WHEN Emma Willis posted a photo of her “little style icon” son on Instagram a few months ago, it never occurred to her that it might be controversial.
She certainly wasn’t prepared for the social media storm which followed.
My son Ace is very individual and I’d never suppress that, says Emma WillisCredit: Mark Hayman
While nine-year-old Ace’s face was obscure (Emma and husband Matt have never shown their children publicly), his fabulous long blond hair and pink crop top were unmistakable.
And it was this that provoked an astonishing reaction from a small but vocal group of followers, apparently bamboozled by the fact a boy might choose to wear pink and critical of Emma and Matt for allowing him to do so.
Emma was bewildered and furious in equal measure.
“Say what you want about me, I’m big enough to take it on the chin,” she says. “But when you get comments like that regarding your children, it just makes the Hulk want to come out and scream at the world.
When Emma Willis posted a photo of her son Ace, 9, showing off his long blond hair and wearing a pink crop top, the backlash left a sour taste in her mouthCredit: Instagram/Emma Willis
“I’m so protective of my kids and this was just a young boy expressing himself the way he wants to. I thought: ‘Did you not watch ’80s dance movies? All the boys wore crop tops and it was cool!’
“He is very individual, he dresses the way he wants and he’s really happy doing that. Why would I try to suppress that?”
Emma, 44, says although the backlash left a sour taste, it also opened her mind to gender norms and how damaging their constraints can be for boys and girls alike. Up until then, the way Ace dressed had never struck her as anything remarkable. She’d never even given it a second thought.
“The response was a big eye-opener, because for me, it’s just Ace, he’s my son and that’s the way he’s always been. So it did massively make me start thinking about stereotyping and how bonkers it is that a boy, just because he has long hair and is wearing pink, is mistaken for a girl.
“I’ve started following a few Instagram accounts that talk about these issues – @notonlypinkandblue and @lettoysbetoys are great – so it’s made me educate myself about the way other people see things.”
The more she’s read, the more she’s learned about a world where, from day one, children’s toys, play and clothing are divided and labelled as “belonging” to either girls or boys.
Those rigid ideas bed in and carry on all the way through to adulthood, where women and men are expected to look and behave according to the gender stereotype and face negativity if they don’t conform.
Emma points out that the majority of comments on the post were positive, which is perhaps part of the same problemCredit: Mark Hayman
“It is absolutely fascinating… and shocking. I’ve gone down a rabbit hole to be honest, and because of Ace it’s ignited something in me. Let Toys Be Toys posted about a site that had toy kitchens and shops and cleaning products, and it was always girls used in advertising them.
“You should come to the Willis household – I’m the one changing light bulbs and Matt’s the one mopping!”
She adds that someone sent her a press cutting headed “Breaking down gender stereotypes” which she started to read. It made her think. “And I was like: ‘Am I?’’ Then Ace read the headline and went: ‘I think you’ll find it is me who is breaking down gender stereotypes!’ So he has a good sense of humour about it all. He gets called a girl quite often so is kind of used to it. He’s just like: ‘Yeah, I don’t mind. I’m not a girl, I’m a boy.’ I mean, it’s quite obvious when you see him playing with his mates in the field that he’s not dressed like them, but I love how unique he is.”
Emma points out that the majority of comments on the post were positive, which is perhaps part of the same problem.
Why should a boy wearing pink be worthy of comment at all? “There was an overriding sense of: ‘How wonderful, what a lovely boy, well done.’ But, yeah, even that was like they’ve said ‘well done’ for a pink T-shirt. Why is it even a thing?”
The whole experience showed the more repugnant side of social media and reinforced Emma’s decision not to allow children Ace, Isabelle, 11, and Trixie, four, anywhere near it.
“They don’t have it at all, that’s how I regulate it,” she says, simply.
Emma says, in my ways, the latest lockdown has been the toughest oneCredit: Mark Hayman
“They know I have it and it’s part of my job and every now and then I’ll get lost in a scroll hole with one of them next to me going: ‘What are they doing?’ So they know what it is and we have tried to be as open with them as possible – that it can be a fantastic thing, but it can also be horrible and you never really know who you’re talking to. I don’t want them to have it until I feel like they are old enough and mature enough to understand it.”
Like the rest of the country, the Willis family have spent the last couple of months in a haze of homeschooling and staying put. In many ways, says Emma, this latest lockdown has been harder.
“Some things are better, some things are worse. The snow was a good thing when everything felt brilliant, the kids were happy and we went in the garden, rolled around in the snow and for a few hours we were able to forget.
“But the early, dark nights have made it harder. And I think the kids are finding it much tougher this time, it’s almost a year that they’ve not been in school. My daughter [Isabelle] said the other day: ‘I never thought I’d say that I wish I was at school.’ You can really see it affecting them now.
Homeschooling duties are shared 50/50 between Emma and former Busted bassist turned actor Matt, 37Credit: Eyevine
“They’ve had so few years on the planet and everything they’ve ever known is totally gone and different. It’s easy to think: ‘They’re young, they’ll be fine,’ and they are hugely adaptable, but at the same time I think it’s going to have a massive impact on all of them. My eldest has definitely got more anxious in the past few months. She’s just worrying more.”
Homeschooling duties are shared 50/50 between Emma and former Busted bassist turned actor Matt, 37, but can be hit and miss.
Most parents will fully relate to Emma’s answer to exactly how she’s finding it: “Some days I feel like I’m killing it and others I think I’m the worst human being on the planet and failing miserably. But Matt’s really good with structure – he makes a plan of attack the day before and he has a little list that he ticks off.”
She says the household is so busy with everyone wrapped up in their daily tasks, that she and Matt are often like passing ships until the kids have gone to bed and they finally crash themselves.
“We’ve finally made our bedroom really nice because it had s**t everywhere. So we put the lamps on with a cup of tea, a jar of biscuits, and then watch This Is Us and it’s my favourite part of the day. We’re asleep by 9.30pm! That hour or two with Matt is really lovely. It’s when we’re like: ‘Hello! I haven’t seen you all day!’”
While Emma has been able to continue working, Matt has seen his virtually dry up, with the live entertainment industry hit hard by the pandemic, although season two of his podcast When No One’s Watching, co-hosted with Matt Richardson, launched earlier this month.
Emma and Matt married in July 2008 after three years of datingCredit: Mark Hayman
“He’s good, though,” says Emma. “His industry is non-existent really, he can’t act or sing at the moment, so it’s about waiting it out. We are incredibly lucky that we can ride it out.”
Emma and Matt married in July 2008 after three years of dating. They got together when Matt was 21 and coming out of Busted and she was a 28-year-old MTV presenter.
She recently joked on Kate Thornton’s White Wine Question Time podcast that getting together when he was so young allowed her to shape him into the perfect husband.
“I think I phrased it as raising him in captivity and moulding him into the human I wanted him to be. Of course, I was joking! But I never thought I would meet someone that young and end up marrying them. I don’t think he thought that either. So no, I don’t think it’s anything to do with raising them in captivity, but my mum does always say about my dad: ‘It took me 30 years to get him this good.’ So I think that’s where I get it from!”
We’re going to be seeing an awful lot of Emma over the next couple of months. The Voice UK is already over the midway point and the latest series of Emma Willis: Delivering Babies has just started on W. Next month sees the return of The Circle UK (and a week-long celeb version) to Channel 4.
Making TV during a pandemic has been a whole new kettle of fish – The Voice now features a virtual audience, Emma isn’t allowed to congratulate or console contestants with a hug, and coaches Olly Murs, will.i.am and Tom Jones have been joined this series at a social distance by Anne-Marie, who has quickly settled into her new role.
Emma isn’t allowed to congratulate or console contestants with a hug on The Voice due to Covid restrictionsCredit: ITV
“Olly has been on fantastic form; he really raised the energy in the room,” says Emma. “And Anne-Marie is really very much like Olly, salt of the earth, totally relatable, very funny and a cracking voice. Those two are like brother and sister.
“Doing the auditions without a studio audience was a real ‘how is that going to go?’ moment. And all my job is in the auditions really is hugging, and that was out the window. But I think it was brilliant for the mind creatively because rather than resting on our laurels, everyone mucked in and chipped in and made things happen.”
Filming for Delivering Babies had been due to start last April, but by then the country was in the early stages of the first lockdown and producers had to think again.
The parents-to-be ended up self-shooting their “during a pandemic” birth stories, while Emma, who is now a qualified maternity care assistant, caught up with them via Zoom afterwards. This third series was not what anyone involved in the show expected, but will probably turn out to be the most important and fascinating of the lot.
“All we saw on the news to do with hospitals was devastation and sadness and this hideous thing sweeping the planet,” says Emma. “So it was really nice to be in a situation with a bunch of people whose lives were about to change for the best possible reason.
Emma hints that her next project might be away from television altogetherCredit: Getty – Contributor
“This is the time in their life when they need as much support as possible, but they’re having to do it on their own. That was a big thing we found when speaking to everyone – just how alone they felt. That support network you normally have of close friends and family, all of that was stripped away.”
However, her colleagues at Harlow’s Princess Alexandra Hospital told her that, amid the challenges, the restrictions occasionally brought about some heart-warming moments.
“They said it’s been like going back 30 years, when you couldn’t have people on the ward 24/7 or partners staying overnight in a chair next to the bed. And what they found was that, whereas normally everyone’s curtains are closed and they’re in their little bubble, now all of the women on the ward were talking to and supporting each other. As hard as it’s been for those new mums, how lovely to see that sharing of experiences happening between women again.”
Despite the fact she’s so in demand, Emma still admits to being troubled by imposter syndrome, never quite believing that she deserves her place. But the last year has made her reassess and it sounds like there are some big changes coming.
“I think it [imposter syndrome] will always be a part of me and who I am.I never really feel like I’m very good at anything. It’s lack of confidence – even though it may come across that I think I’m really good at my job and I have lots of confidence, I’ve got lots of insecurities with regards to my abilities. Whenever I go for meetings, people are like: ‘What would you like to do?’ But I never tell them my ideas because I always think they’re a bit stupid and everyone will think: ‘That’s a bit s**t.’
Emma is now a qualified maternity care assistantCredit: Getty – Contributor
“But the one thing this past year has taught me is that you never know what the f**k is going to happen, so why not give something a go? I’ve thought about tapping into that imposter syndrome, like the devil and the angel. So when that little devil keeps going: ‘Wind your neck in, who do you think you are? Get back in your lane’ the angel will go: ‘Hold on a minute, you’re nearly 45, you’d better crack on.’
“So now I’m going to be like: ‘F**k it, these are my ideas, this is what I would like to do!’ It doesn’t matter if it’s not the right vibe because I will keep chipping away.”
She hints that her next project might be away from television altogether.
“I’m capable of doing something else. It’s the realisation that you don’t just have to do one thing… No one knows what their true potential is unless they try.
“Maybe I could have been, oh, I don’t know, an amazing architect. But when I was young I didn’t know about things like that. I wasn’t taught anything like that in school and I was never encouraged or pointed in the right direction. But I love rebuilding houses – we’re about to do something on our house and I am f**king obsessed with it.
“If I’m in my midlife and thinking: ‘What could I have done?’ How many kids are told to pick a profession as a teenager when they barely know themselves?
“So who knows what I could have been capable of? Maybe I still am.”
- Emma hosts The Voice UK, Saturdays, 8:30pm, ITV.
In the make-up chair with Emma
What are your skincare heroes? Dr Frances Prenna Jones Express Clean cleanser, Dermaceutic K Ceutic Post Treatment Cream and Obagi-C Rx System C-Clarifying Serum.
Any make-up bag essentials? Marc Jacobs mascara.
What won’t you leave home without? A hair band – if it rains, it saves my barnet! And my moisturiser as it has SPF in it.
Best beauty bargain? The Weleda Skin Food products.
Your beauty splurge? Dr David Jack Face Paints Blue peel mask.
What’s your top beauty tip? Microblading – my brows are non-existent, so it saves me drawing them in!
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