It’s been almost two years since Emma Willis posted a photo of her 10-year-old son Ace in a pink crop top and long blonde hair, captioned: “My little style icon.”
The seemingly innocuous photo caused a storm at the time, with a small but vocal group of her followers criticising Ace – as well as Emma and Busted husband Matt Willis, for allowing him to break gender norms.
And, shockingly, the furore has still not completely died down.
“Unfortunately, [the hate] is still there – both from parents and other children,” Emma says. “I think it’s probably easier [than it would have been 20 years ago], but it’s still there.
“It’s such a shame. It’s going, but the stereotypes that are ingrained in us from years back are so hard to shift.
“And it’s not: ‘Come on, you should just accept it.’ It’s like: ‘What does it matter to you? It’s just a colour. It’s just hair. That kid is just expressing themselves how they want.’
“Children should be encouraged to express themselves, to play and to experiment with colour and clothes. What harm are they doing?”
Luckily, Ace doesn’t let the critics bother him, and when his mum was hailed as a hero for breaking down stereotypes, he was keen to stop her taking the credit.
“He did say jokingly: ‘I think you will find it’s me wearing these clothes!’”
Like most mums, Emma’s kids are constantly on her mind. As well as Ace, she also has Isabelle, 12 and Trixie with Matt, 39.
He has accompanied her to the Fabulous shoot and, in between shots, they’re deep in discussion about Trixie’s sixth birthday the following day.
“We’re having ‘Yes Day,’” Matt explains with excitement. “We have to say yes to everything she wants.”
Emma, 46, adds: “Except a dog. She can have whatever she wants, except a dog. Matt and the children are desperate for one, but I know I’ll end up looking after it.
“I’m probably stricter than Matt,” she says with a sigh. “He’s the fun dad. Yesterday, I said: ‘I am not the boring one – I swear I used to be fun.’ Matt went: ‘She’s the funnest chick I ever met.’ And I said: ‘But I’m not any more!’
“You become that parent: ‘Don’t do that.’ ‘Be careful.’ Protect, protect, protect. I start to hate the sound of my own voice.
“They are really good kids. I really don’t have anything to complain about, but I do sometimes feel the nag in me.
“To be fair, Matt can do it too [the discipline], but he’s also much better at playing with them. It’s: ‘Please, Mummy, can you play dollies?’ And I think: ‘I don’t want to play dollies, I want to just sit here.’
“But they’re bloody brilliant. I’ve been very blessed with three brilliant kids. They are very chill.”
While Emma is happy to heap praise on her husband and children, she is not so good at accepting it when it comes to herself: “I’m just plain average at most things,” she insists.
“I just like to do my best and not let anyone down. For me, I am average [at being a TV presenter].”
Despite being one of the most sought-after TV hosts in the country – currently fronting shows including The Voice, Cooking With The Stars (more on which later) and Emma Willis: Delivering Babies – she still struggles to believe she deserves her stellar 20-year career.
Children should be encouraged to express themselves, to play and to experiment with colour and clothes. What harm are they doing?
“It’s nice, but imposter syndrome is really very real,” says Emma, who’s been married to Matt since 2008.
“I have it quite a bit. Matt’s always going: ‘Stop it. It’s ridiculous. You are f**king great.’ But that still doesn’t mean I feel like I should be doing what I do.”
Even when Emma was offered the job presenting The Voice in 2013, she was convinced they had the wrong person.
“When the producers called me up, I said: ‘Did they mean to call Emma Forbes and they got the wrong surname?’ Someone’s f**ked up their Emmas here.
“I always say to my manager: ‘Who’s turned it down? Someone’s gotta have said no for them to ask me.’ I can feel her eyeroll as she says: ‘No one.’
“I like it when you get asked back to do something, then you know that you’ve done a good job. Maybe it’s because this wasn’t a vocation that I desperately wanted and
I didn’t ever expect to be in it. I should have ended up working in a hospital – but don’t get me wrong, I’m bloody glad I’m here.”
After starting out as a model at just 17, Emma fell into presenting at MTV in 2002. When her contract wasn’t renewed in 2005, she considered moving back to Birmingham and getting a “real job”. It was Eamonn Holmes and his wife Ruth Langsford who talked her out of it.
“I’ve always loved Eamonn and Ruth. Eamonn’s too bloody kind and Ruth gave me some sound advice early in my career.
“At the time, I’d only met her once or twice in passing, but her words stuck with me and I’ve often thought of them over the years whenever the imposter syndrome kicked in.
“In 2005, I was in a tiny broom cupboard in some random studio doing some random thing for Three Mobile that no one ever saw, when Ruth was doing the Travel Channel.
They’re bloody brilliant. I’ve been very blessed with three brilliant kids. They are very chill.
“I was like: ‘What the f**k am I doing?’ She said: ‘Give it time. If you need anything, give me a call.’”
Sure enough, in 2012, Emma got a job on This Morning alongside the couple, having presented Big Brother’s Little Brother in 2010, before being promoted to the main show in 2013.
“Now I think: ‘How did this happen?!’” she says with a smile. “I recently read something Jameela Jamil said about imposter syndrome and she summed it up well: ‘I always felt like I was the one at the party that snuck in and shouldn’t be there. I was waiting for someone to kick me out. But I’m in this party and I can either enjoy it or I can sit in the corner panicking the whole time.’
“So I’m trying to do that. I’m trying to have a good poker face and not s**t myself in the corner, thinking: ‘I’m going to get kicked out any second.’ Sometimes that’s really hard to do. I’m very happy. I’m not moaning. I’m enjoying the party.
“That’s one reason why I do enjoy it when I can – because it won’t be forever, it will end eventually. There are plenty more people coming up who are bloody fantastic.
“I’m a natural worrier, but I’ve never really been a planner in my work life. It’s a terrible combination. I’ll figure out what to do after we get there.”
One thing Emma hasn’t ruled out is retraining as a midwife. She’s getting ready to film a third series of W Channel’s Emma Willis: Delivering Babies, and coming from a family of NHS workers, she still feels it’s her true calling.
“My mum did it [she was a maternity care assistant] her whole life, and my dad worked in the NHS [as a hospital postman] for a large portion of his working life. I did my work experience in a hospital. I’m fascinated by the human body.
“Would I do it now? I met so many people who turned to midwifery when they were a little bit older, after their kids had grown up, so who knows?”
As for the rumoured return of Big Brother – which ended in 2018 and is reportedly being rebooted by ITV2 – Emma is less enthusiastic.
“I don’t know if I’d [present it]. You just never know what it’s going to be if it comes back. How do you make it new, fresh and different? I’ve said goodbye and let it go, so it would need someone new.
I’ve always loved Eamonn and Ruth. Eamonn’s too bloody kind and Ruth gave me some sound advice early in my career.
“I had a good run at it. With every reincarnation, it should have a new host. I think it’s still too soon to come back. It needs more time.”
When Emma’s predecessor Davina McCall spoke to Fabulous earlier this year, she said Big Brother could no longer exist the way it was because the contestants would be “cancelled” in every episode.
Emma agrees: “She’s got a point. What it started out as and what it became were very different things. It would be amazing if it was like year one and it was genuinely to see how people interact when they’re stripped of everything. That’s what I loved about it.”
Next week, Emma’s back on TV screens with the second series of ITV’s Cooking With The Stars. She hosts the show with pal Tom Allen, as professional chefs such as Clodagh McKenna and Rosemary Shrager compete alongside celebrities including Anne Hegerty and Anton Du Beke.
“We filmed it over a week and it was bloody brilliant,” says Emma. “A lot of the production team I know from Big Brother. It’s like family getting back together.
“And Tom, I absolutely adore. The chefs are always brilliant and the stars never want to drop the ball for the chefs. It’s just fun. I learn lots of tips – and I eat really well.”
While being around professional chefs means Emma has picked up a few things, she leaves most of the cooking at home to her husband.
“Matt’s a really good cook. He’s one of those people who bastes something, then slow cooks it for eight hours. I just chuck it all in a pan, cook it for a few hours and hopefully it tastes nice.
“I think I’d be all right on Cooking With The Stars. I think my problem is I’m quite anxious and I don’t like to be crap at stuff.”
Cooking With The Stars had another benefit for Emma – she got to indulge in discussing her favourite TV show, Strictly Come Dancing, with judge Anton.
“We talked a lot about Strictly. I’ve always wanted to be on it. I’ve never done it because that’s a really busy time for me. So unless I can commit to that 100% and do 12 hours a day dancing every day, I can’t do it, but I would love to.”
I’m a natural worrier, but I’ve never really been a planner in my work life. It’s a terrible combination. I’ll figure out what to do after we get there.
Previously, Emma banned Matt from taking part in the dancing competition because she was terrified of The Curse that has split up at least 14 couples. Does he feel similar?
“He’s right there, you can ask him,” Emma gestures towards her husband, who is lurking at the back of the studio, but he puts his head down and hides.
“A long time ago, I said it jokingly, but I imagine it would feel weird to see him dancing with someone else. But now, when he’s in the theatre [Matt is currently performing in stage show Waitress], I have to watch him snog and gyrate on a woman every night.
“I made those comments before I’d seen him do that. But it is something that goes through your head: ‘You’re gonna be with a really gorgeous, fit woman 12 hours a day… You’ll be all over each other.’
“But that says more about me and how paranoid I am than it does about Matt. Am I jealous? I suppose I am, but it’s because I love him so much.”
Even though they’ve been together nearly 20 years, the pair clearly fancy each other just as much as when they first met. Matt watches proudly as Emma poses for our pictures and smiles as she praises his cooking.
But what is the secret of their happy relationship when so many celebrity couples fail?
“I don’t know,” she says. “He’s very patient. I’m very patient. It’s really weird having him here listening to this. We’re both really happy together… I think. We talk, we laugh, we don’t really argue, and we get on. It helps that we like each other and we appreciate each other.
“I don’t know what makes it work. But it does. We are solid. No relationship is easy. You go through loads of s**t, whether that’s in a public relationship or not. But if a relationship was plain sailing, easy and simple, it probably would be quite boring.”
- Cooking With The Stars starts Tuesday, 8pm, ITV.
IN THE MAKE-UP CHAIR WITH EMMA
What are your skincare heroes?
I always use Dr Dennis Gross Hyaluronic Marine Meltaway Cleanser, as well as an SPF50 moisturiser.
Any make-up bag essentials?
Sweed Lash Lift Mascara, but that’s it. I wear enough make-up at work, so when I’m not working, I don’t bother.
What’s your best budget buy?
L’Oréal Magic Retouch Instant Root Concealer Spray. I’ve been caught out a lot by grey hairs coming through.
What’s your top beauty tip?
If you haven’t got eyebrows, get them microbladed.
Who’s your beauty icon?
Vanessa Kirby always looks incredible and chic. She’s flawless.
Describe your beauty evolution
I was really quite lucky – I started modelling at 17, so I watched the professionals and learned very quickly what not to do.
https://www.the-sun.com/lifestyle/5491201/ace-hate-gender-norms-emma-willis/ Matt and I still get hate for letting son Ace break gender norms