Holly Willoughby: ‘I felt numb and adrift’

Stellar career, loving marriage, three gorgeous kids… HOLLY WILLOUGHBY really did have it all. So why did she feel that she was ‘unravelling’? She opens up to Julia Llewellyn Smith about the life crisis she didn’t see coming

Not long ago Holly Willoughby invited her great friend and This Morning co-host Phillip Schofield round to her house in West London – not for dinner, but so she could give him a bath. A sound bath, that is.

Come again? ‘A sound bath,’ repeats Holly, 40. ‘I said, “I know you’ll think I’m mad but just lie down,” and then I played the bowls for him. At the end I asked him how he felt and he sat up and said, “That was amazing!”’

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Matthew Eades

In case – like me– you haven’t the foggiest idea what she’s talking about, allow Holly to explain. ‘Sound bowls are big, deep, glass bowls; they’re all different sizes and shapes and made from different crystals, each with a different healing property. When you strike them they emit sounds and vibrations that you can feel in your body. I did a level-one sound bowl course in a room with a bunch of people I didn’t know and thought, “Oh God, this is going to be so awkward.” But I just loved it. Now, if I need to chill out, I get out the sound bowls and play, while the cat walks all over me.’

This isn’t what I was expecting to hear from the queen of daytime telly. I can imagine Holly and Phil having a few cocktails together, or a meal with their buddies Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly. But in the past couple of years, the girl-next-door Holly we all thought we knew– prone to giggling fits and addicted to chocolate – has subtly metamorphosed into someone intent on exploring the spiritual side of life. She meditates twice a day, is fascinated by the power of the moon and crystals – and doesn’t care if some people find this a bit woo-woo.

‘There is an opinion of people who are into crystals or meditate– a definite sense of wackiness. But for me, it feels right,’ she says.

For years Holly’s hectic life involved hosting not only This Morning and Dancing on Ice, but also bringing up her three children – Harry, 12, Belle, ten, and Chester, seven – all of which meant she had no time to connect ‘with what I wanted or needed’.

holly willoughby and daughter belle
Holly with her daughter Belle. Instagram/Holly Willoughby

The catalyst for change came three years ago when she was asked to co-host I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! with Dec, after Ant was admitted to rehab. Holly headed to New South Wales, Australia, and for the first time in years found herself living entirely alone. ‘I was there for three weeks before the kids joined me. I walked into my apartment and felt like Macaulay Culkin’s character Kevin in Home Alone: “Oh my God, my family have disappeared. I’ve got time!”’

She set off exploring the neighbourhood of Byron Bay, Australia’s capital of alternative therapies. ‘I stumbled across all these different places that offered tarot readings and kinesiology [which explores how the body moves] and I thought, “I’m going to do everything and see what happens.” And there was – not an awakening, because when you say things like that people think you’re completely mad – but an opening up. When I came back I didn’t want it to be a holiday romance; I had scratched the surface of something I wanted to dig deeper into. I’d always enjoyed things like this, but life gets in the way and you don’t always have time. Now I wanted to continue.’

Last time I met Holly was just before this Australia trip and although she was pleasant, she did seem distracted and rushed. Today, in contrast, she seems engaged and calm. She’s just opened her post and is thrilled to find the first hard copy of her new book, Reflections, a startlingly personal account of her new direction, written during lockdown. ‘Writing it was scary, but I loved doing it and felt it was very much needed. The words just poured out.’

As Holly explains, Reflections isn’t an autobiography or a self-help book. ‘It’s my guide on how to figure things out for yourself, because I can’t do that for you.’

After all, everyone has different concerns. For Holly, one issue was not fully enjoying her very privileged life. She often ‘felt numbed and a bit adrift. I wasn’t unhappy but I felt I was missing out on something. The busier I was and the more plates I kept spinning the less time I had to sit in silence and listen to myself,’ she says. ‘We give ourselves high fives for multitasking. People say, “I don’t know how you do it!” and you think, “I know.

”I was quite happy on the hamster wheel. I never crashed, I never fell off. But you can’t sustain that for ever.’

Holly began re-engaging with her buried feelings using a mix of alternative therapies and sessions with a psychologist and she was astonished at what she uncovered.

‘I was unravelling and unplugging myself, taking a long, hard look into dark corners and the range of emotions I felt ‒ good and bad‒ was huge. Once the plaster was ripped off I felt so angry. Anything that happened to me– for example, someone underestimating me ‒I felt massively.

Someone said, “It’s a hormonal thing,” but it wasn’t, it’s just that I had taken off a filter.’

holly willoughby cover shoot
Matthew Eades

One example of unexpected rage was when her husband of 14 years, TV executive Dan Baldwin, 46, asked, ‘Why are you watching this s*** on TV?’ Holly says, ‘He didn’t mean anything by it, but the rage I’d feel was disproportionate because I was thinking, “You think I’m crap because I’m watching crap.” Then I’d think, “That’s interesting, I’ve worked out what’s going on here without having a therapist in the room.” Anger is a brilliant emotion because it cuts through bulls*** and if you can work out where it comes from it can be very revealing.’

It helped that Holly’s children were becoming more independent, leaving time for introspection. ‘The machine spits you out the other side; you’re suddenly going, “Oh my God! They can wipe their own bums. Well, now what’s my role?” You have to start finding your own identity again. Obviously, you don’t suddenly stop being a parent but you do have a bit more space.’

Previously she had toyed with having a fourth child. ‘There’s part of me that would love to have another baby but it isn’t fair to take myself away from the kids I do have, especially when I work as hard as I do and I have my own passions I want to nourish.’

I wonder if turning 40 sparked some kind of midlife crisis? But Holly – who wore the same dress her mother wore to her 40th birthday for her own celebrations– had no qualms about entering a new decade.

‘I’m not afraid of getting older. The older I get the more confident and stronger I am. In my 20s I was terrified of everything. I’d just started my career and was trying to fit in to what was expected of me. Rightly or wrongly, you adapt and change to the opinions people have of you. My 30s were better. With more experience you have a voice, and the more you use it the more comfortable you feel tapping into it. Now my 40s are better than my 30s. It’s like, “Let’s do it!”, so I’m just going to keep riding that wave until… I can’t.’

The youngest of two girls, Holly grew up in Burgess Hill, West Sussex, where dad Terry sold double glazing and mum Linda‒ a former air stewardess ‒ stayed at home. ‘I grew up in this traditional structure, without a strong desire to be anything. I wasn’t academic; I wasn’t confident in a room full of people. I knew I wanted to be a mum and as I grew up in the country I thought, “Well, that was perfect– I’ll do that.” But life had this different plan.’

Instead, Holly becamea teenage model after being spotted by a scout at The Clothes Show Live event aged just 14. Brief stints as a receptionist and a runner on a now defunct satellite TV channel followed before she moved into children’s presenting. Despite this early success Holly felt she didn’t deserve her job. ‘I still have imposter syndrome to an extent. Society dumped expectations on me and I was willing to play that role,’ she says.

Are we talking about the expectations that surround being blonde and pretty – which some people can (wrongly) equate with superficial? ‘Yeah,’ Holly nods. ‘Some of that serves you well, but some you have to let go of. For a long time I was willing to be underestimated. It suited me fine because if people have no expectations of you, you can’t disappoint anybody. So I wasn’t ready to defend myself. I was willing to sit in that space, because I didn’t know who I was. I needed to learn the slow way until eventually I realised I had underestimated myself too.’

In the past few years we’ve seen a more confident Holly emerge. Estimated to be worth £10 million, she left her prestigious management agency last year to run her affairs independently. ‘I needed to take a big step out on my own and, scary as it was, it was the right thing,’ she explains. ‘I’m a massive control freak and I needed to take back the day-to-day running of my life.’

Since then she’s launched Wylde Moon – a website, podcast and online boutique which explores this new interest in spirituality. The news can’t have pleased Peter Jones, the Dragons’ Den entrepreneur, who three years ago was said to be ‘furious’ when, just a few weeks before its launch, Holly pulled out of Truly, the online lifestyle boutique they set up together with Peter’s wife Tara Capp. Holly explained at the time that she felt unable to dedicate herself to the brand without it affecting her family. ‘It’s not about me having my dream and everyone fitting around it. It’s about putting family first.’ With the stock ready in the warehouse, Peter was forced to slash prices in a huge sale, although he and Tara have since steered their lifestyle venture back on course.

‘Truly wasn’t quite the right time,’ she says diplomatically. ‘Wylde Moon was something I felt I needed to do that channels all this new energy and passion.’ Some have called her the British answer to Gwyneth Paltrow, whose lifestyle brand Goop is worth an estimated £183 million. ‘Obviously, that’s the most incredible comparison. What Gywneth’s done is a huge, global success. Wylde Moon is a tiny acorn, and if success happens, fine – but for me that’s just a by-product.’

Holly with co-host and best friend Phillip Schofield at the National Television
Awards in September. Anthony Harvey/REX/Shutterstock

As our time together nears its end, she returns to the subject of her TV husband – Phillip Schofield. Holly is closer than ever to Phil, 59, who she’s worked with now for 15 years, and who came out as gay in February last year with the full support of his wife Stephanie and two daughters.

While he says there are no plans to divorce, he is rumoured to have moved into a £2 million bachelor pad close to Holly in Chiswick, West London. ‘It was already a very strong friendship and it deepened during the pandemic when we were in work every day with a small crew. Often, it was just Phil and me and we really had the space to talk. It was a stressful time for everyone – the four walls of that make-up room have seen it all. We laughed and cried in equal measure. He’s a very important piece of my life.’

She even has Phil opening up his own spiritual side. ‘He’s getting into crystals. He’s got one by his bed,’ Holly smiles. ‘We all need to work out what keeps you sane in all the madness. Life’s not perfect, but for me everything looks a little bit brighter and lighter. I’ve got a toolkit that’s working

Holly’s book Reflections: Life Lessons on Finding Beauty Inside and Out is published by Century, price £20*