Jessica Ennis stormed her way to Olympic gold this evening (4 August), delivering a star performance in the 800m race in front of a home crowd of thousands at London 2012. The heptathlete is this week's cover star for Stylist: here's her interview with us published just days before her brilliant and historic win.
Words: Joanna McGarry Photography: Matthew Shave
In just two days, Jessica Ennis – one of Team GB’s brightest Olympic hopes – will compete in the heptathlon. That is – deep breath – seven individual events: 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200m sprint, long jump, javelin and an 800m run, spread over two days.
For Ennis, it’s the culmination of more than 15 years of rigorous, meticulously planned training. For Great Britain, it’s widely considered one of our best chances of a gold medal. People stop her in the street to tell her so. The swell of pressure encircling Ennis is unimaginable. Yet, for a 26 year old with the nation’s hopes heaped onto her, she is remarkably cool. She quietly breezes into the studio and tentatively introduces herself to the team. Ridiculously, I had visions of her striding in wearing full performance lycra – such is her iconic look – but she’s understatedly dressed in fitted denim jeans and a brown gilet which hide the full power of her physique. Her caramel hair is swept back into a tight ponytail and she has the type of flawless, glowing skin that has secured her first beauty campaign – as the face of Olay Essentials.
We chat through the shots for the day. Ennis is quiet and somewhat reserved. I panic. Perhaps now isn’t the time to mention our wildly ambitious idea of creating the British flag through puffing white, red and blue powder paint at her face. Later, maybe. Right now though, it’s the pressure and hopes of a nation that Ennis has to contend with. How does she stay focused? “I use visualisation to think about the perfect technique. If I can get that perfect image in my head, then hopefully it’ll affect my physical performance. There’s definitely extra pressure because essentially, everyone expects you to win this piece of gold metal. Cathy Freeman [ex-Australian 400m runner and Olympic gold medallist] said pressure is privilege which I think is true. If the pressure is there, then you’re doing something right.”
And clearly she is, although you won’t hear her shouting about it. “Some athletes feel they have to show they’re confident and talk about what they’re going to achieve. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with just quietly believing in yourself and just getting on with it. You don’t have to talk about it all the time; you want your performances to show for it.” Indeed, answering interview questions in the second person has become something of a trademark for Ennis, perhaps her way of keeping the media attention at a comfortable arm’s length and ultimately, letting her achievements do the real talking.
Strength and Steel
Born in Sheffield to a social worker mother and self-employed decorator father, Ennis showed a flair for athletics aged 10 when she competed in a local event, winning herself a pair of trainers. And she’s hardly stopped since then, clocking up world and European gold medals in the last three years. She doesn’t hang around. “I’m so impatient. I can’t even stand waiting for a cab and I’m always early for everything,” says Ennis “In training it means I want to run my personal best every session – but it takes time.”
In 2008, her patience was seriously tested when she was forced to pull out of the Beijing Olympics due to a stress fracture in her ankle. It had a psychological impact on her akin to grief. “It was my first major injury so it was a huge shock. I thought it was nothing and I’d only miss two weeks of training, but then I was told it would take three months for me to recover and that there was no way I was going to the Olympics.” She bristles at the memory. “I wasn’t really prepared for it. But things happen for a reason and it wasn’t my time.” Has the fear of injury crept up on her this time around? “I try not to focus on it, but I remember how it felt, so even when I’m tired and moaning because everything’s hurting, I think about the great position I’m in. I’m in the best shape of my life. Last time I was just left behind as everyone moved on.”
Just four years later and Ennis is a national treasure. The week before the shoot, she filmed a guest spot on A League Of Their Own, the game show fronted by James Corden (“He’s amazing, so funny”) and easily held her own. Does a TV career beckon following the notoriously finite career of an athlete? “I don’t know how long my body will allow me to compete but I can’t imagine doing anything else. That day will come and I just hope there’ll be a light shining down a path telling me where to go.”
After a cup of tea and a banana, Ennis takes to the make-up stool – the part of shoots she enjoys most. “It’s something I wouldn’t get to do in a normal life,” she says. Right now, her life couldn’t be further from normal, but next year, she will marry her childhood sweetheart, Andy Hill, a construction site manager she met at secondary school. There’ll be no Olympic-style grandeur though. She “couldn’t think of anything worse” than selling the wedding photographs to a magazine. “I’m quite a private person so I don’t like to put my whole life out there.” That’s not to say she doesn’t like to look good when she’s in the public eye. On the track you’ll find her competing with something approaching a smoky eye. “I always wear a bit of make-up to compete – foundation, Olay Essentials SPF30 which is great as I’m outside a lot, eyeliner, mascara and a lip moisturiser. If I feel I look nice it’ll help my performance because I have that extra confidence.”
Refreshingly, body confidence isn’t something Ennis is lacking. As a newly anointed cover-girl, she’s becoming accustomed to rails of glitzy dresses and spiky heels, but instead I present her with an unfathomable amount of tiny Lycra shorts and crop tops to choose from – what could be better to showcase a body she’s been honing for most of her life? Ennis undresses and I am completely unprepared for what I see. Her body is jaw-droppingly awesome. I hate that word, but there simply isn’t another to describe it. It’s as if I can see the effort that went into each part of her; each sprint that created the curve of her thighs, every sit-up that sculpted those abs. Her body is a totem of discipline, strength and focus. And unlike other athletes’ bodies, thanks to the combination of events she competes in, it’s utterly balanced and proportioned: her biceps are as toned as her calves, her shoulders appear as strong as her knees.
The fact that the top Google search under her name is ‘Jessica Ennis bum’ tells you all you need to know. Despite this, in May a British athletics official labelled her ‘fat’, a slur which she shrugged off with typical composure. She’s used to being intensely scrutinised – especially by herself. “I sit down with my coach to watch past performances. But I can be very critical. I don’t watch myself very often – it makes me cringe!”
I always wear a bit of make-up to compete. If I feel I look nice it’ll help my performance
She stands in front of the mirror, expertly fitting the Lycra in place, like a symphony harpist chiming through notes. She seems more comfortable in her own skin than any model I’ve ever worked with. And it’s at this point that I notice a shift in Ennis. The reserved young woman who walked into the studio two hours ago is transformed. She is a power-house, darting onto set with a new-found poise. We take six shots and we’re done. Ennis has come alive.
Now for the final performance in front of the camera. The powder-paint shot sits like a giant elephant in the room. The atmosphere is thick with the very real fear that if this goes wrong – suppose Ennis is suddenly found to be allergic to powder paint and it gets stuck in her eye – we’d be responsible for one of our best Olympic hopefuls crashing out of the competition. My stomach begins to knot. But, after carefully studying our poster paint guinea pig, (thank you, Stylist photography director, Tom Gormer), witnessing first hand that actually, it’s pretty harmless, she’s in. That is, with one caveat. “I just don’t want my hair to get dirty because I’ve got to catch the train to Sheffield after this.” We gratefully agree, amazed that she’s willing to go with us on this one. And thanks to her composure, we pull it off.
This is when I find out who Jessica Ennis really is – a woman in possession of her own mind, her own will but also a woman who’s game for a laugh. Break through that steely athletic exterior and she’s properly fun. It’s something the nation has always suspected, having voted her into the top three in two of the last three Sports Personality of the Year awards, but perhaps not truly seen before. She’s a woman who may well make history in two days. And we’ll all be watching her.
Jessica Ennis's Essentials
- Adidas Adizero Prime: “They’re my favourite – the new spike plates put you in a really good position for running"
- Bobbi Brown eye liner: “I can’t live without it. I apply a line on top, a line underneath and a line on the inside, then smudge it"
- Grey’s Anatomy: “I'm addicted to the box sets. You have watch it all in one go!”
- Cinnamon and Raisin Bagels:“I'm not sure they’re good for you, but I’m hooked!”
- Olay Wet Cleansing Wipes: “Being outside for most of the day can mean dirt builds up on my skin, these wipes leave my face squeaky clean"
Jessica Ennis is the face of new Olay Essentials