Photographer: Jon Gorrigan
Holly Willoughby sits on a comfy chair in a photographer’s studio, thinking about the unexpected recent proliferation of interest in daytime TV presenters. When you make your living as the conduit to other people’s stories, becoming the subject can be a surprising metaverse to enter.
Holly scooped the This Morning anchor’s job in 2009, quickly establishing herself as our most reliable daily TV rainbow. Her show is the one Prime Ministers rely on to try to persuade real voters to like them. To be British is to have a rudimentary understanding of what makes This Morning so popular. A high level of public interest in the presenters is a given.
Sometimes it’s a nice thing. She laughs along when a particularly rum This Morning sequence appears for a gentle roasting on Gogglebox, for example. ‘Oh god, I love that,’ she says. ‘Gogglebox is a bloody brilliant show. I love watching it anyway, so obviously when we pop up…’ Her favourites are Leeds sisters Ellie and Izzi and Blackpool siblings Pete and Sophie. ‘I mean, it’s really hard not to love all of them, isn’t it?’ she adds.
The current vogue for fictionalising daytime hosts she’s found a little more complicated. She’s seen Cate Blanchett’s twisted, tin-eared iteration of her job on Don’t Look Up and Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston on The Morning Show, pitting a pair of sparring co-hosts directly against one another. ‘They’re all having a really, really horrible time behind the scenes, aren’t they?’ she notes.
This doesn’t square with her own experience, presenting alongside Phillip Schofield. ‘What I don’t understand is, I’ve been at This Morning for 12, 13 years it will be this year. And it is a gruelling show. It’s the best show but it is two-and-a-half hours of live telly. If you were to do that amount of live telly with someone who drove you nuts, wound you up, annoyed you in any way, well, I think you can only do that with a friend, day in, day out.’
Holly is an astonishingly familiar person in the flesh. Her star rests on a relatable perch of sunshine and her screen appeal crosses gender and generation. At first her signing to This Morning felt like she was being taken under Schofield’s wing but, as the years have passed, she’s quietly turned it into something more naturally hers.
The results have turned her into commercial gold dust, with blockbuster contracts for M&S and Garnier. When she wore a piece from Christopher Kane’s More Joy diffusion line last year, sales spiked, taking the label from cult hit to top of the shopping list for floating fashion browsers. Really, there is no greater articulation of Holly’s brand than ‘More Joy’, despite Kane originally borrowing the expression from ’70s suburban manual The Joy Of Sex.
Holly identified early on in her This Morning trajectory that she is a natural empath. ‘Empathy is a lovely thing,’ she says. ‘My daughter has it. She’s amazing. You can put her in any situation.’ In the early days, though, Holly saw it as a bad thing. ‘I had to control it, in a way. Sometimes I can find myself in situations where I have really absorbed the energy of what’s going on, I can feel it so much that I start to feel like it’s happening to me.’
With harder hitting material on This Morning, this could be problematic. ‘I could empathise so much that the emotion would be rising up in me and I would just start crying.’ In 2009, when TV rules were determined by a group of likeminded stale, male, pale overlords, this was very much not the done thing. ‘It took me a really long time to feel comfortable and go, why? Why do we not do that? Why are you not allowed to feel emotion?’
Her appointment coincided with the advent of social media, of the audience’s ability to be heard loud and clear. Holly says that even taking a phone on to the studio floor was frowned upon when she started. But now there was proof that her more empathetic presenting style worked. ‘People were saying, “I’m watching this and I’m crying with you,”’ she recalls. ‘That was, yeah. If I was at home watching this, I would be crying too. What’s the difference? We’re all real people. With real emotions. I’m not going to worry about this any more. [Crying] is seen as being a weakness, as a feminine trait, and success, up until quite recently, looked more like a man than a woman. This was hard for me.’
Holly has been having a lot of these thoughts lately. Last year, she began what looks very much like the start of a personal rebrand, adding depth to the sunshine of her portfolio. She wrote a lovely self-help manual, Reflections (a festive Sunday Times best-seller), very much the Tao of Holly Willoughby, an accessible insight into the woman behind the brand, which turns out to be more multidimensional than the convivial ear she presents as on TV.
The book is a triumph on two distinct levels. First, because she is dyslexic and didn’t use a ghostwriter. The second is even more personal to her. ‘Growing up, there is no way that I would’ve thought I would be using my voice in any way,’ she says. It’s a bold admission. ‘Because I just didn’t as a kid. I wasn’t confident enough. That wasn’t on my radar. I was always the person that was happy to be shaped and moulded by other people around me.’
Anyone following Holly’s career will have noticed a pattern emerge early on of her being paired with male co-anchors: Stephen Mulhern on Saturday Showdown, Keith Lemon on Celebrity Juice, Schofield on TM and Dancing On Ice, Declan Donnelly to rescue the I’m A Celebrity crisis during Ant McPartlin’s breakdown. Often, it was the men assumed to be the star, only for Holly to really hit the public nerve.
‘You know, it took a really long time to build up my confidence and resilience,’ she says, ‘and get to the point where the stuff in this book had to come out and I wasn’t afraid of what people might think of it.’
Reflections is an introductory move into the wellness arena for Holly. There’s more. She’s currently in the process of bringing the cold water therapist Wim Hoff to TV. Then there’s her website, Wylde Moon , a well-judged mix of homespun wisdom and alternative therapies, distilled through Holly’s warm, BFF manner. ‘It’s an old word for wild that usually meant “untamed” and was usually used about women,’ she explains. ‘I was like, good! I want to be an untamed woman. Because if anyone’s going to tame me that means I’ve fitted into the parameters that somebody else has created. I thought that version of “wylde” is exactly what I want to be.’
She expects some kickback on Wylde Moon, but doesn’t care. ‘I’m not afraid of the reaction to it any more. If it doesn’t fit with what your thoughts and expectations of me are, well then there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t change that. I don’t want to change that. And I’m not going to change that. This is me.’
Fighting talk suits her. ‘I think that people struggle with some of the ideas,’ she says. ‘The moment that I launched Wylde Moon, the word “wacky” got used a lot. I expected that. And that’s fine. I can’t change that. I’m not here to force any of this on anybody. It’s not “come and meditate with me” or “look at the moon and play a sound-bowl”. It’s please go and do that thing that makes your heart sing. Go and do you.’
If you’re getting a less Malibu and alienating version of Goop from all this, you may be on the right track. ‘What I love about her,’ she says of Gwyneth Paltrow, ‘is that bravery to be so successful in one arena – acting – and to know that inside there was something else that she wanted to do. And she went for it and was so brave about it. Now everybody talks about eating organically and wellness and it’s part of the conversation that’s happening. I think Gwyneth really was paramount to bringing that into the mainstream.
‘For a long time the focus was on work, business, having it all, being the perfect mum, the perfect friend, the perfect wife, the perfect woman in the boardroom, the perfect boss, all of those things. All of that “perfection” was fine if that’s what you want but it had to have a bit more stability underneath. If you focus on all of that stuff then it won’t feel completely whole unless you yourself feel in a good place and space. Get that bit right and all the other stuff falls into place.’
She smiles, that big, radiant Holly Willoughby smile. But this time she’s smiling for herself, not in the supporting role to anybody’s else’s ideas of who Holly Willoughby ought to be. ‘No one else can do me like me,’ she says. ‘I am perfect at me.’ Her hard-won wisdom is deeply infectious. She looks me straight in the eye. ‘And you are perfect at you.’
Stylist: Michelle Duguid, Photographer Assistants: Tom Ortiz, Louie Mire, Stylist Assistant: Remy Farrell, Hair: Ciler Peksah, Make-up: Patsy O’Neill.
Holly wears: (left) Dress, £895, Christopher Kane; Boots, £109, Kurt Geiger London. (Right) Suit Jacket, £595, Joseph at Fenwick; Suit Trousers, £385, Joseph at Fenwick; Blouse, £295, Joseph at Fenwick; Turtleneck, £160, Wolford; Loafers, £75, Dune; Ring (right hand), £3,920, Messika, Necklace, £4,310, Messika.