Ella Mills has spent the past three months of lockdown much like the rest of us – wearing an endless rotation of yoga leggings. The day in early June when she joins our Zoom call from her home near Hyde Park is no exception. A chunky olive-green cardigan hides a smattering of flour resting on her baby bump, from this morning’s baking session (she is a tentative sourdough adoptee), while a pair of black leggings completes the look. She doesn’t, she says, have ‘any intention of actually doing any exercise’, but given that she is 24 weeks pregnant and has been up since 5.30am with her 11-month-old daughter, Skye, you can hardly blame her for not making time for a downward dog.
‘It’s actually the best time to be pregnant, I think,’ she says, looking relaxed in a pink-and-white striped armchair in her bedroom-cum-office. Ella’s second daughter is due in September, and though she wouldn’t have planned to be pregnant in the midst of a pandemic, she has relished the chance to spend this time at home with her husband Matthew, Skye and their cocker spaniel Austin.
‘Last summer, two days before [Skye] was born, I was 37-and-something weeks pregnant, and it was 32 degrees. I was waddling down Oxford Street [near her office] at rush hour, sweating and swollen and uncomfortable. Not having to do that is so nice.’
Scans and hospital visits have been a little strange though, she says, ‘because you’re on your own, which is definitely a different experience. I think Matt would have found it harder not being there [if it was our first]. It helps that it’s my second pregnancy, so I feel confident in it.’
With a podcast, a deli, and branded snacks and cereals in 7,000 stores across the UK, it’s easy to forget that Ella – who is about to publish her sixth cookery book, Deliciously Ella Quick & Easy – is just 29. She was a student at the University of St Andrews and desperately unwell when she launched the blog Deliciously Ella in 2012, and quickly became the darling of the plant-based-food world. Her latest cookbook, with its quick dinners, batch cooks and indulgent weekend treats, appears to be somewhat of a stocktake for her. After a whirlwind few years establishing her business and riding the highs and lows of family life (as well as the joy of becoming a mum, there has been the loss of Matthew’s mother, former Labour MP Dame Tessa Jowell, in 2018, having been diagnosed with brain cancer the previous year; and Ella’s own parents’ difficult divorce), does she feel the book marks the start of something new?
‘Deliciously Ella is only eight years old, but it’s been a pretty fast-forward eight years,’ she says. ‘A lot has happened and a lot has changed both personally and professionally – the whole landscape of food, the whole conversation around our health. And I’ve learnt so much about myself.’
She was initially beloved by the hordes of predominantly young women who followed her on Instagram (she now has 1.7 million followers), and warmed to her personal story and relatable approach to cooking. As the wellness movement went on what its disciples would refer to as a #journey, so too did Ella.
In 2011, at the age of 20, she had been diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome, a condition that caused her nervous system to malfunction, leaving her with chronic pain and fatigue. Then a self-proclaimed Haribo addict with little expertise in the kitchen, she began researching alternative therapies. Inspired by a book by American cancer survivor Kris Carr, Ella became vegan, and cut out gluten, sugar and dairy. Seeing a real improvement in her symptoms, she shared her progress online and became a poster girl for wellness, rising to fame alongside fellow gurus Madeleine Shaw, Amelia Freer and the Hemsley sisters.
In 2015, after the publication of her first book, Deliciously Ella, she suddenly became a household name, and for a moment she considered turning her back on the whole venture. ‘I did contemplate saying, “OK, this has been great but actually this isn’t what I want to do,”’ she says.
For a month, Ella was ‘crippled by anxiety’. ‘I felt really scared going out – someone would say something to you, and people are looking at you. I didn’t really know how to handle that.
‘I was 24 and I’d been so sick for so long I didn’t have the highest self-esteem. I felt like my career had grown so fast, and in some senses outside of my hands. I didn’t feel massively in control of what I was doing.’
So she decided to take responsibility for her own voice, eschewing sponsorship deals to focus on books and products. ‘I didn’t want to be an influencer, I didn’t want to use Deliciously Ella as a marketing vehicle for other companies,’ she says, recalling a turning point when a cleaning-product company asked her to create a range of almond recipes to complement their almond floor cleaner. ‘I was just like, I don’t think this is my career.’
It helped that at the very moment when things were beginning to shift, she met Matthew, 36. The pair, who were introduced by her father, former Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward, in 2015, moved in together within weeks, were engaged after four months, and soon decided to work together too. It was also around that time that her parents (her mother is Camilla Sainsbury, the supermarket heiress) announced they were divorcing after 28 years of marriage, and her father’s relationship with another man became public. It’s a period she has described diplomatically as ‘challenging’, but that ultimately led to everyone being ‘happier’.
She was ‘loving being single’ when she met Matthew, but they fell for each other quickly and were married on a Caribbean beach in 2016. ‘People are always like, “Oh my God, how do you work with your husband?” But he works on supply chain and finance and cash flow and the manufacturing side and margins. It gives me space to work 100 per cent on the creative side, which is the bit I love and also add value to.
‘Matt was laughing at me the other day. He was in bed plugged into his laptop doing some advanced Excel course. No idea what it even is. And I was reading a book on chakras. And he was just like, “Oh my God, we’re so different.”’
Early on, they knew they wanted to develop Deliciously Ella as a profitable brand beyond the Instagram account, with Matthew (whose background is in finance) as CEO providing strategic direction. They now employ 18 staff at their office in Soho, though in 2018 they had to make the difficult decision to close two of their three delis (the Mayfair branch remains) after it became clear the scaleable part of the business lay in the products. ‘The amount that we’ve learnt in that time is unbelievable,’ she says.
Her branded energy balls, frozen meals and cereals now sell everywhere from Tesco to Starbucks, and the company was on the verge of launching them in America and Germany just as lockdown began, but was forced to postpone.
It helps that the business has many strands, with one of the most successful being Ella’s cookbooks. Her latest plant-based offering contains all the dips, smoothies and salads you might expect, but there are also plenty of crowd-pleasing pastas and puds. And of course, ‘There is a kale salad in there – I know, it’s so “wellness”, isn’t it?’ she says with a wry smile. ‘Matt is an obsessive golfer, every Saturday he plays golf. And so my sister Kate, who I’m so close with, used to come round every single Saturday to hang out with Skye. And every time she’d be like, “Let’s make our kale!”’
Her mum’s broccoli, pea and courgette risotto is also in there: ‘When Skye was born, she made that for me every day for about a week. It was all I wanted.’ And there’s an easy dal that she makes at home ‘probably way too often… You can make a vat of it with no effort at all and then you’ve got it in the freezer, which is a dream.’
High-street products like the Greggs vegan sausage roll, launched in January 2019, have ‘done wonders’, Ella says, for changing the preconception that plant-based food is ‘flavourless, boring and rabbity’. She has even managed to persuade Matthew to ditch meat. ‘He’s come round,’ she says. ‘But I also do all the cooking.’
Ella is hyper-conscious of the accusation routinely thrown at plant-based recipes that they are ‘elitist’. ‘I think so often this space becomes quite difficult in that sense. I’m keen for our recipes to be [based on] normal ingredients like lentils, chickpeas and black beans – things you’ve probably cooked with anyway.’
There were moments, particularly when the ‘clean eating’ movement was getting the flack it rightly deserved, accused of promoting pseudoscience, when the pressure to speak on its behalf threatened to overwhelm her.
‘I wasn’t ready for how quickly Deliciously Ella grew. People look to you for the answers that you’re still figuring out yourself,’ says Ella, who has maintained that the term ‘clean eating’ does not appear in any of her books. ‘I was petrified, honestly, I really was. I found it really terrifying, and I was almost too scared to have an opinion, because you can’t make everyone happy.’
The concept of wellness can still be contentious. The word itself is ‘very charged’, she admits. ‘Maybe well-being is a better word because it doesn’t have quite the same level of different nuances and connotations.’
Her first pregnancy made her more conscious of listening to her own body and gave her a greater awareness of how she presents herself to her followers. ‘So often we can lean towards emulating things, and when I was pregnant with Skye, for the first 14 weeks looking at broccoli made me gag. I couldn’t have it in the fridge. I didn’t eat a vegetable for 14 weeks I don’t think, not a single one.’
Though she has made her name as a healthy-eating guru, she has no qualms about giving in to cravings. Baby number two seems to have a penchant for doughnuts, which she has indulged on occasion over the past few weeks. ‘[My sister] sent them to me for my birthday, which really made me happy.’
Ella practised hypnobirthing when she had Skye, but this time round the making of her birth plan is on hold amid the current uncertainty. ‘It feels, now more than ever, such a waste of time to think about where we’ll be until a few weeks out.’
Like so many others, she and Matthew have found it difficult not being able to see their families over the past few weeks – especially Ella’s mum, who hasn’t been able to see her granddaughter. ‘My brother had a baby four months after us, so she’s got her two first grandchildren and she’s found that [not being able to see them] really sad.’
They are extremely close to Matthew’s sister, the musician Jess Mills, 39, who alongside her late mother and one of Dame Tessa’s doctors founded the charity ACT for Cancer, working to establish personalised cancer care. ‘She’s a real force,’ says Ella. Jess’s youngest daughter is four weeks older than Skye, and they were disappointed not to have been able to spend time together during lockdown. ‘We were so excited they were the same age and would really grow up together, and they obviously haven’t seen each other, so that’s been tough.’
But Ella and Matthew are making the most of having quality time with their daughter, by going for morning walks in Hyde Park, trying to work during the day, and having an early supper with Skye. ‘One of my favourite things about lockdown is that we have supper at five o’clock so we can all eat together.’
She is keen to make sure Skye and her sister-to-be have a healthy relationship with food. ‘I feel that role-modelling for her is sitting down and taking pleasure in what you eat and trying to increasingly have her while you’re cooking to get her to be connected to it.’
As the business grows, she hopes to have more time to devote to her personal goals. A major aim is to complete her yoga teacher training, which she would love to make ‘a bigger part’ of her working life in the future. ‘I did my first training two years ago and then I was meant to do the next 300 hours now, so I’m going to just wait until I can do it again. I absolutely love it. I feel it’s something that creates a sense of calm that I’ve not found from anything else.’
‘Deliciously Ella Quick & Easy’ by Ella Mills is published on Thursday by Yellow Kite (£25).