Holly Willoughby: ‘We're so used to sexism that we're desensitised to it'

The daytime TV star talks about being paid the same as her male co-host, dodging the paparazzi, and her friend Ant McPartlin

Holly Willoughby thinks most people see This Morning as a total mess. “The clips that are shared online tend to be us making mistakes,” she says. “So I think everybody assumes that it’s a complete shambles, that just descends into giggles every five minutes.” On the day we meet, a few hours after she’s clocked off from presenting duties, the show had begun on a sober note, launching Project 84, a campaign dedicated to raising awareness of the staggering number of male suicides in the UK. Later, the pair interviewed three women sporting extreme breast enlargements. “That is the beauty of This Morning right there,” she nods. “There’s total variety. We had our ladies with the humungous boobs, then Project 84. Opposite ends of the spectrum.”

This Morning is the kind of daytime magazine show that will cover the warning signs of coercive relationships in one segment, then the supposed resurrection of a pet cat in the next. It’s in its 30th year, and ever since its Richard and Judy days in Liverpool, it’s been a TV institution. Today, it pulls in more than a million viewers daily. Willoughby joined Phillip Schofield on the sofa in 2009 and their easy partnership has become one of the most fondly thought of on TV: Mel and Sue, Ant and Dec, Phil and Holly. Willoughby, 37, smiley, open, skirting prim but never quite landing on it, so wholesome-seeming in real life that I call her wholesome three times during our conversation, has, in turn, become a kind of nation’s sweetheart.

She’s been on TV for the best part of two decades, moving from Saturday morning kids’ shows through big-hitters like Surprise Surprise and Streetmate. She’s now one of the best-paid female presenters on TV, balancing This Morning and Dancing On Ice with her duties as a team captain on the ITV2 quiz(ish) show Celebrity Juice, where she’s spent 19 series batting away filthy innuendo from host Keith Lemon (Leigh Francis). She can cause a rush on the high street if something she’s worn on screen that day strikes the right note. She’s been the subject of fake reports that she’s leaving This Morning, and fake weight-loss ads using pictures of her running to promote a “cleanse”. The tabloids are now so obsessed with her life that one story recently guessed at what her west London home probably looked like, based on glimpses of it in the background of her posts on Instagram, where she has 3.5 million followers.

Her popularity seems quite new to her, though she’s careful to point out that I’m the one saying she’s popular, not her. “Funnily enough, the only thing that I used to read in articles was that I was blond and I was vapid. So it’s nice that you say that, but actually I’m the same person I was when being blond seemed to be the only thing I had going for me, to the same person I am now, to the same person I will be in five years’ time when everybody is bored and has moved on.” She is unflappable, professional, and a little brisk; she leans towards presenting, even when she’s the one answering questions. On-screen, she’s a master of the disapproving raised eyebrow, whether directed at Katie Hopkins explaining on This Morning why she won’t let her children socialise with other children if she considers their names to be “working class”, or letting Lemon repeatedly entice her to kiss Kelly Brook on Celebrity Juice.

Willoughby’s voice contains a touch of gravel that starts to waver whenever there’s a particularly emotional story on This Morning. She wells up regularly, at a young carer being treated for looking after her family, say, or a man discussing the loss of his wife, or even when breaking the news about the death of her beloved pet cat. It endears her to an audience who may be feeling the same way. “You can’t not get involved,” she shrugs. “When I first started, I used to try not to let that emotion come out. But it’s impossible. If I was watching at home, I’d be crying, and you know, you look at Twitter, and everyone’s like, oh God, me too, we were all set off.” Does that empathy come easily? “I guess so. I like real-life stories better than anything else. Talking is the only thing I can do. I can’t play an instrument, I could never have been on the West End. I don’t have anything else.”

Holly Willoughby

Previously, Willoughby has said she’d never experienced sexism in the TV industry. “I mean,” she says now, “I’ve never experienced sexism that has caused me pain or hurt me, and I don’t know whether that’s because we are so used to it being in our everyday worlds that we’re desensitised to it.”

She mentions an Instagram post she put up following the Brit awards in February, a collection of paparazzi attempts to “upskirt” female celebrities who had been out celebrating together. There were four shots – of her, Rita Ora, Louise Redknapp and Abbey Clancy – taken from a low position, in an attempt to snap underneath their dresses. “At the beginning of the night we held white roses and walked down a red carpet full of the hope and pride that comes with the #timesup campaign... at the end of the night, cameras were held low to get a photo up our skirts... times apparently up on #timesup,” she wrote. It has more than 260,000 likes.

“It happens every time you go out for a night, and has done since day dot,” she says. When she’s out with famous friends and they leave a party, she tells them, “‘Right, ready to run the gauntlet?’ And out you go. Actually, what a stupid phrase! The scariest thing about it is that you’re saying phrases like, ‘Ready to run the gauntlet?’ as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. That’s the worst bit.” The reason she decided to finally object, she says, is because of the Time’s Up sentiments that had defined the rest of the evening. “It just suddenly wasn’t OK. And it never was OK. And it shouldn’t be OK.”

Still, it was a break from her usually cheerful, fashion-led Instagram fodder, and she was nervous about posting it. “That was a scary one for me. It took a lot, because I knew what the response was going to be.” As with most things she does, it launched countless news stories. “But that’s great. That was the whole reason for doing it.” Some, however, had a different reaction. “The thing that terrified me was the comments. ‘Well you shouldn’t be wearing such a short skirt, then.’ My Instagram was full of it. Men and women. That’s when you go, we really do have a long way to go.” In an otherwise relentlessly upbeat conversation, she seems genuinely disappointed.

Holly Willoughby with This Morning co-host Phillip Schofield.
With This Morning co-host Phillip Schofield. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

In August last year, there were reports that Willoughby had been paid £200k less than Schofield for This Morning, news that emerged only after ITV announced that it had adjusted her salary to match his. She is reluctant to talk about the details, not because she’s being cagey, she insists, flustered, but because they have an ITV package that encompasses different presenting gigs, and it’s difficult to directly compare. “I feel like I’m speculating and it’s such a sensitive area and I don’t want to get it wrong. I feel like I might be putting my foot in it.” She shouts into the next room to her PR to clarify what the situation is, and he confirms that they’re on equal pay now. “Right, OK, fine. The first person that would be outraged is Phil, actually!” She relaxes the instant she talks about Schofield, and her affection for him is obvious. “He’d be devastated. He would be the first person to make a stand. He protects me in every other area of my life, so there’s no way he wouldn’t do that.” She and Schofield have never had an argument, she claims. “And now we’ve got to the stage where we’ll say the same things at the same time on screen, in the same way. It’s really weird. The only other person I’ve got that with is my sister.”

The pair found themselves on the receiving end of rare criticism when they seemed to pass over Ant McPartlin’s arrest for drink-driving on that day’s edition of This Morning. Willoughby has known him since their Saturday morning TV days. Did they deliberately avoid discussing it? “Not at all. Everybody knows that Ant is a very good friend of mine and I’ve known him for a very long time,” she sighs. “To be honest, on that first day, nobody knew what had happened, and you know, it’s an ongoing police case right now. It’s not something anybody should be talking about. Out of respect for him, I love him to bits, it’s not something that I find very easy to talk about. Because it’s a friend. His is not my story to tell.” She lowers her voice. “He’s just got to look after himself, that’s all.”

There’s an appeal common to both McPartlin and Willoughby; they’ve been on screen for so long, in so many different incarnations, that the public feels an ownership of them or, at the least, a close familiarity. Willoughby’s everywoman appeal has made her the face of a number of ad campaigns – for fashion websites, for hair dye, for a soft drink – and she is about to set up her own e-commerce site, Truly. It will launch in a few months, and is both a lifestyle brand and a blog, and the idea came from a series of baby books that she wrote with her sister. Is it a British Goop? She laughs. “So the only things I’ve heard on This Morning about Goop, we had some sort of vagina steamer thing that you put on the toilet with herbs and stuff. As yet, on our list, there’s no vagina steamer.” That’s disappointing. “I’m so sorry. I’ll bring it up in the next meeting.” Truly will also oversee a charitable foundation, she says, and an online community where people can talk and share. “For me, being a woman, it’s nice to have a space where you can have that honest, open conversation that isn’t too militant or frightening or one-way. It’s going to be very open and welcoming.”

Open and welcoming is Brand Willoughby in a nutshell. Does she think she’s wholesome? “I don’t know! Christ! And if I am, I don’t know how! If wholesome is having a family that you cherish and love, and liking to go home, and being content – yes. If wholesome is rocking up to This Morning after the NTAs having been out all night? I don’t know what your level of wholesome is.” She’s referring to the time that she and Schofield received a National Television Award in 2016, and presented the show, the next day, a little worse for wear, having not been home. The clip was watched more than 3.5m times on YouTube. (This year, having won another, they presented some of the morning-after show from a bed, and ran a viewers’ poll to find out who was handling their hangover best.) To see the co-hosts bleary-eyed and even more giggly than usual, acting out a near walk-of-shame on morning TV, only added to the show’s reputation for (polite) chaos. So there’s no need for a certain degree of decorum to present daytime TV? “I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m any different on Celebrity Juice or daytime telly. It’s what’s going on around me that’s different. I don’t suddenly become all outrageous and rude on Celebrity Juice.”

Holly Willoughby on Celebrity Juice
On Celebrity Juice. Photograph: ITV/Talkback Thames

Willoughby’s husband, Dan Baldwin, is an executive producer on the show, a raucous blend of Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Shooting Stars and the untamed imagination of a randy teenage boy. Willoughby is one team captain, Fearne Cotton is the other. She recalls a task where she had to suck a sock that had a chicken pie in it, to guess the contents, and that is by far one of the cleanest challenges the show has seen. On one birthday, Lemon gave her a card inscribed, “Even though you are up the duff and getting old, I would still smash your back doors in…” (“The answer’s no,” she replied, raising a stern eyebrow.) Its humour is defiantly puerile, and sneakily contagious. In the early days, her nickname on it was Willoughbooby, which has morphed into Willoughboozey, after she appeared to be slightly drunk on set on one episode. “That was Halloween, yeah? I think I was a little bit tipsy. Shall we go back to the wholesome question?” she laughs.

She is, she says, as if preempting an attack, very good at defending Celebrity Juice now. “It’s really good fun, and I’m with Fearne and Leigh and Gino [D’Acampo], and we have a really good time.” The humour can be quite to the bone… “Again, I get asked this quite a lot.” She has a way of briskly jumping on to a question, to get to the end more efficiently. “Yes, he’s cheeky, and yes, he’s naughty, but he’s actually the butt of our jokes. It’s us that are the empowered two.” So you don’t think… “I know what you’re going to ask. Sexist. It’s a good opportunity to say – no.” She shrugs. “Because I think we are so in control and so in charge of that situation. It’s light, it’s cheeky, it’s not offensive. Occasionally [Francis] can say the odd thing, and even he goes, oooh. But it’s quite a unique show, actually. There’s not many shows that have that sense of freedom.”


Willoughby grew up in Brighton and was a teen model before ending up on the small screen. Like Erin O’Connor, Vernon Kay and Cat Deeley before her, she was spotted in the crowd of the Clothes Show Live, and signed up at 16 by the agency Storm. She became the kind of “commercial girl” who did shoots for mags like Just Seventeen and Mizz. “I loved Just Seventeen. Imagine being on the cover at that age! It was the best feeling in the world.” Her experience of modelling was positive, largely, she thinks, because she wasn’t a fashion model doing catwalk shows. Her world was “age-appropriate, almost. It wasn’t the environment to see that darker, seedier side”.

At the 2018 Brit awards with a ‘Time’s Up’ white rose
At the 2018 Brit awards with a ‘Time’s Up’ white rose. Photograph: Karwai Tang/WireImage

She was hired as the fashion expert for a series of S Club TV, a Sunday morning show that aired in 2000, when she turned up expecting it to be a casting for a modelling shoot. She spent the next couple of years behind the scenes, working as a receptionist for a production company, then as a runner for a late-night TV auction channel. What did they sell? “Oh, lapis lazuli globes. Diamonique rings,” she hams. In the end, it was while working as a barmaid on Kings Road in Chelsea (“I could do a really good shamrock on the top of my pints”) that led to her big break when one of the regulars asked her what she wanted to do with her life. She mentioned her S Club days; it turned out that he worked in TV, for Endemol, and asked to see her showreel. Eventually, that led to a stint on CBBC. At 23, she co-hosted Ministry Of Mayhem, ITV’s Saturday morning children’s show.

She still has a sheen of that TV style. “There was no other training ground like kids’ telly for becoming a TV presenter,” she explains. “Ant and Dec, me, Phil, Reggie [Yates] and Fearne [Cotton, one of Willoughby’s closest friends] – we all came from kids’ telly.” It means, she thinks, that they can all deal with the hectic pace of live television, and that they can pick up the slack if it all starts to fall apart. “I say this very much as the one who lets it descend into utter chaos,” she laughs, “but I like it to be organised chaos. Having a laugh and giggling is OK. Technically messing up, or just dropping the ball, is not.”

Holly Willoughby and Dan Baldwin
With husband Dan Baldwin. Photograph: Samir Hussein/WireImage

That efficiency is part of why live TV appeals to her. “It suits my get-in, get-out mentality. I’m very much, get to work, do my job, go home. One of my worst phrases in the world is, ‘Just one more for luck.’ I can’t bear it. If it’s done and everyone’s happy, then I just want to go home.” One of the producers on Ministry Of Mayhem was Baldwin, whom Willoughby married in 2007, when she was 26. They have three kids: Harry, nine, Belle, seven, and Chester, three. She refers to Baldwin as “my Dan” and says they were friends for a couple of years before they got together. “We had this ridiculous friendship,” she recalls. “It went from not knowing each other, to being the best of friends. I adored him. Didn’t fancy him, he didn’t fancy me. There was one moment when we cheersed, and I just looked at him, and went” – she inhales dramatically – “Oh my God, I fancy him. And that was it.”

Did he really not fancy you? “He says he didn’t,” she says, then pauses. And you believe him? “Well, he either played an absolute blinder, or… maybe he did, who knows,” she laughs. “He had a very good way of hiding it, if he did.” When they had Harry, it made her choosy about the jobs she took. “They constantly call me Little Miss No at work. If I’m going to be away from the kids and doing something, it has to be for a good reason.”

Like Davina McCall before her, who occupies a similar place in the public’s affections, Willoughby is well aware that attaching her face to an ad campaign can make people want to buy something. Most days, she posts her outfit to Instagram, with the hashtag #hwstyle, which started, she claims, because it was an efficient way of fielding inquiries. “Because every day, our online team would come running in and go, ‘Sorry, I know you’re in the middle of the show, but where’s your top from?’” Posting it saves time, but like Nigella using certain kitchenware or fancy spices, it can also shift units.

It’s put her into a position of unexpected power when it comes to the high street. Why do people like what she wears so much? “Sometimes when you see clothes online you don’t quite believe those clothes: you think they’ve been airbrushed. On This Morning, it’s a really good opportunity to see how clothes work in real life. You believe that if you bought that skirt, you’d look like that, too.” A new stylist, Angie Smith, has recently helped her hone a sharper, cooler style. “Some things she has to push me on, because I’m a bit safe,” she says.

I ask if she ever turns up at the studio in… “This?” she jumps in, gesturing with faux modesty. What she’s wearing – a blue jumper, black skinny jeans, squeaky clean white trainers – is immaculate; I was going to say a full tracksuit. “No. It has been known though!” she smiles. “I get the bike to and from the studio, so I have to make sure I can hop on the back.” The motorbike is waiting outside for her now. She’s got to go. She says goodbye, crisply, and she’s off. For a talker, she’s not one for much small talk. As she said, she likes to get in, do the job, and go home.

• Commenting on this piece? If you would like your comment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email weekend@theguardian.com, including your name and address (not for publication).

Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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