Shortly before we speak, he posts a video on Instagram in which he breaks down in tears in reaction to the latest lockdown news. ‘When it comes to those announcements, those heavy moments with Boris, they bring me down,’ he sighs, our Zoom call showing him sitting down (unusual) in his airy kitchen in Surrey, fiddling with a satsuma peel (on-brand healthy snack duly noted).
‘You have to understand the way I live my life — I’m constantly working, filming, replying to DMs, giving love and energy to people. I’m so distracted by work and spending time with my wife and kids that I don’t stop to feel anything. But when I watch those announcements, I do have a moment of: “Wow, this is really affecting people.” And that’s when I get emotional.’
As the third lockdown hit and schools shuttered, the 35-year-old human Berocca — noisily effervescent and guaranteed to energise you even if you don’t like it at the time — swiftly reinstated his live 9am PE With Joe YouTube workouts, designed to bring some welcome structure and a blast of activity to the quotidian horrors of home-schooling. But this comeback wasn’t on his schedule for 2021 — did he groan when he heard that schools were closing again?
‘I don’t feel under pressure to do it. I want to do it,’ he insists. ‘It’s a responsibility rather than a pressure. I am the only person in the UK who can do this on a massive scale, I’m the only person who can inspire these kids to get moving. I mean, it’s going to be physically tiring and emotionally draining for me. There are days when I’m not in the mood but I always turn up, I always do the workout and I truly feel better for it afterwards.’
Wicks, famously, turned up every school day from March through to July last year, racking up 80 million views and earning £580,000 in YouTube advertising revenue (which he donated to NHS charities), being made an MBE for his troubles and evolving from an Instagram-famous fitness influencer and cookbook author to arguably Britain’s favourite celebrity. Right now, though, he’s ‘run down’ and ‘pulled in all directions’. His new Body Coach app means he’s running live-streamed fitness bootcamps five times a week (he does every workout himself), with the kids’ 9am sessions now slotted in, albeit reduced to a more manageable three days a week. His workload, he says, has never been larger. He also spends three hours a day sending encouraging voice notes to strangers who contact him on social media to say they’re struggling with lockdown. ‘It’s emotionally draining but at the same time it’s a positive interaction, which tops me up,’ he says.
He and wife Rosie, 30, a former glamour model and mother to their children Indie, two, and Marley, one, currently go to bed at 8.30pm — ‘It’s boring but you feel so much better.’ He’s dreaming of a time when holidays are allowed (aren’t we all, Joe). ‘I need to turn off my phone for a week and completely switch off,’ he says. As an experienced personal trainer, he must be aware of the importance of rest days? ‘I’d love a rest day!’ he yelps. ‘Have you got any spare days I could have, please?’
Wicks feels a deep empathy with the nation’s children, once again cut adrift from their schools, friends and normal activities. Lockdown would have been a nightmare for him as a child, he says, growing up in a chaotic household in Epsom, Surrey. His roofer dad, Gary, was a heroin addict and in and out of rehab, leaving his mum, Raquela, who had his brother Nikki when she was 17 and Joe when she was 19, to raise them on her own. ‘When I was really little we had a one-bedroom flat and then later we had a bigger one but we were always in a council house. It was difficult having a tiny box room as a teenager, there was no space to breathe. It was a house where there was a lot of shouting, it was really intense. And I was super hyperactive, I needed to be outside or at school doing PE.’
He worries about the state of our collective mental health during these bleak months. ‘After I cried on Instagram I got thousands of messages from people saying, “I feel the same.” I realised everyone is having a difficult time. People are at a low point and it’s going to get worse if we don’t address it.’ The way to do this is twofold, he believes: consistent exercise and properly communicating how you are feeling. ‘Having a cry and a moan is important. Because sometimes you just need to say it out loud and you feel better. It’s not just about asking someone, “How are you doing?”, they say “I’m alright” and you leave it at that. You need to ask again: “How are you really doing? How’s your mental health?” and then people really open up. I’m going to talk a lot about mental health this year.’
Does he feel the Government is getting things right on that front? ‘I don’t want to criticise anyone because it’s so hard to make decisions right now,’ he says. ‘But I hope we can all turn our attention to mental health: government, schools, people who run companies.’
Working with government seems the natural next step but after conferring with Jamie Oliver, who’s been there done that with school meals, he’s decided against it. ‘I wouldn’t want to be in a situation where I had ideas but things didn’t get pushed across the line. I spoke to Jamie and he said that could happen. These campaigns sometimes take years to take effect, whereas with what I do on a daily basis, I get instant feedback and make instant impact. That really motivates me. If I was getting knocked back, I’d find it hard to be Mr Positive,’ he says. ‘But who knows what the future will bring?’
It could be argued that Wicks and Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United forward and free school meals campaigner, have done more for children’s health and well-being during the crisis than those in charge. It comes back to empathy — because of their backgrounds, both men have a clear understanding of the harsh reality of many children’s lives right now. ‘What Rashford did was amazing — he literally got the Government to change their mind. And I’ve done my bit,’ says Wicks.
‘But I don’t want to say I’ve done more than the Government.’ He hasn’t met Rashford but sent him a congratulatory tweet when they were both made MBEs in the Queen’s birthday honours in October. ‘It’s wonderful we both made an impact. But for me the MBE is icing on the cake while the 80 million views on YouTube is where the impact has been and that’s what I’m proud of.’
The Wicks family moved out from Richmond to the leafy enclave of Virginia Water last summer, where there are fewer paps lying in wait. However, rarely can he go for a stroll without a passing child yelling, ‘That’s Joe!’ Accustomed to sharing every aspect of his life on social media, he says he’s comfortable with this level of fame. ‘You’re always switched on,’ he says. ‘You’ve always got to say, “Hi”, to grab a selfie if they want one. I would never ever, ever say no. I couldn’t do it. It takes 10 seconds. I have to remember I’ve been on their televisions for months, they know my wife and Indie and Marley. I couldn’t bear it if someone walked away saying, “What a mean guy, he wouldn’t have a photo with my kids.” Nah. Never.’
A year of lockdowns has put pressure on many marriages but things remain, well, rosy with Rosie. Because he has always worked at home, nothing much has changed: ‘We’ve always spent every minute together.’ The couple unwind over the odd G&T while cooking dinner but, mindful of addiction issues in his paternal line, Wicks has never got too stuck in to drinking. ‘My dad’s dad was an alcoholic and then my dad was a drug addict, but it wasn’t passed on to me in that sense. I might have an addictive personality with my work and fitness but that’s a positive thing in my eyes. I used to think, I don’t want to smoke weed because imagine if I really like it and want to do hard drugs? I didn’t get drunk for the first time until I was 17. I saw how destructive it was.’
He’s now close to his father and they occasionally run together. ‘He still has down days and suffers from low mood in the winter. But he’s active, he’s jogging a lot more now. The addiction has never gone away though. He does his NA meetings and it’s an ongoing thing.’
It’s easy to take the mickey out of Joe Wicks. He can be a bit daft: he earnestly tells me he’s just discovered the well-being concept of going for a walk, as if he’s stumbled across the Holy Grail. He’s not shy about listing his achievements and he’s a tireless marketeer, never missing an opportunity to pull in a new punter. But these are minor quibbles. The world is, simply, a better place with him in it.
He endures a lot of online sniping. ‘People have a deluded view of celebrity, fame and success,’ he says. ‘They think that if you have more money and a bigger house, you’ll be a lot happier. Of course those things make life easier. But I feel like everyone else right now. I haven’t seen my mum, dad or brothers for ages and I miss them.’ And you can’t argue with his work ethic — he has come a long way from handing out flyers outside Richmond station for bootcamps that attracted zero attendees. What makes him stand out from the thousands of other fitness influencers out there? ‘My relentlessness. I work harder than anyone else I know.’
Later this year Wicks plans to launch The Body Coach app in the US and Australia. It’s reported to have already earned him £9m although he insists that figure is ‘over-egged’. He’s working on a series of children’s picture books, as per his new eight-book deal with HarperCollins. And now he’s got a 9am date every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with millions of children for who knows how long. He’s providing hope and routine when they’re in short supply, along with the simplest of messages.
‘Last year [working out] was optional but this year it’s essential,’ he says. ‘Keep consistently active to keep on top of your mental health. I don’t care if you’ve got kids or you haven’t got kids, get involved and have fun.’
PE With Joe is live at 9am Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on The Body Coach TV on YouTube