The interview all celebrities should give
Emma Willis is tucking into a sirloin steak with peppercorn sauce. “This is my breakfast,” she tells me. We are in a buzzy Soho restaurant – the sort of place where art crams the walls and the staff are as insouciantly chic as the clientele. The hum of transactional conversation surrounds us as business deals are sealed over grilled lobster and fries.
No one bats an eyelid as Willis takes a seat, and you get the impression this is exactly as she likes it.
“Hey, let’s order some chips, too,” she smiles, conspiratorially looking around. “I’m starving.”
This is the seventh time I have met Willis. In that time, I have met her mother and her father. I have joined the family for dinner (yes, the rockstar husband was present, noodling away on his guitar); taken a shower in her bathroom and laid down on the floor beside her in her garage, as we both supplicated ourselves to her personal trainer. I tell you this not to boast, but rather to give you an idea of what we’re dealing with when it comes to Emma Willis: a completely open book. There is never any loitering publicist, neither are there any pauses while she grasps for the PR-approved answer to my questions. No, Emma Willis is the real deal.
I know this because as soon as we sit down and I bring up the topic of her ginormous career renaissance (in 2017 she cleared another series of The Voice, one more series of Big
Brother and two of Celebrity Big Brother, started working with UNICEF and launched a collaboration with Next), she rolls her eyes.
“Oh, you know me, Lottie,” she says. “I always think that this is as good as it gets; that I’ve probably reached my peak and got nowhere left to go. My one good year is over…” She covers her face with her hands, adding, “And I didn’t take it all in!”
Proper fame – the sort that means you’ll find the occasional paparazzi at the end of your garden, and never have to worry about not turning left on a plane ever again – came to Willis relatively late. Yes, she was a model at 17 (not major league, though, by her own admission), and a stint as an MTV UK presenter followed a few years later, but it was only when she hit her mid-thirties and took over from Brian Dowling as the host of Big Brother that she hit mainstream consciousness. Like George Clooney and Tina Fey before her, fame earned later in life has bestowed on Willis the gift of real, earthy charm. Hers is a star status won by hard, relentless graft, numerous pitfalls and the knowledge that people may only be nice to you because you’re on telly. If there’s celebrity KoolAid to swallow, she ain’t taking it.
She’s 41 now, with three kids under her belt and a career that shows no sign of slowing down any time soon, not to mention a marriage that has weathered addiction (his), media intrusion (both), and the general hum drummery that a 13-year bond brings (more of which later). With this in mind, we sat down to discuss what she’s learned along the way.
MARRIAGE WOULD BE BORING IF YOU DIDN’T ARGUE
“Matt and I celebrate our 10-year wedding anniversary in July. The day we got married we decided we’d have a party to celebrate that milestone. I don’t know what we’ll do, and it will probably end up being a rubbish party, but we will definitely do something.
Matt and I first met 13 years ago on MTV and have both changed since then. I’m bossier and more boring, while Matt is more sensible and tows the line better. Our priorities are each other now, rather than ourselves.
It works because we have similar mindsets. He’s a big kid, which I love, even when he leaves towels all over the floor. We just fit. Sure, we argue, and piss each other off. We bicker about me wanting to do a million things in the day and him not wanting to. We’ll be going to leave the house to take the kids to school and he’ll be tinkling on a bass on the sofa. But it would be boring if we didn’t argue. If nothing bothered me, I wouldn’t care as much.”
WHEN IT COMES TO MONEY, YOUR PARENTS ARE RIGHT
“I’ve always been good with money. We were working class and my mum and dad worked every hour God sent.
The only rogue patch I’ve had was aged 18. I’d moved to London to be a model and landed a TV commercial that earned me money every time it was played. Suddenly I had the kind of cash I’d never seen before. My dad
told me to buy a flat. I was like, ‘Are you joking? I’m 18!’ Now I regret not doing that because I could have had a lovely pad in Fulham or something. Instead I bought my first car – a £2,000 metallic lilac 1967 Beetle. I used to razz around in it and drive to Heathrow when I was going on jobs abroad. Then one day it blew up on the M25 because I hadn’t put any oil in the engine.
Not that it’s always been easy. In 2005, not long after I met Matt, MTV decided not to renew my contract. It meant that I didn’t have a job or any money. We lived together and he supported me because I had nothing.
At one point I thought I was going to have to move home to Birmingham.
I started thinking, ‘Who do I think I am? This is ridiculous, it’s time to go back home and stop living in a fantasy world.’ But then Big Brother’s Little
Brother came along and it was all OK. Matt and I have always had phases where we support each other. At the moment Busted are taking a break and he’s focusing on doing acting classes, so he’s not earning. We have savings and I’m working, so it works. I say, ‘Go to your acting class and get really f*cking good, because one day I won’t have a job and you’re going to have to support me!’ That’s marriage and a relationship. I want him to do what makes him happy, and if that means studying for a little while, then great.”
LISTEN –JUST NOT TO EVERYONE
“I do read reviews about my work, and also Twitter. Generally people are nice, but of course you get the odd negative person, especially with Big Brother because it’s a show based on personal opinion.
There was a point when I was younger when I would let it affect me. Nobody wants to hear horrible things about themselves. But, for me, the minute I had children, everything changed because I had to stop thinking about me. So am I going to worry about someone saying I’ve got fat legs or not liking my dress? Yes, it will bother me, but I’m not going to let it ruin my day. That’s the way I deal with it. Although sometimes I’ll think about it for hours and hours! But then I have to be like, ‘Stop it. It doesn’t matter.’”
YOUR CAREER WILL CHANGE AS YOU CHANGE
“I’m a realist when it comes to work. Nothing lasts forever. Everyone has a shelf life and people move in and out of favour. If you think you deserve to be in any job above anybody else, that is delusional. Which is why having some form of side hustle is a good thing. I love what I do and I want to keep doing it, but it’s important to have other focuses, so I’ve been concentrating on a few other projects.
I got approached by Eylure a year ago to design my own range of false eyelashes, which are something
I wear all the time. I said yes, but only if I could be involved in every step of the process, and luckily they just let me create – I’ve designed three sets, based on my children’s lashes. And I have another project coming out at the end of the summer that isn’t TV. I’d also love to do something with hospitals – my mum was a nurse for 40 years and it has instilled an interest in me.
It takes a while to figure out what you want to do and where you’re most comfortable and happy, and as you get older, your interests change.”
YOU ARE NOT YOUR BODY
“When I was 18 I went to Australia for work and I remember an agent telling me I was too fat. I cried because I was living with a family friend who was a chef! But I wasn’t fat, or heavy – or even skinny. I was just normal with a round face. And everybody else in Australia was a goddess!
People go to extremes, but I was never prepared to make myself ill to achieve that. No f*cking way. I always knew I wasn’t going to be a supermodel, so it wasn’t worth it for something that wasn’t even achievable. At Fashion Week I was never good enough, so even if I had got anywhere, I’d have needed to live off red wine and peanuts for a month. Or grown, because I wasn’t tall enough!
[Casting agents] need to start taking responsibility. You don’t have to tell someone they’re too big when they’re a size 8. Sometimes you have to consider people’s feelings, wellbeing and health.
I heard the other day that the British Fashion Council have set up a hotline for models to call if they feel under pressure or need help, which is brilliant. There was never anything like that in my day.”
GET COMFORTABLE WITH BEING UNCOMFORTABLE
“I was a very shy kid. And never very confident. If I’m honest, I’m only just beginning to gain confidence in what I do now. And that’s because of experience. I never want to get complacent but the more hours you put in, the more you realise that you must be doing something right.
I still get terrified of doing live TV. Not so much on Big Brother or
The Voice, but things like presenting the Brit Awards last year. But, for me, the minute I lose my nerves is when I mess up. If I don’t feel nervous, I worry.
It’s good to test yourself, but when I worked at MTV on my first presenting job, I was really out of my comfort zone. At the casting I thought everyone would take the piss out of my Birmingham accent and I believed they only wanted me there as the token model. Even when I got the job, I struggled. On the first day I couldn’t even say ‘Welcome to MTV’ into the camera without disappearing into my own body. The guy in charge made me sit there and say it over and over, all day. I thought they’d never keep me on.
And I still have those niggles. I always think that what I’m doing now could be the best it gets. I get it into my head that people have tried me out, used me and are done with me, and that it must be time for somebody else. It’s not so much a lack of confidence now because I feel able, but that I believe it’s only a matter of time. I know I’ll be alright, though. I never planned to work in TV or to be a model – so whatever I do after this, I probably won’t have planned either.”