His perky PE workouts have given us a much-needed lift this year, but life wasn’t always so upbeat for fitness superstar Joe Wicks. He tells Cole Moreton about his darkest days – and how exercise became his escape.
Joe Wicks is in tears. The bouncy, bubbly fitness instructor who gave the nation a lift during the first lockdown with his daily online workouts is choking up remembering the night he told his mum he was getting an MBE. ‘She burst into tears,’ he says, doing the same. ‘We talked about what all the people around her used to say…’
This big, buff lad of 35 then has to hide his face behind an arm for a moment. It’s a bit of a shock, given that he is usually so relentlessly cheerful. Millions of us fell for his energy and joy while doing his daily PE With Joe workouts on YouTube but, the truth is, life used to be very hard indeed for Joe Wicks. His father Gary was a heroin addict. Money was tight. His mother Raquela had her own struggles after a traumatic upbringing. ‘I didn’t know
my mum had OCD, but she’d clean the house three times a day and make us hoover our rooms twice a day from the age of four or five. She needed help. I didn’t understand.’
The neighbours on their Surrey council estate were also cruel to her. ‘They used to say, “Your boys are going to end up on drugs.” So it was nice just for her to…’ Tears swallow his words again. It’s OK, I say, we don’t have to do this, but this is Joe Wicks – the man who went ahead with PE With Joe even after breaking his hand in a motorbike accident just before the launch – and he doesn’t give up easily. He is going to get through this medal story, no matter how emotional it is.
‘It was nice just for my mum to be proud of my MBE because, back in the day, all her friends thought she was a s*** parent and I was going to be like my dad,’ he blurts out. ‘So I’m emotional now because of how it’s all turned out. I wasn’t trying to get an MBE… She texts me every day saying she’s proud of me.’
And so she should be. Few people have had a more positive impact in this dark year than the geezer with the long black curly hair and beard who kept cheerfully chattering away and giving shout-outs to viewers even while leading us in burpees and star jumps. Half a million pounds was raised for the NHS when he gave up the advertising revenue for PE With Joe and all proceeds from its T-shirt sales. OK, some parents chose to let their little ones jump around while they sat on the sofa watching this beautiful young man sweat, but that gave them a lift, too!
Now he’s got a new book out called Joe Wicks: 30 Day Kick Start Plan, which combines exercises and his trademark quick, nutritious recipes with advice on mindfulness, mental health and even sleep.
‘I used to talk about the way you look. Now it’s all about the way you feel,’ says the man who first made his name as the Body Coach, flashing his abs on Instagram and the cover of Men’s Health magazine. ‘The motivation behind the book is to take people who may be feeling a bit low and a bit stressed or just not motivated and help them kick-start new habits to improve their energy, mood and sleep,’ he says, adding: ‘Imagine that – being more patient with your kids, feeling happy when you wake up, less stressed and anxious.’
Yes, please. But does this stuff work in real life? Is Joe – who is married to model Rosie Jones and has two young children, daughter Indie, two, and son Marley, 11 months – always so flaming cheerful at home? ‘If I’ve had a rough night’s sleep and I’m stressed that Marley’s kept me up with his teething, I’ll be snappy,’ he admits. ‘But exercise breaks the bad energy and gives me more patience. After a 20-minute exercise session, I’ll go down to make breakfast a totally different person.’ A quick workout can do that? ‘Neuroscience shows that exercise can change the chemical balance in your brain,’ he explains. ‘It’s the same as how you feel after you’ve had sex or done something fun. You think: “You know what? Things ain’t that bad and I’m all right. I can get through this.”’
He’s being very open and confesses there are still private issues to overcome. ‘I had a very chaotic upbringing: a lot of shouting and slamming doors – impatience, intolerance, effing and blinding. So that’s my default reaction to a situation. When I get worked up, when the babies are screaming in my face, I just want to scream, too, and run away,’ he admits. ‘But I don’t want to react like that, so I’ve learnt to take a breath – I don’t want to be someone who slams doors and punches walls.’
Getting better sleep, being mindful, eating well and other lessons he shares in his 30 Day Kick Start Plan have, Joe believes, helped him overcome the impulses he inherited from his father. ‘We had cheap plywood doors. My dad would punch through them or a wall when he and my mum were arguing. I don’t want to be that person.’ Exercise was Joe’s escape then, as now. ‘I’d always be out of the house running around, playing sport, climbing trees. That was me relieving stress and the frustration at my dad not being there, or being in and out of rehab.’
The seeds were sown for his future life. ‘I was a mini version of who I am now, rounding everybody up, telling them, “Come on, get changed, let’s get out there – I can’t play football without you! Get your a*** in gear!” That’s been a massive part of my life.’
Joe studied sports science at university and became a personal trainer, but did other jobs, too, to raise money for his own business. When I ask how he met Rosie, 30, he laughs. ‘I knew of Rosie long before I met her. I thought she was amazing. I was a labourer for a while, so I was in a café every day reading The Sun.’ Rosie was one of the most popular Page Three girls ever. She has now used that fame to move into more upmarket modelling and raise money for charities such as Help For Heroes.
Joe built his own Body Coach profile with free workouts on social media before, in 2015, bringing out his bestselling book Lean In 15, a collection of nutritious recipes that could be made in 15 minutes. The night before it was published, Joe finally met his future wife. ‘Rosie was at a club in East London where my friend was a DJ, so he called me and said to come over. She was, like, “What do you do?” I said, “Oh, I’ve got this Instagram account.” She was pretending she didn’t know who I was.’
That didn’t last long. ‘We went travelling together and became best friends.’ Actually, they went on holiday to Sir Richard Branson’s super-exclusive Necker Island and posted identical snaps on social media, letting all their fans know they were a couple.
‘Then everything I’d always run away from – marriage, babies – suddenly I wanted to do. That’s when you know you really love someone.’
How do they each deal with knowing that their partner is lusted after by millions of strangers? ‘When we got together, she knew women were making comments and she’d have guys saying things. Neither of us got jealous. We’re a unit. I wanted her to trust me; I worked hard on that from the start. I always let her know where I am. I care about her feelings. I want her to feel safe.’
When the first lockdown started, Joe was about to go on a national tour of schools. Instead, he set up a camera at home with the help of his big brother Nikki and his now famous PE With Joe was born. ‘The response was so intense. I had interviews with people in Australia and America that first week. We had 18 million views, but that’s just the number of screens. There can be four or five kids watching in a family. So you can imagine it’s really tens of millions of people a day doing my thing. That’s my proudest achievement.’
But success came at a cost. ‘I was burnt out during the first lockdown. My job is very physical but it’s also very emotional. I had to really perform and be energised and happy all the time. Some days I wasn’t feeling that. By the end, I definitely needed a break.’
So how did he recharge? ‘I took my dad and brother George to the Scottish Highlands and we rode motorbikes around for five days. We were in nature. That was my reset.’
His father has overcome his addiction now and the two of them are close – even more so since Joe took the advice of a famous friend. ‘I did Russell Brand’s podcast. He went, “Joe, you sound like a man who needs to meditate. Your mind’s all over the place.”’
Russell wasn’t wrong, Joe admits. ‘I have all these ideas and I’m constantly moving. But when Russell sent me a link to a guided meditation and I did it, I felt so calm, so present.’ It also, he says, gave him a chance to reflect. ‘I’d never stopped to think about the fact that my dad survived being a heroin addict. All his friends died of overdoses. I burst into tears during the meditation because I felt so grateful that my dad is alive and we’re friends. I rang him afterwards and we had an amazing chat.’ Now Joe uses the Headspace app and, alongside exercise, eating well and getting sleep, promotes the benefits of meditation in his new book.
Still, when Joe came back from his holiday with his dad he felt empty. ‘After PE With Joe ended we moved house and I went through a flat period. I missed the energy in that old living room. I felt as if I didn’t have a purpose or a structure – I was a bit lost.’
News of the second lockdown also sent him reeling. ‘That feeling of being out of control killed my optimism. I thought, “I can’t see my friends, I can’t go on holiday, I can’t be with my family. How long is this going to last?” I know everyone’s feeling the same.’
Being Joe Wicks, he shared those feelings on Instagram. The video was watched over a million times. ‘I hope that helps people realise I’m not super happy and content every single minute of the day. But there are ways of lifting yourself up. Through exercise you can elevate your mood so much. So this book’s come at the right time really.’ Now he’s also doing Wake Up With Joe for the current lockdown: shorter, 15-minute prerecorded ‘energy and mood-boosting’ sessions three times a week on YouTube ‘to keep you fit and help your mental health’.
We start to talk about the hundreds of messages that flood in to him every day and what he says next is very intense. ‘During the first lockdown, someone sent a direct message to me just before I was about to go live with PE With Joe. She was suicidal.’ We’ll respect her privacy but just say this was a young mother in crisis. ‘I thought, “What am I supposed to do?” I tried calling the Samaritans but I couldn’t get through. She said she was going to end it there and then, so I sent her my number and said. “Call me.”’ The phone rang immediately. ‘She was on the line crying. I said, “You need to get some help. Have you got any family you can speak to?” I ended up calling her local police, because I found out where she lived.’ They promised to go round and see her.
‘It really messed up my head. I said to her, “I’ve got to go and do my live show, I’ll call you. Let’s speak in half an hour.” When I called her back she was feeling much better. I just said, “Your kids need you. I know it’s hard, but you’re going to get through this.” The police rang me later and said, “She’s OK now.”’ He shakes his head. ‘I couldn’t ignore it. Imagine if she really did kill herself?’
Has he heard from her since? ‘She got in touch and said, “Thanks for reaching out and thanks for looking after me.”’
He says it was a privilege to help her and contact with people energises him, but with books to write, shows to make, a business to run and workouts to do, how long can he keep going like this? ‘I’m tired. I don’t really want to be doing workouts all the time and filming every day,’ he admits. ‘But I know there are people at the other end waiting for that video, who are going to benefit from it.’
There’s no doubt he cares and remembers where he came from, so I wonder what he thinks of the footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meals into the holidays? ‘What Marcus has achieved is amazing. I don’t understand how anyone could have said no to that.’ This is personal to him. ‘I was that kid who had free school meals. To think there are kids who aren’t looked after – that doesn’t sit right with me. My mum used to go to Iceland for “buy one, get one free” Penguins and Wagon Wheels. The cupboards were full of chocolate, bread and cakes that would fill us up, but it wasn’t nutritious food. That’s what’s happening now on a massive scale, isn’t it?’
Joe agreed to do his bit in a different way this month, with a 24-hour nonstop workout for Children In Need. ‘It wasn’t my idea!’ he says. We’re talking ahead of the event, which will be over by the time you read this. He’s nervous. Covid means no cheering crowds, just him in a room with a bike, a treadmill and other gym kit. ‘A doctor is going to be with me. He has told me, “You will get five minutes every hour to break. We’re going to change your socks and shoes, I’ll give you a foot rub. You’re going to eat, you can go for a wee, but that’s it. Between two and three in the morning you are going to hate your life. You’re going to want to walk away. But I’ll be there to talk you through it. You will get through this, but it’s going to be tough!”’
Sounds like he’s getting a taste of his own inspirational medicine. ‘It’s going to be miserable, but if I can see the number of pounds rising, I’ll be motivated by that.’
You’ll know by now if Joe finished his torturous challenge. Judging by the look on his face, I wouldn’t bet against him. The tears have gone. He’s got a sense of purpose. The Joe Wicks we know and love is back. ‘This going to be another big moment of a very big year!’