Emma Willis thinks she may have cracked the secret to looking (and feeling) youthful, even when you’re peri-menopausal. The answer? Marry someone seven years your junior.
After all, that’s what Emma, 47 — who, over the years, has presented TV shows from Big Brother and The Circle to The Voice — did when she hitched herself to Matt Willis, bassist with the band Busted, 15 years ago.
‘People just think I am Matt’s age, which is 40, and I am like, ‘Yes! I am!’ laughs Emma. ‘It’s a good mind trick, that’s for sure.’
Yet marriage to Matt — father of their children Isabelle, 14, Ace, 12 and Trixie, seven — has been far from a breeze.
Earlier this year, we found out just how tough in a heartbreaking BBC documentary called Matt Willis: Fighting Addiction, which charted his decades-long struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.
Multi-tasking: TV presenter, wife and mum of three Emma Willis. Soon Emma will begin filming the second season of travelogue/cookery show The World Cook, with Fred Sirieix, the host of First Dates
Matt has been clean and sober for more than five years now, but admitted he was terrified of relapsing.
In the programme, which was nominated for a National Television Award, we saw Emma in the couple’s spacious Hertfordshire home, reading the diary she kept in the run-up to their wedding in 2008. It listed, Emma said sadly, ‘Notes of what I knew he had consumed’.
She reads a couple of entries: ‘bottle of champagne… couple of wines… couple of wines… another bottle of champagne and more… and more’, meaning drugs. Something was ‘consumed every single day without fail’.
‘I used to drive around looking for him,’ she said, holding back tears. There’d been years of relapses, the last when their youngest Trixie was ten months old. But, despite her grave misgivings, today she tells me her support didn’t waver.
‘I trusted my gut. Most of the time it’s my motto for life and with Matt it worked. You could see in him he wanted to be better.’
It must have been devastating to revisit these tumultuous times in the documentary, but it has, she says, made the couple stronger.
‘There was an understanding we’d had before, but it is now on another level,’ Emma says.
‘It was a weird one because we’re very close anyway, but because [Matt’s drug use] happened so long ago we were like, “Everything’s good”, we hadn’t felt the need to bring it all back up.
‘But to be able to reflect on what that time was like, with hindsight, was really emotional and incredibly hard.
Fame game: Emma with husband Matt, bassist with the band Busted in 2006. The couple appeared in BBC documentary Matt Willis: Fighting Addiction, which charted his decades-long struggle with drug and alcohol addiction
‘Although it sounds weird, it was also therapeutic and nice. Normally all the focus is on the addict and trying to get that person better, so it was definitely helpful for Matt to see what it had been like for everyone else.’
In return, it made her appreciate the effort required for him to stay sober.
‘Over the years, I’ve probably taken for granted that he’s fine, because that’s how he appears on the outside. I hadn’t really thought before about how, if you’re an addict, you have to turn up every day.
‘I’ve learned now, ‘Don’t take it for granted because this is a process that will last for ever’.’
The documentary ends with Matt — whom Emma first met when she interviewed him and his bandmates for MTV — warning her that Busted were about to start their reunion tour.
Knowing he’d previously relapsed on tour, she smiles wryly. ‘I’m fine now,’ she says on-camera. ‘If I’m not I’ll tell you.’
That tour began at the start of this month. So how does she feel now they’re actually on the road? Emma’s expression grows more serious, but she speaks calmly and confidently.
‘Well, he has been on tour since [becoming sober], but [touring] is a time when your routine is out of whack. But the documentary really opened everyone’s eyes. The band is now really aware and supportive.’
Despite their ups and downs, the couple are clearly in it for the long haul. They have just signed up to present a British version of the Netflix hit reality show Love Is Blind, where people agree to marry someone they have spoken to but never met in person, which will be broadcast next year.
Meanwhile, they take turns at holding the fort when the other is away with work.
Soon Emma will begin filming the second season of travelogue/cookery show The World Cook, with Fred Sirieix, the host of First Dates, and it will be Matt’s turn to be around for the children.
They’re helped by Emma’s younger sister Becky who, with no children of her own, lives with the family in their sprawling £1.7 million home.
By 17, Emma had appeared in Vogue and modelled for Chanel and Gap. At 26 she was approached by MTV to become a presenter
There’s also support from her parents Steve, a retired hospital postman, and Cathy, a maternity care assistant, who, in contrast to Matt’s family (his parents divorced when he was three and he had a ‘heated’ relationship with his stepfather), have been married for nearly 50 years, giving their daughter the blueprint for a stable marriage. Both worked at their local hospital in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham.
Emma qualified for the same job as her mother in order to make her four acclaimed series of Delivering Babies. She still tries to return to the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, Essex, where it was filmed, for a couple of months each year.
‘It’s the life I was meant to have had and doing that job is a real leveller,’ she says.
Emma’s ‘very normal’, in her words, upbringing makes her eminently relatable to a TV audience, but for years it also left her feeling like she didn’t quite deserve a glamorous job in TV.
I’ve always been a people-pleaser, but now I’m better at saying no
After all, she fell into that world unexpectedly at 15, after her mother sent her picture to a modelling agency, who snapped her up.
By 17, she had appeared in Vogue and modelled for Chanel and Gap. At 26 she was approached by MTV to become a presenter.
‘I lived a life that was not expected, in a world so far removed from what you thought was actually accessible to you. It does give you imposter syndrome, because you’re like, ‘I shouldn’t be here’. This was not my designated lane.’
Self-deprecating, and with a refreshingly dry sense of humour, Emma is sitting in a room close to the studio where she’s having her photos taken, wearing white trousers and a yellow crochet top and not a scrap of make-up.
‘I’ve had to wear make-up for every job I’ve had from the age of 17, so I’ve always tried to not wear any when I’m off-duty. It’s like a holiday for me,’ she shrugs.
‘When you have kids or you’re working — whatever keeps you busy — make-up is just another layer of taking up time. So, to be more time efficient, I do as little as possible.
‘Plus, as you get older the texture of your skin changes and I feel make-up actually can accentuate little imperfections, rather than hiding them.’
With 50 on the horizon, Emma has embraced a higher-maintenance way of life. For exercise, she does Pilates, weight training, boxing and rowing on a machine, and she wears a sleep-tracking ring, which gauges her sleep quality via metrics such as her heart rate and temperature
That attitude explains why Emma was happy to pose for a set of make-up-free pictures promoting Absolute Collagen, the collagen sachets founded by her friend Maxine Laceby, with its slogan Dare To Go Bare.
‘It was really refreshing doing a professional shoot without make-up. It was a bit nerve-racking because you want to make sure the light is right. But on my social media, any pictures I post outside work are make-up-free, so why should this be any different?’
I doubt the majority of us who lack Emma’s extraordinary bone structure would be quite so brave.
She’s vague when I ask about tweakments, admitting only to BBL (‘Not a Brazilian butt lift! It’s laser treatment that feels like little elastic bands pinging against your skin’) to repair some sun damage and to having her eyebrows regularly microbladed (‘It’s a game-changer’) to accentuate her piercing blue eyes.
But whatever tricks she has at her disposal, the fact she ever goes publicly make-up-free still makes her approximately 1,000 times less vain than your average telly face.
Still, she admits, with 50 on the horizon she’s having to embrace a higher-maintenance way of life.
‘There was this kind of carefreeness to my 30s. But in my 40s, not my life, but my body is starting to feel a bit shattered.
‘These days I never wake up and don’t feel sore, not just from working out but from sleeping. I can’t find a comfortable position, my neck and shoulders are all over the place.
‘So, having taken it all for granted, I’m now trying to look after myself because Matt’s really into being healthy and wants us to be climbing mountains when we’re 80. That’s a lot of pressure!’
She’s also been spurred on by seeing her parents, now in their 70s. ‘They’re still active and mobile and loving life but I see these little ailments creeping in — Dad’s getting slower going up stairs, his knees and his ankles hurt, and Mum has a really dodgy back, so it’s like, ‘Oh right, these are my genetics. What can I do to avoid that?’
Emma went make-up-free in a set of pictures promoting Absolute Collagen, the collagen sachets founded by her friend Maxine Laceby, with its slogan Dare To Go Bare
Emma has regular health MoTs to monitor things like her cholesterol (‘too high’) and testosterone levels (‘too low’). ‘I’m really into gut health as well. I love all that. I just love anything about the human body.’
Changes she’s recently made include drinking more water —she’s carrying a vast three-litre refillable bottle when we chat and swigs from it frequently. ‘God, do I pee a lot now,’ she grins.
For exercise, she does Pilates, weight training, boxing and rowing on a machine — although she generally hates anything that makes her sweaty.
She’s also started wearing a sleep-tracking ring, which gauges her sleep quality via metrics such as her heart rate and temperature.
‘Now I know how sugar massively impacts my sleep, and so do blue lights before bed, so I try to put my phone away straight after supper.’
Matt’s back on tour, but the band is now really aware and supportive… I’ve learned [dealing with addiction] is a process that’ll last for eve
Watching her children grow up has been bitter-sweet. ‘My seven-year-old has always been my little baby, but even she is not so little any more. I think, ‘What am I going to do with no tiny ones?’ I’ll really miss it. Part of me goes ‘Oh gosh, should we have had another baby?’
‘Or will I cave and get a dog? They all want one, but I’m the one who will be made to look after it and I’ve got enough on my plate.
‘My sneaky plan is to get one when they’ve all left and that will be my way of enticing them home again!’
For now, perimenopausal brain fog has Emma in its grip. She frequently loses track of sentences, laughingly searching for words.
She’s tried to be as honest as possible with the children about menopause, which she’s entering just as Isabelle has her own hormonal teenage challenges.
‘Touch wood, she’s fantastic at the moment, but she’s like, ‘So we’re both kind of feeling a little bit all over the place?’ My son is just like, ‘Thank God I’m not a girl’.’
And how’s Matt? ‘He’s brilliant. He’s used to the mood swings.’
But growing older definitely has its advantages, too, as Emma learns to focus on herself instead of others.
‘I’ve always been a people-pleaser and now I think, sometimes, I probably shouldn’t have been,’ she says. ‘But I’m getting better at saying no without apologising profusely.
‘Like a lot of women, I’ve always found the ‘prioritise yourself’ thing difficult, but that’s another thing I’ve learned from Matt. He obviously has to prioritise his mental health and now I get that I need to do these things too.’
Pictured with Matt Goss (left) and Luke Goss of UK band Bros, Emma has been in the public eye for 20 years
It helps that the children need her less. ‘When they were all little I was so busy with work, the one hour I might have in a day I wanted to spend with them. But now they don’t want to be with me, they’re in their bedrooms talking to their mates anyway, so it’s like I might as well go to the gym.’
At the same time, the feeling that she’s just a girl from Sutton Coldfield who is unworthy of success has finally vanished.
‘With age you realise you actually are quite capable. It helps that there are so many women in their 50s on television who are thriving: whether it’s Gabby Logan or Davina [McCall], they’re cheerleaders and they’re changing the narrative.’
She continues, ‘With everything I’ve ever done I’ve always felt I was lucky just to be there, but if you took off those limitations, what could you achieve?
‘There’s always this little voice in your head going, ‘Oh, it’s not going to last too long, don’t get too comfortable’. But actually, it has been 20 years. Maybe it’s going to be all right!’
- Emma has partnered with Absolute Collagen to help launch its first-ever skincare range ‘Deep Lift’, empowering women to feel Strong In Your Skin by embracing their natural beauty.