“It’s all been a bit unexpected, really,” says Joe Wicks, reflecting on his recent elevation from successful fitness guru to – let’s not be coy – fully-fledged national hero.
“I was really excited about sharing my workouts online, and doing what I could,” adds the man whose daily P.E. With Joe exercise classes have become a central fixture of Britain’s coronavirus lockdown. “But I had no idea it was going to be on this scale. I’m over the moon.”
Launched in late March, Wicks’ morning family fitness sessions – streamed live from his home in Richmond, London – are such a phenomenon, his very name has become part of the homeschool curriculum (“Have you done your maths, your French and your Joe Wicks?”). He’s earned a Guinness World Record, after attracting almost a million viewers to one live stream (another three million late risers caught up later) and, to date, has raised more than £200,000 for the NHS through a combination of YouTube views and t-shirt sales. Colonel Tom Moore aside, arguably no-one has done more to keep the nation’s spirits high during the Covid-19 crisis.
“People keep saying, ‘You’re going to get an OBE and all that’, but I’m not looking for awards,” insists Wicks. “My mission is to get families exercising. We need a little bit of fitness, every day, to lift our mood, to live a better life. The fact I’m making an impact, and people are enjoying it, is enough for me.”
If this sounds like false modesty, it’s worth remembering that, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Wicks was already touring UK schools on a personal crusade to get a generation of sedentary, screen-addicted kids moving. It’s a campaign he was happy to fund from his own pocket, having racked up an estimated £14 million fortune from his Body Coach fitness brand and mega-selling cookbooks.
“Basically, it’s what I’ve dreamed about,” he says of his new global reach (despite being dubbed “the nation’s P.E. teacher”, Wicks’ videos have found a worldwide audience, beaming into living rooms from Moscow to Madagascar). “It’s taken a pandemic, but at least now people are listening. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I knew this was going to happen. I just thought it would take 10 years.”
On screen, the 33-year-old is relentlessly upbeat. Even being hospitalised with an infection that caused his broken hand – the result of a recent cycling accident – to swell up like a balloon couldn’t stop him: he simply drafted in his glamour model wife Rosie as a temporary supply teacher.
In conversation, he radiates the same positive energy, words and ideas tumbling out at a hundred miles an hour in that familiar, estuary twang. Weekend asks if he ever has down days – when he just feels like slumping on the sofa and watching rubbish telly.
“I definitely do,” he says. “Especially at the moment, the uncertainty of it all – it definitely gets to me. I have this little cloud over my head. But I exercise, I do a little workout, I pick my mood up. During this time, we’ve got to rely on fitness to elevate our mindset a little bit.”
He’s also kept busy running around after his children, two-year-old Indie and her brother Marley, born in December. The former often gatecrashes P.E. with Joe, and also takes a starring role in his new book, Wean in 15. Written with nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed, it boasts more 100 recipes to tempt even the fussiest young eaters away from their chicken nugget comfort zone, alongside useful advice and candid dispatches from Joe, Rosie and Indie’s own weaning journey. It has, says Wicks, been a fun – but messy – ride. “Every day, the floor’s covered in porridge and pasta and rice. But I love it. I embrace the chaos.”
According to Wicks, the key to successful weaning is patience, perseverance and consistency. “I haven’t cracked with Indie, and given her a bag of crisps or an energy bar or whatever,” he says. “I also talk a lot about creating the environment – you know, not letting your kid disconnect from food by sticking them in front of an iPad. But I try to do it in a friendly, non-judgmental way. Because every child is different. Indie loves her food, but Marley might hate it.”
Seeing how destructive drugs were just made me think: I’m not getting involved with that, I’m going to go and play football, join a team…Joe Wicks
It’s all very different to Joe’s own nutritional start in life, growing up on a council estate in Epsom, Surrey. “I had a shocking diet,” he admits. “I would come home and drink, like, a litre of Sunny Delight. I’d eat loads of Wagon Wheels, Iced Gems… just constant snacking on chocolate and crisps. It massively affected my energy, my mood – I had attention issues, behavioural issues.
“My dad was a hard drug addict, in and out of rehab, so my mum raised me. She was 17 when she had my brother Nikki, 19 when she had me. She was a kid herself. She’d take me to school and people would think she was my sister, she looked so young. She didn’t have the knowledge about nutrition. But she loved us unconditionally. She told me from the start: ‘You can be a doctor or a dustman, I’ll love you whatever.’”
A class clown he may have been, but witnessing his roofer dad Gary’s struggle with heroin addiction was enough to keep young Joe from going fully off the rails. “Seeing how destructive drugs were – I mean, my dad was using them probably from the age of 16 – just made me think: I’m not getting involved with that, I’m going to go and play football, join a team,” he recalls. “I think, being exposed to drugs, I was fearful of it, rather than curious about it.”
Though he now has a good relationship with his dad, Joe thinks those formative experiences have had a big impact on his own parenting style. “My childhood was chaotic,” he says. “Doors getting slammed, shouting, food being thrown about. It was manic. So I’m the opposite – I’m very calm, and I’m training myself to be patient. I’m taking the room to breathe and not react. Because that’s my default – my default reaction is to be impatient, to snap, to shout and scream. But I internalise it, I have a little moment and I go: ‘Right, Indie’s a baby, she’s not rational. Just calm down.’ I’m constantly reminding myself of that, and that allows me to be patient.’
When he was 15, Wicks was packed off on a school visit to St Mary’s University in Twickenham. “Sitting on the minibus, I looked around and I realised it was all the naughty kids,” he recalls. “All the wrong ’uns that were normally in detention. I remember thinking, ‘Why are we all on this bus?’ And then I realised it was because the university was reaching out to people who might be taking the wrong path.”
On the way home that evening, he told his mum he was going to be a P.E. teacher. “And that’s what I did. I went to St Mary’s and I did a degree in sports science.”
He took the long way round to teaching kids, though. Having struggled with his first school placement, he borrowed £1,000 from his dad and set himself up as a personal trainer instead, starting out running sparsely-attended boot camps in the park and ending up as an Instagram and YouTube sensation, attracting a huge audience for his High Intensity Interval (HIT) training routines and 15-second recipe videos. A book deal followed, with 2015’s Lean in 15 going on to become Britain’s second biggest-selling cookery book, behind Jamie Oliver’s 30-Minute Meals.
“It was insane how fast it sold a million copies,” says Wicks. “And when I think that I did it with virtually no TV. It changed my life. It changed my mum’s life, it changed my dad’s life. That one book.”
Is he desperate to overtake Jamie Oliver as Britain’s bestselling food writer? “Ah, we’re good friends, me and Jamie,” he laughs. “He’s really lovely, he’s always been very supportive of me, always there if I need a little bit of advice. It’s not a competition. I think Jamie’s amazing.”
Arguably, Wicks also looks better than Oliver with his shirt off. But could his heartthrob days as “Juicy Joe” really be over? “I’m probably losing it a little bit,” he insists, not entirely convincingly. “My hair’s probably receding, I’m not as lean as I used to be. I don’t do the topless shoots any more. It’s family man Joe, not Instagram, young heartthrob Joe. The narrative’s changed a bit since I’ve had kids, I think.”
Lately, he’s been thinking a lot about the 15-year-old kid who took that bus ride to university, and had his eyes opened to different way of life. “I made the decision that day that I was going to be a P.E. teacher. So it’s such a strange feeling that I’ve come full circle, to actually becoming a P.E. teacher, on a mass scale.”
As for the other 23-and-a-half hours of daily life in lockdown… “It’s a little bit boring,” he admits. “The same thing every day. But I do wonder if we’ll look back and go, ‘I miss the time I could be at home with my kids, and just be present’. Because we’ll just end up getting back into the rat race, where everyone’s grafting and consuming all this stuff again. When really, what we actually need is love, and family.”
Wean in 15 is published in hardback by Bluebird, £16.99. P.E. with Joe, 9am weekdays, on The Body Coach TVYouTube channel
Published in Waitrose Weekend, May 14 2020 (c) Waitrose Weekend