Sunday 22 April 2018

Writing is child's play for Willoughby

Holly and her sister Kate Willoughby
Holly and her sister Kate Willoughby
Holly's sister Kate Willoughby

Hannah Stephenson, Press Association

Holly Willoughby might just be the busiest working mum on TV. As she teams up with her sister for a novel new venture, the TV presenter talks books, boobs and babies with Hannah Stephenson

She's blonde, curvy, admired for her ample cleavage and pilloried for her questionable talent in equal measure.

But she's not worried. Despite some harsh treatment from her critics, Holly Willoughby's career has gone from strength to strength.

She's currently sharing the famous This Morning sofa with pal and fellow presenter Phillip Schofield on ITV, and fronting BBC One's prime-time talent show The Voice.

The mother-of-two has now joined forces with her older sister, Kelly, to write L'Etoile, the first in a series of children's books set in a school of performing arts.

The book follows the fortunes of the Fitzfoster twins, Molly and Maria, as they enrol at the school for the stars of tomorrow, and Willoughby admits there are similarities between the twins and their creators.

"Obviously, the performing arts is a world that I know about," she explains. "I never went to a performing arts school, but when I was at school I loved drama and putting on plays.

"Kelly's not really theatrical, although she did drama at school and has a much better singing voice than I have, but Kelly was far more academic. She was head girl, brilliant at languages, writing and English."

The daughters of the manager of a double-glazing company and an air stewardess, Willoughby says there was never any sibling rivalry but, from the way she praises her sister's writing and academic skills, it seems Kelly was a difficult act to follow as they were growing up in Burgess Hill, West Sussex.

"As we were into different things, it was never like that," Willoughby, 32, insists. "I was into fashion, clothes and make-up, and Kelly would be there with her books. I would give her a makeover and she would help me with my school work.

"Our mum and dad brought us up to be very supportive of each other. I was never resentful of the fact that she did so well or was head girl. I just felt proud of her."

Today, the sisters remain close. "We bought our first flat and lived together until I moved in with Dan [now Willoughby's husband] and still see each other five or six times a week.

"That's why the book was so easy to do," she adds. "We'd be seeing each other with the kids, and the conversation would just turn to chatting about ideas for the book."

Willoughby is not the first celebrity to branch out into children's books - David Walliams is now a hugely successful children's novelist, while others, including Geri Halliwell and Darcey Bussell, have created their own series for girls.

L'Etoile is the first of a series of three, and there's scope for more. It rather depends on Willoughby's work schedule - which seems ever-more hectic.

As well as This Morning and The Voice, she'll also be hosting the second 10-part series of ITV's Surprise, Surprise, which returns to screens later this year.

The former model, who as a teenager appeared in magazines including Just Seventeen and modelled underwear for Pretty Polly long before her TV presenting days, cut her broadcasting teeth in children's television.

Her big break on mainstream TV came in 2006, when she hosted Dancing On Ice with Phillip Schofield for the first time, and Willoughby's rarely been off our screens since.

"It doesn't feel like it's been a whirlwind career," she reflects. "It's been a slow and steady process. I love where I'm at now."

She met her husband, TV producer Dan Baldwin, through work, during her Saturday morning television days. They married in 2007 and now have a son, Harry, four, and two-year-old daughter, Belle. A nanny looks after the children while their parents are at work.

"It's not easy. You have to be super organised," says Willoughby. "I always make sure that my work-life balance is in the right proportions.

"Within the framework of a day, the hours I give to work are frantically busy, but it means I can be home every night to be with the kids, to give them a bath and put them to bed.

"I walk out to make sure I'm home in time and I'm sure, for some people, it's extremely frustrating, but that's the deal. It's non-negotiable," she adds.

Willoughby also, evidently, finds time to hang out with a string of celebrity pals. Her close friendship with fellow presenter Fearne Cotton is well-documented, and she was recently pictured having lunch with Made In Chelsea star Francis Boulle, and out on the town with Tara Palmer-Tomkinson.

Willoughby has come in for her fair share of knocks in recent years, with critics accusing her of being too lightweight for the job, and being known as much for her curves as her presenting skills.

"That's the way it is," she says, shrugging. "I'm never going to change things."

When comedian Keith Lemon (Leigh Francis) nicknamed her Holly "Willough-booby" on Celebrity Juice, she played along with it.

"Well, it's funny. The great thing about that dynamic between me, Leigh Francis and Fearne Cotton [also on the show], is that the idea came off the back of a friendship between the three of us," says Willoughby.

"When you have that natural banter between friends, it's just funny. You have to have a joke about these things."

She laughs at claims that the number of viewers who tune into The Voice depends on how much cleavage she shows on the night.

"I'm not quite sure who makes up these things, but it's ridiculous," she counters. "If I had that much power and control, that would be incredible."

Other attacks have been more vicious. In one particularly scathing article, Jon Roseman (her This Morning predecessor Fern Britton's former agent) wrote that she doesn't have "a single flicker of talent".

How does Willoughby handle the criticism? "It's almost impossible not to be aware of it, but what I've always done is taken the good with the bad in equal measure," she says.

"It goes over my head a little bit. It's not that important to me. If my mum turned around, or my dad turned around, and said what I did wasn't very good, I'd be devastated, because I know and respect them and want to make them proud. I'm more likely to take their comments on board than anyone else's."

And, when newspapers attack her abilities, her husband simply makes sure that she's all right. "If he thought I was more sensitive about it then he'd probably be more protective," she says.

While telly is reputedly cut-throat, Willoughby says she's never trodden on anyone's toes to get to where she wants to be.

"I don't count myself as ruthless, in fact I count myself as the opposite. I've never been worried about it all disappearing," she says. "Obviously, I really enjoy what I'm doing, but if it suddenly all went wrong tomorrow, I'd miss it, but I wouldn't be devastated."


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