She might be one of television’s most in-demand hosts, but Emma Willis admits that just a couple of years ago, she thought her TV time was up
By Beth Neil Photography by Mark Hayman
When Emma Willis hits the sack tonight, she’ll have put in an 18-hour shift across three different jobs. Not that you’d know it. The glowy skin and easy smile disguise the fact that she’s arrived at our birthday photo shoot fresh from her stint on This Morning and will later head straight over to the Big Brother compound to film the irreverent Big Brother’s Bit On The Side which, thanks to Emma’s brilliance, has become essential viewing for BB diehards.
On top of this, she’s about to take a trip to Africa for Comic Relief, there’s the second series of ITV2 dating hit Girlfri3nds to film, her regular Sunday morning Heart FM breakfast slot and a new prime-time ITV1 game show, Prize Island, co-hosted with Alexander Armstrong, starting this spring.
Throw a couple of kids into the mix – three-year-old Isabelle and one-year-old Ace Billy, who currently refuses to sleep – and it’s clear that Emma, 36, is a working mum with an awful lot on her plate.
Besides, this flurry is a welcome change from a few years back. Short of work and plagued with self-doubt, she worried that her TV career was dead in the water.
“I’ve had years of not doing anything and when you go through those dry patches, you can’t help thinking: ‘Why aren’t I working? Am I really not that good?’” she says.
“And people on Twitter will tell you you’re s**t and you think: ‘Maybe I am. Maybe I should just not do this.’”
Cracking the industry
After cutting her teeth at MTV and going on to host the 2007 and 2008 series of ITV2 spin-off, I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! Now!, with husband Matt (who won I’m A Celebrity! in 2006) work, for whatever reason, slowed down.
It wasn’t until she landed the job on Big Brother’s Little Brother for the final Channel 4 series in 2011 that things finally started to turn around. When Channel 5 bought the show later that year, she was offered the Bit On The Side gig and has never looked back.
“I owe that show so much,” she says. “No one really knew that much about me before Big Brother. I’d done I’m A Celebrity! but always felt that I got that job because Matt had won the show. I never felt I got it because of me and what I do. It was probably just paranoia, but it made me really self conscious and I didn’t think I was very good.
“So to get a show truly off my own back, a show that I know and love – I’m a walking encyclopedia on Big Brother – made me feel so comfortable.
“From doing that, a lot of people have said: ‘Oh, you’re actually quite good…’ And so I’ve started to think that perhaps I’m all right at this, after all. But I would never be overly confident and go: ‘Wahoo! Look at me on this amazing wave of luck!’ Because that’s when you slip.”
It’s not hard to see why the offers are rolling in. Ex-model Emma is a consummate live presenter with genuine charm, infectious enthusiasm and a quick wit. And after 10 years of plugging away, now really does feel like her time.
“Everything is happening at once but Matt and I are both self-employed and you have to work when you can,” she says.
“And I don’t want to be at home all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but for my sanity, I need to be around grown-ups sometimes!
“We have a part-time nanny who we share with a friend of ours, and my mum and dad help out. Plus Isabelle is in nursery every day so it’s all manageable. We just kind of juggle it.”
Keeping the spark
Helping with the juggling is former Busted star Matt, 29, who Emma married in July 2008. After spells in the West End, he is currently reinventing himself as a TV actor and has recently filmed episodes of Miss Marple and Casualty.
It’s a relationship that has withstood some tough times – Matt’s battle with alcohol has been well-documented – but one that is all the stronger for it.
“We still fancy each other,” she says instantly when asked what makes their marriage tick. “I think that’s a big thing. He still tells me that, which really makes me like: ‘Yay!’
“You can be together for a long time and especially after having a couple of kids, you can start to feel really insecure. And obviously I’m older than him [there’s a seven-year age gap]. You would go nuts if you didn’t get any feedback from your partner. But he’s really good.
“And he still makes me laugh. We try and make time for each other, just the two of us, and we like to have fun. Oh, I don’t know what the f**k makes it work. It just does!”
Matt’s wild days are long behind him. He’s a reformed character and barely recognisable from the unpredictable, hellraising party boy Emma first fell for back in 2005.
“He still has that little twinkle in his eye though and he’s naughty when he wants to be in other ways,” she says. “But it’s not all about getting p****d and falling over any more. Have kids and all of that goes out the window.
“He is obsessed with health and fitness. Matt’s the most clean-living person I have ever met, almost to an annoying level.
“Honestly, our fridge is so boring. All organic, no gluten, no sugar. It’s ridiculous!
“I thought it would just be another fad in his life, but it isn’t. This one is staying. But, you know, he feels better for it, he looks fantastic and his skin is so much clearer. It works for him, so I can’t complain.”
Isabelle was born a year after the wedding, with Ace coming along 14 months ago.
“He was the most placid, chilled little baby… but recently he’s turned into a diva. He’s just developed this temper.
“But I think he’s had to because Isabelle is so bossy, he just never got a look in. He’s kind of had to grow a pair.
“And I reckon Isabelle has probably got about six months left of getting away with it and then she’s had it. He’s not going to stand for it any more.
“But they are good together. He loves being chased and she chases him, squealing, which is lovely.”
As far as the possibility of having any more children is concerned, Matt, although very much a hands-on dad, would quite happily close that chapter. But Emma isn’t keen on being so final.
“I don’t know. Matt says that’s it, but I just think that perhaps one day… Not because I desperately want three, it’s more…”
Never say never?
“Exactly. I think Matt feels like that because we haven’t slept properly in I don’t know how many years! But we don’t really plan these things.
“Having babies is phenomenally different from what you think it’s going to be. Nothing can prepare you for what is the most life-changing thing that ever happens to you.
“Life will never be the same. Never. Because it’s no longer about you or what you want or what you are doing. And sometimes you wonder what ‘me’ actually means these days, but that’s fine. That is absolutely fine by me.”
What women want
Emma agrees that becoming a mum has perhaps helped other women relate to her better. It’s true that when word went round the Fabulous office that we were shooting her for the birthday cover, the news was met with a chorus of universal approval.
Women really like her.
“I suppose at MTV, people saw me as a kind of cool rock chick. And then all of a sudden I got married, had a baby and became: ‘Ahh, sweet’!
“So yeah, I get really nice feedback from girls and for me that’s the biggest compliment. I don’t really care what the boys think.
“I think that women should embrace and help each other through life. It’s the biggest compliment if you’ve got the chicks on your side.”
Get Emma talking about Big Brother and you might just be there all day. She lives and breathes the show, especially the celebrity version, and relishes the opportunity to dissect the bonkers behaviour of American reality TV stars Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag, aka Speidi – the pantomime villains of the latest series.
“Like Julie Goodyear last year, they were captivating,” she says. “It doesn’t matter that the housemates aren’t A-listers. Tom Cruise going into Big Brother just ain’t gonna happen.
“But it’s not who they are, it’s about what they bring to the show. You never know what you’ll get, and Speidi were sensational. They were infuriating, hilarious, baffling and they took viewers on a little metaphorical journey.”
She also loves the bizarre celebrity friendships the show often throws up. Jedward and Tara Reid, anyone?
“I know!” says Emma. “Weird! Here’s a story for you… Matt was finishing his run of Wicked and Jedward tweeted wanting to come and see it. So Matt organised tickets for them.
“On the night, I was with a group of friends in the foyer of the theatre when I just saw these heads bobbing towards me – it was Jedward, with flat hair because they were ‘in disguise’.
“One of them said: ‘Hey, Emma Willis!’ – they always call me by my full name. ‘Do you remember Tara Reid?’
“They were genuinely all there together. Tara Reid and Jedward actually went to watch Wicked together on a Friday night.”
“Since having Ace, I haven’t really done anything other than work and run around. I haven’t been to the gym at all.
“I’d like to not be as wobbly and not as covered in cellulite, but I just haven’t got the time. Maybe I’ll get to 40 [she turns 37 next month] and suddenly panic that I need to try to pull this back quickly! But at the minute I’m happy.
“I was talking to Matt about this earlier on, but he says: ‘Baby you look great. If you went to the gym you would look amazing, but you look great now’. And if I cared that much I would go.”
For now, Emma is looking forward to a well-earned family holiday (their first in two years) later this month. Then she’ll crack on with what promises to be her busiest working year to date.
“I never expected to be here,” she says. “I love what I do and I just want to keep working. That’s not a very exciting ambition is it? My ambition is just to have a job!”
We don’t think she’ll have any trouble fulfilling that.
- Catch Emma weekdays on This Morning and this spring on ITV1’s Prize Island.
Which was your best birthday?
My 30th. I had a fancy-dress party at a little bar in Shoreditch, east London, and the theme was dead famous. I went as Bettie Page (who I didn’t realise was still alive!) and Matt went as Maximus from Gladiator.
What’s your dance-floor classic?
Anything by Duran Duran.
What was your best birthday present?
Matt proposed to me on my birthday in 2007.
What’s the best showbiz party you’ve attended?
I went to an Oscars after-party in a house up in the LA Hills and Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Mark Wahlberg, Tobey Maguire and Josh Hartnett were there. I just turned up and somehow got in.
What’s your favourite party outfit?
Black. Black boots or shoes, black jeans, black top and something that’s got a bit of sparkle, like sequins or a leopard-print bag to jazz it up.
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