Emma Willis has no idea how Davina McCall feels about her constantly being dubbed “Davina’s successor” “but I imagine she must find it bloody annoying,” sighs the host of ITV’s The Voice. “I mean of course it’s a compliment for me: I love Davina. I grew up watching her host my favourite TV shows.” Two of those shows – Channel 5’s Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother – she went on to host herself.
But aside from that the 40 year-old Brummie says the similarities aren’t flagrant: “I mean we’re both in our 40s with brown hair, and I like to think we’re both genuine and down-to-earth, but I sometimes wonder whether if I wore a suit and shaved my head people would say: 'Why is she trying to be Dermot O’Leary?’”
I first interviewed Willis three years ago. The former Gap model had just been signed as the new host of The Voice and her feline face was everywhere, the fashion commentators had started charting her fashion hits and misses and her star was firmly on the ascendant, but little was known about the daughter of a nurse and a hospital postman, and that seemed to be how Willis wanted it.
Perhaps, having worked her way up from MTV presenter and guest host on This Morning, Willis wasn’t keen to muddy the waters by wading into debates on hot button women’s issues. Three years on, however – bolstered by motherhood and professional confidence – she’s animated and opinionated with it.
Six weeks after having her two youngest children, she tells me she was ready to go back to work - and happy about it too. “It was only one day a week, and you know what,” she whispers, “I enjoyed that one day a week! It was one day a week for me, one day a week when I didn’t have to think about milk, nappies or poo, and I could have a shower by myself.
"And to have that time to think as a grown-up is really healthy. Also it’s just easier going to work – and I don’t mean easier being away from my kids – but it’s a more simple day than being at home and I think a lot of mums feel that. Because home is work 24/7, non-stop. And it’s so different for men. They somehow find lots of lunch and dinner breaks and they nap. And you say: 'What do you mean you napped when she napped? I’ve never napped. I don’t even nap at night’.”
Candour is a big part of Emma’s brand now. She is particularly concerned, she says, with the modern day obsession with perfection. “Everybody looks at these 'perfect lives’ being lived on social media and that’s just not the way life is. Even if you have all the money in the world life isn’t perfect. And that’s what makes me scared of social media because I always want it to be a true reflection of my life – and not an unrealistic polished version.”
Willis has such strong feelings on the matter that when she was shot for a magazine cover (in braces, a top hat and not a lot else) eight weeks after the birth of her second child, Ace, now five (she and Matt also have a little girl, Trixie Grace, born in May) she refused to let them airbrush her stomach.
“I had quite a lot of skin showing,” she laughs, “but I said to them 'do not retouch my stomach!’ I will not be the poster child for 'this is how perfect you can look eight weeks after having a baby.’ It’s so unrealistic and it’s not healthy,” she goes on. “So many times I’ve been sent publicity pictures for approval on various shows that have been retouched to within an inch of their lives – and I look plastic, like the doll version of me. There’s no character left in my face, and not one little line: it’s all been rubbed out. So I’ll always send them back and say: 'Take it right down please’.”
However, it would be a mistake to think that Emma wasn’t interested in keeping her body in shape. Every January is “sugar-free January” in the Willis household, she says: “And we stick to it. Although not a day goes by when the kids don’t ask: 'Is it February yet?’” The mother of three also likes to compound her New Year’s penance with a juice detox, which she says led to led to a rare co-parenting fail with her Busted star husband, Matt, the previous night.
“He’s asking me what I want for dinner and then he says 'oh right – you’re on your diet’.” This was in front of the couple’s eldest daughter, 7 year-old Isabelle. “Which is why I shot Matt 'the wife look’,” explains Willis. “Because we don’t use the 'D’ word in our house: it’s banned. When my daughter asked me if I was on a diet I said: no, I don’t diet. I then explained detoxing to her, because I think it’s important to teach kids about nutrition, and that’s it’s not about dieting but health, and not putting things in your body that might eventually make you sick.”
Willis is warm and witty but there’s a definite McCall-like schoolmarmishness there and although she shows a softer side on her Sunday morning Heart FM show, some viewers have criticised her interviewing style for being too harsh. Indeed, this week she was booed by the audience for chiding a Celebrity Big Brother contestant and telling them to rein in their language. “Sometimes my poker face slips,” she shrugs. “I’m only human. Of course you have to be professional and neutral to a certain extent, but if it’s something I really can’t comprehend, that’s difficult. Still I hope I’m never rude.”
Given the motivations and behaviour of most Big Brother contestants, I’d happily watch Willis be downright vile but it’s not her style and, besides, she’s fiercely protective of both of her shows. “This vast array of talent we’ve got on the Voice,” she whispers disbelievingly, “it’s exciting to watch. And working with [new judge] Jennifer [Hudson] is amazing because she will give people these bits of advice about breathing – and pass on this whole musical education.” Isn’t it more satisfying working with real role models like those than CBB contestants? “Sure those people on the Voice are role models. But we’re not trying to tell anyone that the people on Big Brother are role models.”
Personally, I tend to agree with Ricky Gervais who, when I interviewed him last year, said he was baffled by the idea that people went on Big Brother seeking either celebrity or redemption. “The public want them to fail!” he pointed out. Willis agrees on this first point, “but I don’t think the viewer does want them to fail,” she insists. “I still think the viewers watch it to see how people react to situations and each other.”
The one person you couldn’t imagine appearing on CBB is Tom Jones who is now back as a judge and mentor on The Voice. “Oh he’s so happy, you can really see it,” she smiles. “But Tom’s always got this little twinkle in his eye.” And of course the pair have shared one special moment – a moment Willis somehow managed to mess up in a spectacular fashion. During filming one day the singer leaned over to her and said: “I like your outfit. You’ve got a great pair of legs on you.” To which Willis unfathomably replied: “I don’t really like them. They look a bit like sausages.”
The Voice is on ITV at 8pm every Saturday night