From the comfort of a battered old Chesterfield armchair in a north London studio, Holly Willoughby is reliving one of her worst television moments – interviewing the then prime minister Gordon Brown.
‘I was dreadful,’ she says of the interview which took place in 2009, just two months after she’d joined ITV’s This Morning alongside Phillip Schofield.
‘The worst thing was that so many people in the industry had said I couldn’t do that job. I wanted to prove myself.
‘I sat with the producers, discussing it for ages. Then when it came to the interview I was trying to read out questions from the script.
Holly Willoughby relives her most embarrassing moments including interviewing the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown
‘I was saying words I didn’t even understand, mangling up sentences and completely floundering. I was awful.
‘Various critics had said, ‘She’ll be OK with the fluffy fashion pieces but how will she do a serious political interview?’ And they were right.
‘Presenting that show is about being able to do everything from light to serious. I wasn’t up to the job.’
Yet 13 years on, Holly, 41, has proved everyone – including herself – wrong. She is not only the queen of ITV daytime but one of the most successful female presenters, fronting prime-time shows from the BBC’s The Voice UK to ITV’s Surprise, Surprise and Dancing On Ice.
In 2018, when she replaced Ant McPartlin to co-host I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! alongside Declan Donnelly (not an easy gig), she won rave reviews from viewers.
Right now she’s fronting two major new entertainment shows. The BBC’s Freeze The Fear With Wim Hof sees the Dutch extreme athlete teach stars including Tamzin Outhwaite, Strictly’s Dianne Buswell and sports presenter Gabby Logan how to conquer fear through exposure to ice-cold conditions.
Then next month she fronts The Games, in which celebrities including ex-Strictly pro Kevin Clifton and newsreader Lucrezia Millarini compete in a series of Olympic-style sports disciplines.
The TV presenter, 41, reveals how she struggled at school with dyslexia and would mumble into her sleeve, afraid that anything she said would be ‘stupid’
‘I am not and will never be perfect as a presenter,’ she says. ‘I don’t try to be perfect any more because it really doesn’t matter.
‘I listen to the production team but I’ll then ask the questions I want to ask, things I think are important. Even if I don’t say things exactly right or words still come out wrong – because I’m dyslexic – people understand where I’m coming from.
‘They get me. That’s given me confidence, changed me and my life.
‘The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that being myself works. I have to trust in myself.
‘In my twenties and thirties I felt incredibly grateful I was given presenting jobs in TV. I never really thought I was good enough, I felt lucky people liked me.
‘I had massive impostor syndrome and yes, I was underestimated but, more importantly, I underestimated myself.’
She says working on This Morning’s been a huge part of her evolution, which is why – despite endless rumours – she has no plans to leave anytime soon. ‘I love the show, I’ve grown with it. I’ve been there 13 years and I’m not going anywhere.’
Over the past decade, Holly, whose This Morning outfits sell out within hours when she posts pictures of herself wearing them on Instagram, has also become one of the most successful celebrity brands of our time. Like Gwyneth Paltrow (‘I love her, she was ahead of her time’) she has her own lifestyle company, Wylde Moon, where you can buy a piece of Holly in the form of a candle, necklace or bottle of perfume.
I am not and will never be the perfect presenter, but people understand where I’m coming from. They get me
You can also listen to her interview like-minded souls or read interviews with women who’ve inspired her, such as Essex mum Jo Cope who rescued her friend’s three Ukrainian children and brought them home to live with her.
And as for those serious political interviews, the mother of three has helped This Morning – which has picked up a hatful of National Television Awards on her watch – become the programme political leaders want to appear on because a cosy sofa chat with Holly and Phil can help voters see a more human side of them.
Since the disastrous Gordon affair she’s interviewed three more PMs, Theresa May, David Cameron and Boris Johnson. She still makes mistakes.
For some unknown reason (she has no clue to this day) she curtsied to Theresa May. The fact she burst out laughing live on air, horrified by her gaffe, is a large part of the reason she’s become the nation’s sweetheart.
Pictured: Holly aged five with her older sister Kelly. At school Holly didn’t speak. She says: ‘Being dyslexic puts you at the bottom of the class’
Her presenting style may be less pugnacious than the likes of Susanna Reid, but it is purely her own. Holly operates on an emotional level that chimes with these more empathetic times.
Last month on This Morning, a clip of a young Ukrainian girl singing made tears run down Holly’s cheeks. It wasn’t exactly professional but it reflected exactly what the audience was feeling.
Holly has also broken TV’s glass ceiling by insisting on equal pay with her male counterpart Phil (an estimated £730,000 per year). ‘As a woman, that’s something I’m very proud of,’ she says.
Regardless of her television image, she’s happy to go to the supermarket dressed down in jeans without wearing any make-up.
‘Although occasionally someone will look worried as they peer at my face and say, ‘Are you OK? You don’t look well,’ And I’ll say, ‘I’m fine, this is what I look like without mascara.’ It makes me laugh.’
The youngest of two daughters of double-glazing sales manager Brian and former air hostess Lynn, Holly has become the woman she never thought she would be. Married to television producer Dan Baldwin (whose company created the Wim Hof series), she has three children, Harry, 12, Belle, 11, and seven-year-old Chester, a £3 million house in London and a golden retriever called Bailey.
As television’s current golden girl she’s worth a cool £10 million.
‘I’m probably the one most surprised by the position I’m now in,’ she says. ‘I never thought I’d be successful. At school I didn’t speak. Being dyslexic puts you at the bottom of the class.
Pictured: Holly with her husband Dan. Regardless of her television image, she’s happy to go to the supermarket dressed down in jeans without wearing any make-up
‘I had no confidence. I hid behind my fringe and if anyone other than my friends spoke to me, I’d mumble into my sleeve, worrying that anything I said would be stupid.’
It was her looks, however, that got her noticed. Aged 14, she was scouted as a model and, true to form, she failed to hit the expected marks.
‘I’d walk into an audition for a toothpaste commercial,’ she says. ‘I had no idea I’d be given a script or expected to act.
‘I can’t act, so I’d mess up the script and leave. Then I’d go back for another audition and the same would happen.
‘Eventually I learnt how to make it work. I’d get booked for jobs and that really helped my confidence.
‘It’s also made me immune to being embarrassed, which as a mum has become my superpower.
‘If my kids aren’t behaving when we’re out I tell them that if they don’t stop I’m going to start singing loudly – and I sing very badly – and they stop immediately. I am absolutely unembarrassable – it’s terrifying.’
At 19, she got a job as a presenter of children’s show S Club TV but after a year her career stalled. She found a job as a receptionist for now-defunct shopping channel Auction World TV, then as a runner and assistant floor manager, supplementing her meagre pay working as a cleaner and giving manicures and pedicures.
Within two years she began getting small presenting jobs, then in 2004 she got another break into children’s television, hosting Ministry Of Mayhem alongside Stephen Mulhern. It was on this show that she met her future husband, executive Dan, and her career really began.
Today she’s dressed down in black jeans and a white T-shirt, apologising now and again for blowing her nose from a streaming cold after a recent bout of Covid. At the mention of Dan she suddenly smiles.
As much as she’s happy to talk about her success, her real comfort zone is her family. ‘If my career tanked tomorrow I know I’d be fine,’ she says.
‘But if something happened with my marriage or my family, that would be the end of my world.’
She’s strict about balancing work and family time. This is a woman who can pull an outfit on and off in a matter of seconds to be camera-ready in minutes.
‘I do everything fast – hair, make-up – and I’ll walk off set as soon as filming finishes because nothing will stop me getting home to my kids.’
When she became the face of beauty company Garnier, she discovered that by dyeing her own hair she could save hours previously spent in a salon.
If my career tanked I know I’d be fine, but if anything happened with my family…
‘I do it myself and now go to the hairdresser’s twice a year for highlights,’ she says. ‘I want to be the one chatting to my kids after school, making the dinner, putting them to bed. I am their mum.’
During filming of Freeze The Fear, which she co-hosts with comedian Lee Mack, Holly spent two and a half weeks in northern Italy away from her three kids but – for the first time in years – alone with her husband, the executive producer of the show.
‘That was pretty special,’ she says. ‘Dan and I met through work, we’re in the same business, and apart from loving him I have a lot of respect for him and we work really well together.
‘Then we had this time without the kids. We’d sit on the balcony of our hotel room drinking Aperol Spritz and eating pizza.
‘It was the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing my children because even when I filmed I’m A Celebrity they all flew to Australia after a week to be with me.
‘I was working a week in Italy then flying to London on a Saturday night to film Dancing On Ice on a Sunday. I couldn’t go home because of Covid regulations, I had to stick to just two places of filming.
‘So Saturday nights, on my own, I cried a lot. Never in front of the kids, but we did a lot of Zooms.
Holly pictured with Philip Schofield on the set of This Morning
‘My mum was with the kids. They were having a wonderful time. Harry was more interested in knowing what Lee Mack was up to, rather than me and Dan, as he’s a huge fan.’
When she started out in television Holly felt pressured to fit in with the prevailing ‘ladette’ image of the early noughties.
‘That was never really me,’ she says. Her ideal night in involves Marks & Spencer chicken Kievs, mashed potatoes, pyjamas, slippers and hours of Bridgerton. She meditates every morning, adores Agatha Christie detectives Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, and loves to cook (‘I do a good spaghetti Bolognese and a Sunday roast’) and hang out with her kids and close girlfriends (her circle includes Emma Bunton and Nicole Appleton).
‘Friends are so important. We’re our own little therapy group. Everyone is pretty busy, so we try to have lunches and we have a WhatsApp group called My Girls. I don’t think anyone can exist without friends.’
For an imperfect woman her life seems pretty perfect. ‘I can’t bake, I’ve never watched a scary movie, I can’t learn dance moves and I can’t drive a manual car.
‘And since Covid I’ve pretty much stopped going out,’ she says. ‘But that’s OK. I like who I am.
‘I love that getting older does make you wiser and more confident about being true to yourself. I’m excited about the future.’
- Freeze The Fear With Wim Hof, Tuesdays, 9pm, BBC1. The Games is live on ITV and ITV Hub in May. Holly’s book Reflections is out now (Century, £19.99)