Emma Willis on raising a feminist, the gender pay gap and having impostor syndrome

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Helen Bownass
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The term “authentic” is one of those hugely overused 2017 words, alongside “fake news”, “savage” and “adulting”. So I don’t want to use it to describe Emma Willis. But the thing is she is exactly that: genuine, open and unafraid to be vulnerable. She can’t help it. And that’s obviously the point of authenticity. But while for some stars authenticity is something to emulate, for the TV presenter her very ‘Emma Willisness’ beams out of her.  

I’m sure it can’t be a coincidence that Willis is at the absolute top of her career game aged 41, rather than in her 20s as has traditionally – and boringly – been the norm for women on screen. Willis has become one of the most visible women on TV. This summer alone she has presented Big Brother, The Voice Kids and is currently hosting Celebrity Big Brother

She also appears on Who Do You Think You Are? this Thursday – “I didn’t’ expect it to be so emotional,” she laughs. “They tell you at the beginning to get really far back, there has to be either crime or gentry; when we started touching on the 1700s I thought, I’m either royal or something really bad has happened.” Spoiler alert: she discovers her great grandfather five times removed had committed murder.

This also follows a momentous February when she stepped in last minute to host the Brits, following in the footsteps of Ant and Dec and James Corden. This level of success has been a while coming though.

Willis has been in the public eye since 17 when she started working as a model, moving to London from Birmingham – her accent is now barely detectable, although she admits, “People have told me on social media, ‘Your voice is infuriating, stop shouting.’” She went on to work at MTV, where she met her husband Matt Willis while interviewing his band Busted – the pair have three children, Isabelle, eight, Ace, six, and one-year old Trixie Grace. 

However, after three years at the channel Willis was let go, causing her to endure a self-confessed period of questioning whether she was cut out for the industry, before resetting, digging in and eventually getting the Big Brother job in 2013, followed by The Voice in 2014. In a time when – as we have seen recently thanks to the BBC salary revelations, more on which later – being a woman on screen isn’t the easiest or fairest, Willis has flourished.

At Stylist’s cover shoot on a swelteringly hot London day it’s easy to see why. She’s low-key, funny, honest about her insecurities and the things she doesn’t know (a surprisingly rare trait) and clearly doesn’t believe her own hype. A case in point: the recent emergency dash she made to hospital with an infected appendix. “I thought I had a really bad case of trapped wind,” she laughs. Authentic, absolutely. A cliché, absolutely not…

Your career appears to be at its apex, what do you attribute that to?

It’s been a great few years and I don’t really know how it happened. It’s funny, because sometimes I’ll think I’ve worked really hard, but when I think of hard work I think of people grafting every single day, that’s not what I do. I’m not working in the NHS doing shifts for 14 hours a day: that’s hard work. But I’ve stuck it out for a long time when I could have jacked it in because nothing was happening, and nothing was happening for quite a while. I’ve tried not to kiss ass for a job or go to the right parties for a job. If people like what I do, then at some point they’ll ask me to do it, and if they don’t continuously for 10 years, then I know I’ve got to get out.

Did you give yourself a time frame of how long you’d stick it out when your career wasn’t going the way you wanted?

No, and maybe I should have. I was never really one for time frames. I never, ever expected to be a model and I never expected to be on television.

What did you expect?

I thought I would work in a hospital. I never tried to plan anything in my career because I didn’t want to be let down. I thought, ‘I’ll enjoy it while I can and at some point it will end and I’m ready for that when it happens.’ I’m a glass half empty person. I don’t expect too much from myself then I won’t be disappointed.

Is it only yourself that you worry about letting down, or do you worry about disappointing your husband and family?

No, Matt is hugely supportive and is like me: he’s got imposter syndrome. He was also brought up in a working-class family, where being a popstar doesn’t happen every day. We both have moments where we think, ‘Bloody hell, we’ve got an amazing family and a lovely garden; we’re really lucky. How the hell did this happen?’

Is self-improvement important to you?

I don’t know if it’s trying to self-improve but I like learning about myself. Although I don’t think we’ll ever fully really know who we are until we’ve lived our lives and come out at the end of it going, ‘Oh well, OK.’ I’m a thinker and a worrier. I pick things apart. If I’ve done an interview on Big Brother and it felt awkward, I’ll worry about it all week.

What is it that you worry about?

That it was rubbish. That I haven’t asked the questions people wanted me to ask. I suppose I’m worried about doing a s**t job.

So you think that if you’re doing a bad job they won’t want you to do it any more?

No, I always think that’s going to happen anyway. I’m always surprised and over the moon when I get asked back. I just never expect it to happen.

Has doubt ever held you back?

When I was younger I probably had the same amount of doubt. As I’ve got older I still have it but I think, ‘I have a house, I have a marriage, I have three great kids, I’m making all that work.’ I don’t want people to mollycoddle me, I don’t want people to stroke my ego. I know how f**king lucky I am to do the job I do and to have a lovely family but [doubt] is just something that’s in me. I was always a shy kid – I know it probably doesn’t seem that way now – but the kid that was in me then who was super shy is probably why I now question how I am doing this.

Are you naturally an introvert?

We had a massive family so I like being around people and now we have a very open house – we’ve always got friends and family over – but as a child or even in my teens, I never wanted to be the centre of attention. Even when I was a model I was like, ‘How the f**k am I doing this?’ I think it’s partly that I’ve grown up in a normal place, living a very normal working-class life and this doesn’t happen to people like me. Even now, I never relish those [Big Brother] doors opening on a Friday night, I think, ‘Please get me through this’, but I also love it and it’s fun.

Love Island has dominated the TV conversation this summer. Can you see the appeal of that, especially when you work in a show whose ratings have been impacted by it?

Love Island is having its moment. People love reality TV and people love romance so of course I understand it. I think they can co-exist quite nicely as long as they don’t go against each other. But everyone has their good times and everyone has their bad times, it’s the nature of the beast.

It used to be that female TV presenters were typically most successful in their 20s. Do you think there’s been a sea change?

There are a lot of women about now which is fantastic, but then if you look at the shortlist at the NTAs [National Television Awards] it’s mostly men. One of the girls will creep in there if we’re lucky, but there are still a lot of men.

We’ve also had the revelations about the pay discrepancy at the BBC, how did they make you feel?

It felt shocking, it’s something that we all know happens but seeing it laid out like that was disturbing. It’s the norm but it shouldn’t be the norm. But maybe that’s what we needed to see to address the pay gap. Not just in entertainment, but across every industry.

Is it something you feel comfortable discussing?

A journalist once asked me if I was paid the same as a bloke; but I have no idea what other people are earning. I don’t go into things saying, ‘I want to be paid the same amount as he’s going to be paid,’ because I’m bloody lucky to get the amount I do. I do want equal rights for men and women and I think if you have two doctors doing the same job they should definitely get paid the same… [muses aloud] So why wouldn’t I think I shouldn’t be paid the same amount as a bloke?

Possibly because you think you’re lucky to be doing this job anyway?

Exactly, so I don’t want to be taking the p**s.

I don’t imagine someone like Dermot O’Leary would worry about asking for equal pay…

No, I know, but that goes back to the whole imposter syndrome: ‘I shouldn’t be here so I’m not going to rock the boat.’

There’s been suggestions that men should take pay cuts to help the battle – is that something you advocate?

We need as many male feminists as we can to help make equal pay happen. There’s various ways to do that, that [taking pay cuts] being one of them. The more people who can raise their sons as feminists or men that get on board with feminism then great.

Do you think it’s a good time to be a woman?

It’s an amazing time to be a woman. I’m a huge fan of being a modern-day feminist, and I want to raise my daughters and my son to be that way. Their dad is about as feminist as they get. I love men who appreciate women, who know how hard we work, how strong we are and fully understand that we want to be equal. Unless men understand and appreciate all of that, equality is never going to happen.

Over the past 12 months, politics has become a more important part of everyday conversation – do you enjoy getting stuck into those chats?

With the [Brexit] referendum I felt like a fish out of water. I thought politics was for clever or well-educated people and that’s not me. I’m street savvy, I have loads of common sense but I’m not academic, and I’ve always thought, ‘What do I know about politics? I’m just going to stay away from it.’ Then when the referendum happened I tried to catch up on it too late. I was all over the place and didn’t know what to do. So in the past year I’ve really tried to listen to what’s going on instead of running away. I’ll put on Question Time or watch the news. It has something to do with all of us. We can’t just ignore it any more.

You were a model in a time before social media. Do you think seeing our images so much has made us become slaves to them?

Absolutely, we pick ourselves apart because of this idea of perfection. Perfection doesn’t exist. My daughter has an iPod; I was flicking through the pictures and saw she’d been taking selfies. I asked her, ‘Why do you have to pose with your lips like that? Your lips are huge, you don’t need to push them out more.’ But it’s the world they live in. The only thing I can do is try to educate her in the most level-headed way possible.

There’s also an idea that we should all be building our own brand. How does that sit?

It’s bonkers. If I have to be a brand, then I want to be a genuine one. I’m not gong to take jobs just for the sake of it – I pick the brands I want to work with based on the fact that I genuinely use them, because I’m not going to sit there bulls**ting my way through an interview about a product I don’t use. I’m trying to be better at social media. I get that people want to engage with you, but sometimes I think, ‘Wow, it’s just a s**t picture of something I saw in Tesco, who really wants to see that?’

Probably a lot of people given your 811,000 Instagram followers…You lived in New York as a model, do you harbour dreams of going back?

I’m very much a Brit. New York was a very special time and place for me, and whenever I go back it’s never the same. I want that period to live in my mind as it was.

You said over lunch today that you love food, would you call yourself a foodie?

I love to cook but I’m not a food snob. I am a coffee snob though. I’ve had three today already. It’s Matt’s fault, we have a proper espresso machine, when I used to be happy with a cup of Nescafé.

You are a TV stalwart – what are the shows you watch away from the cameras?

Game Of Thrones, Peaky Blinders,The Crown. Oh, have you been watching Genius [on National Geographic]? It’s about Albert Einstein, it’s brilliant. I love a bit of Corrie, Britain’s Got Talent, Grey’s Anatomy. I run the whole range, from the big shows to gritty dramas.

What will the rest of your summer look like?

I’m up to my eyes in school holidays currently, I’m on week three! But I don’t want to wish them away. We’re going away at the weekend and I just can’t wait to get there. Although I’m just a bit paranoid with Airbnb – it’s amazing, but you do worry about people shafting you.

Will you take anything to read?

I’m not sure whether books are going to be possible because we’ll have the kids. I love reading, though, I like biographies and autobiographies – Eric Clapton’s is amazing, James Corden’s is brilliant. I think it’s because I’m nosey and I like reality. I don’t need fiction; my brain’s f**ked up enough. But I’m giving up reading for four years until they start going to bed normally and I have a fixed pattern in my life.

Emma Willis will join our line-up of inspiring women at Stylist Live at Olympia London on Saturday 11 November, exploring the topic of raising future generations of men as feminists. Tickets from £15, available at