She’s faced down her childbirth demons for a TV show and grilled the most controversial ever Big Brother contestant. TV presenter Emma Willis is made of far stronger stuff than her primetime glossiness suggests.
Emma Willis is used to the adrenaline rush of live television. But for her latest TV gig – a new documentary series called Emma Willis: Delivering Babies – she experienced live action of an entirely different kind, and promptly fainted. ‘One minute I was standing in this operating theatre completely transfixed,’ explains Emma, who volunteered to train as a maternity care assistant for the series. ‘Next thing I knew I was coming round having hit the deck, a row of blue hospital-issue Crocs slowly coming into focus.’
Before you jump to obvious conclusions, it wasn’t the blood – it may sound odd but it turns out blood is one of Emma’s favourite things, so obsessed is she with all matters medical. This was a reaction that had nothing to do with squeamishness; it was a deep, visceral response to her own traumatic childbirth experience. Emma had been determined to relive the procedure she herself had endured nine years previously following the birth of her first daughter, Isabelle. (After a long labour she’d ended up in theatre for a forceps delivery; it was 12 weeks before she was able to sit properly.) She says watching the surgery was intended as a sort of closure. ‘I remember the new mum being wheeled into theatre, saying to me, “Are you sure you want to watch this?” I wanted to understand and witness what I’d been through – knowledge is power – but the subconscious reaction of my body was total horror. I tried to make excuses afterwards, “Ooh, it’s a bit hot in here,” but I’m sure it was a deep response to what I’d been through.’
As you can probably deduce, Delivering Babies is very much a departure from Emma’s usual ‘Saturday night on the sofa’ fare. The 42-year-old former model, who made her name presenting on MTV, has up until now largely hosted shiny, highly produced shows such as The Voice UK (where her job is to curb the judges’ egos and massage the contestants’), while over on Big Brother she’s proved a popular master of ceremonies, purveyor of post-eviction hugs and, most recently, uncompromising interviewer. If you combine Emma’s unflinching desire to watch an operation from which most of us would run a mile with her much praised handling of a particularly controversial Big Brother housemate, then it’s fair to say the nation has a tougher, more tenacious Emma Willis than her glossy TV roles may have led us to assume.
This summer, Emma’s interview with Celebrity Big Brother contestant Roxanne Pallett made headlines after the former Emmerdale actress accused a fellow housemate, actor Ryan Thomas, of physically abusing her. The accusation centred on an incident inside the Big Brother house that appeared to be little more than a jovial play fight – more sibling nudge than violent punch – and Roxanne’s claim that she’d been deliberately hurt provoked widespread outrage. Critics said she was playing the victim and had set back the work of domestic violence charities.
In the sometimes murky waters of #MeToo the incident was at the very least a lesson in how easy it is to falsely accuse someone of something that could affect their life for ever. ‘I was shocked at what unfolded – it was almost like a plot from a soap opera,’ Emma tells me. ‘Thank God there were cameras, because it could have ruined Ryan, such was the gravity of the situation.’ By the time Roxanne left the house of her own accord, the incident had escalated on social media to such an extent that she later declared herself ‘the most hated girl in Britain’.
Emma’s exit interview with Roxanne was impressively no-nonsense, her steely expression inspiring many an online meme. ‘Was I steely? To me I was just having a conversation about something that was really serious,’ she says. ‘Sometimes we do have light, fluffy chats about people in the Big Brother house and then sometimes really serious s*** happens in there and you’ve got to be able to ask the questions everybody is thinking.’ Viewers applauded Emma for showing little sympathy toward Roxanne. ‘I’ve never tried to impose my view on the audience, but when something like this happens, something that felt so wrong, I couldn’t hide my own opinions,’ she says.
There were suggestions from the Twittersphere that Emma should be next in line for David Dimbleby’s job on the BBC’s Question Time, which she finds most amusing. Is she up for it? ‘No, definitely not! The interview with Roxanne went well because I know my subject matter inside out. I don’t know politics, so no, I would not like that job!’
Anyone who knows Emma understands the job she’d far rather have would be on a hospital ward. Working in a hospital was a childhood dream, her original career plan A. On Delivering Babies, working eight- to 13-hour shifts alongside midwives at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, Essex was the realisation of a long-held ambition. Emma was cleaning beds, making tea and mopping up all manner of things. ‘If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it properly. The whole point is that it had to be a fully immersive experience, night shifts and all,’ she says. ‘I even took blood. I can now take blood from another human being.’
Growing up in the West Midlands, as a teenager Emma chose to work in a residential care home every Saturday. ‘I loved it, and I loved working because I didn’t want to ask my parents for more money. I could see they worked their a***s off and I wanted to earn my own money.’ She idolised her mother, Cathy, who worked as a maternity care assistant herself. ‘I used to pray that my dad [a postman] and I would arrive early to collect her from shifts so we’d have the excuse to go on to her ward,’ she says. ‘I always assumed I’d work in a hospital too.’
Until, that is, a model scout persuaded the 17-year-old Emma to move from her family home in Sutton Coldfield to London to try her hand at modelling. Before she knew it she was working for glossy magazines and brands including Gap and Chanel. This ultimately led to that presenting gig on MTV.
Despite the glamorous detour, Emma’s hankering for a job in a hospital persisted, and her own experience of them seems only to have spurred her on. ‘After I gave birth to Isabelle I thought my body would never heal. But it is true what they say: I would go through that amount of pain again for this amount of joy.
‘And I remember looking at my midwife, who was there when I was at my most vulnerable, when my life was about to change for ever, and thinking, “Wow, what a job,”’ she says. ‘I truly believe being a midwife is the greatest job for a feminist. It’s women helping women, believing in them at a time when they’re thinking, “Am I ever going to get through this?”’
And after spending almost three months on the wards, she’s still in awe, though she’s not pretending it has been easy. ‘What I’ve learnt is that being a midwife is not a job about cute babies,’ she says. ‘And as a maternity care assistant there’s a lot of cleaning involved. It’s a vocation. You’re either happy to do things for other people, and you don’t mind the gore, or you’re running the other way.
‘Midwives absolutely do not get paid enough,’ Emma says firmly. ‘When you think about what they are doing – you can’t put a price on that.’ She didn’t hear much complaining from the other midwives about their own situations (though maybe it would be awkward to bring up money with a highly paid TV star, no matter how much she blended in). ‘They weren’t the type to moan, they just got on with things.’ The same can’t be said for some non-maternity patients. ‘When we were filming outside the hospital, I’d hear so many negative comments and people whingeing about waiting times at A&E. I wanted to turn around and say, “Shut up! You don’t know what’s going on, they’re working so hard in there.”’ She should have, I tell her! ‘They’d probably just have thought: “What’s that bloody woman off the telly on about?”’
I’m thinking it must have been a bit strange, having Emma Willis turn up midway through your contractions, ready to rub your back. ‘We did warn people and they needed to consent to us filming,’ she says. But as with so many fly-on-the-wall medical programmes, you can’t help being amazed that anyone puts their hand up. ‘It’s funny, isn’t it?’ says Emma. ‘You’d think the thing women would worry about is the possibility of their vagina being on TV – but most of the time they were only concerned about their hair not being done!’
We discuss the fact that pregnancy and childbirth can feel like a minefield these days. Little else in your life will elicit quite such an outpouring of opinions. Emma strongly believes in a woman’s right to choose the delivery she wants. ‘My only opinion on childbirth is not to have an opinion, and not to judge,’ she says. ‘We’re all different and anything can happen when it comes to labour; you just don’t know until you get there.’ Emma opted to have caesareans for both her second child, son Ace, now six, and her toddler daughter Trixie Grace, two.
Needless to say, she’s no fan of the phrase ‘too posh to push’. ‘I can tell you I pushed with Isabelle for a very long time! I have the scars to prove it. For the second two pregnancies I was too scared to go down the [natural delivery] route. With hindsight, part of me wishes I had maybe tried for a natural birth again. But what state would my body be in if I had? You just don’t know.’
What about breastfeeding, another hot topic women like to wade in on? ‘There’s this big push on Breast is Best, and it absolutely is, but not everyone can do it. I struggled with it, and mentally that was really tough. But I tried as hard as I could,’ she says. ‘I think everybody should be encouraged and informed [about breastfeeding] while they are pregnant, not just once the baby arrives. The problem is it comes down to cost and time, and I’ve now seen how strapped hospitals are.’
Her husband, Busted bass player Matt Willis, 35, was present for all their children’s births. ‘Matt was totally brilliant. And he had my mum to hold his hand – she’s been there for all three of them, too.’ Her family are a good team – she’s dashing home to Hertfordshire after the shoot to ‘babysit my own children’, taking over from her retired parents who look after the kids when she and Matt are at work. They don’t have any other help, though she’s slowly coming round to the idea of a nanny.
This summer Matt and Emma celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary by renewing their vows at Rushton Hall in Northamptonshire, where they married. Excuse for a party? ‘In the footage from our wedding day, someone asks us, “Where do you think you’ll be in ten years?” and we say, “Hopefully we’ll still be married, and if we are we’ll come back here and have a big party,” so we did!’ It was a huge do: their good friend Britain’s Got More Talent presenter Stephen Mulhern was ordained especially for the occasion, bouncy castles were involved and Emma wore her Phillipa Lepley wedding dress again. ‘It did need letting out! I got bridesmaids dresses for my daughters, which was lovely, and Ace was the ring bearer and wore a little suit.’ Was it as good second time around? ‘It was more of a giggle and more relaxed, but it felt just as special.
Ten years on and Matt, who’s now an actor, is still smitten. ‘I’ve managed to hang on to her for ten years…I’m still not sure how,’ he wrote in an anniversary Instagram post. Emma’s just as loved-up, with Matt and with life. ‘I feel content and happy and at one,’ she says. ‘I do sometimes think, s***, next up it’s my 50th, but 50 is the new 40 anyway.’ I think it’s the new 30, actually, I tell her. ‘OK, good!’ she laughs.
Recently Channel 5 announced that this series of Big Brother would be the last. ‘I find it hard to know what I feel about it,’ says Emma. ‘Maybe it does need a break. I think everything needs a break – maybe there needs to be a craving for it again. But, who knows, it could have run its course. I just try to live in the moment and see what happens.’
I wonder how Emma balances the extremes of her life – hopping from family to friends to grilling celebrities on live television to magazine photo shoots, then popping on a nurse’s uniform? ‘I spent a lot of time at the hospital thinking, “What I do for a living really doesn’t mean much,”’ she says. ‘But on the flip side, I’m incredibly lucky – I get to experience something that reflects the reality of life for a lot of people. So I don’t get carried away with all the shiny telly stuff.’
Interview by Amy E Williams
My very own labour of love – and most embarrassing moment…
Aching legs, 13-hour shifts, hitting the floor: Emma shares her maternity care diary
Monday 9 April
Just finished my first 13-hour shift, at 8.30pm. My head is all over the place as there is so much to remember: names, wards, procedures (my tea-making skills have definitely been put to the test). I’m over the moon I’ve got maternity care assistant Val, who has 20 years’ experience under her belt, to teach me the ropes. Val works on the low-risk birthing unit (you’re only low risk until you’re high risk, she tells me, and that can happen to anybody).
Wednesday 18 April
I saw my first C-section today, at around 5pm. Michaela was desperate for a natural birth, but there were a couple of complications that wouldn’t make it possible. I’ve come across complications I had no idea about. I really feel for the dads, they must feel so helpless.
I loved being in theatre. As a trainee, my input is minimal during the operation but once it’s over I get stuck into cleaning the theatre and equipment, something I never thought I’d enjoy so much. We have to be super-vigilant as an emergency could be arriving at any minute.
My legs are aching at the end of every shift because we’re constantly on our feet. And by the time I’ve adapted to night shifts, I’m rotated back on to day shifts, so my body clock is all over the place.
Monday 7 May
Today I made a complete fool of myself…I fainted while watching the repair of a vaginal tear. I got carted off to a recovery room and had to have an ECG to check my heart was OK. They told me to rest, which makes me feel like I can’t handle the pressure. But Alison, deputy head of midwifery, said it’s happened many times before with staff.
Thursday 10 May
Today was my first day back after the fainting incident and I felt ready for anything – although not quite for the challenge Mandy (training and development midwife) had for me. I’ve learnt how to take blood on artificial skin: today was my first time with an expectant mum. As soon as the needle was in my hand I went hot and panicky, and I punctured her vein, which caused it to swell. The mum-to-be was lovely – but it’s back to the artificial arm for practice.
Monday 21 May
I’ve been learning loads about breastfeeding. Having struggled with my own children, it’s something I want to know as much as possible about so I can help other mums. The best advice was that every woman is different, so if you are struggling don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Sunday 22 June
It’s my final shift and I’m sad and relieved in equal measure. Sad to leave the team, especially Val. She’s phenomenal – she gave me a kick up the a*** if I was stressing about something. I hope she is somebody I will have in my life for a long time. And sad because the past ten weeks have taught me so much. To be present at one of the most intimate moments of someone’s life was incredible. But I don’t think I’ve been this tired since giving birth myself.
Emma Willis: Delivering Babies will start on Monday 22 October on W channel