70’s I was a law student in Texas. My class mate worked worked the door of a private clubo on Westhiemer and had a girl friend named Zoie. They set up a blind date and we all met for drinks on a Friday night at the club. When you came in the club Zoie pointed to the door. Your hair was in a pony tail.White pin point cotton shirt,sleeves cuffed, snug fitting denim jeans and a pair of black spiked heals. Almost forty years have passed but not the memory.We had a great time and planned to go out on a date after a trip to New York scheduled for the next day. We kissed good night and exchanged #s. Ironically I was teaching my way through law school at the time and had your little freckle faced sister in one of my classes. She told me you went to New York to interview with the Ford agency. The second date never happened but the memory of our first date has been with me ever since. For me I became a lawyer and Judge in Dallas,even met your dad once an introduced myself he told me you were seeing a musician… Retired to Florida teaching law at the University living in Tampa and married to a wonderful lady . Thank for the wonderful memory Kelly.Manny Alvarez

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