Ella Woodward: My secret recipe for health and wealth
Instagram sensation Ella Woodward's recipe book is the fastest-selling cookery debut ever. So how did the daughter of a former NI Secretary become a top lifestyle guru?
The first thing I do when I meet Ella Woodward - the willowy, clear-skinned, glossy-haired, healthy-eating blogger turned best-selling author - is recount my personal menu of digested food and drink from the past 24 hours. I've just returned from a long-haul trip to the UAE, starting with a 3am breakfast of fruit, yoghurt and honey. So far, so virtuous. But in the lounge it's a handful of Haribos, two croissants, several slugs of orange juice, coffee and two glasses of champagne. Lunch on the plane is ricotta ravioli with pine nuts and cream, two (ok, three) glasses of pinot grigio followed by a blueberry panna cotta. Dinner is heavy, intestine-bunging meatballs with spaghetti, and some sort of creamy pudding.
Woodward's grey-blue eyes widen. "Champagne for breakfast? Wow." Yet, amazingly, that's as close as she comes to criticism. "Well, you could start by adding more healthy elements to your dishes," she murmurs. "Maybe some vegetables with your pasta - broccoli or kale, perhaps? Lots of water with your wine. A smoothie instead of pudding."
It's this kind of upbeat, non-prescriptive dietary advice that has made Woodward, at the age of 23, a multimedia phenomenon. Her Deliciously Ella blog gets around 2.5m hits a month. Her recipe app has been downloaded more than 60,000 times, she has close to 400,000 followers on Instagram, over 100,000 on Facebook and 50,000 on Twitter.
Her book, Deliciously Ella: Awesome Ingredients and Incredible Food that You and Your Body Will Love, sold 32,144 copies in the last week of January alone, becoming the fastest-selling debut cookbook of all time. That feat would be remarkable in itself, but it's even more so when you consider that Woodward's diet contains no meat, dairy, refined sugar, gluten or any processed food of any kind. She makes brownies out of sweet potatoes, and turns beetroot and buckwheat flour into cake. She's a smelly old vegan, isn't she?
One mean-spirited newspaper columnist described her brownies as "acrid and waxy", and said a week on her regime left one "so desperate for grub, you binge on the few foodstuffs you are permitted'" Her blog is peppered with the kind of excitable youthspeak more often found on Facebook than in recipes - "awesomes", "surreals" and "obsesseds" abound - and her dishes call for copious amounts of ultra-middle-class, often expensive, ingredients such as quinoa, almond butter and medjool dates. And that's before you get to her potentially grating, Pollyanna-ish positivity.
Even Gwyneth Paltrow can come across as edgy by comparison. "I am well aware of what people might think," says Woodward today. "But the approach is all in the tone. It's about being honest. It's written like that because that's how I actually speak. It's really important not to come across as smug and overly virtuous," she adds. "I don't make big promises about losing weight or anything like that. I just suggest things that people can make to make them feel good."
Still, she's hardly the most relatable home cook. For one thing, she has a natural, Emily Blunt-esque beauty no amount of healthy eating can bring about (aged 19, she was scouted as a model, and signed to Models 1). Her father, Shaun Woodward, was Northern Ireland Secretary during Gordon Brown's tenure, and her mother is Camilla Sainsbury, of the supermarket dynasty. She boarded at Rugby School in Warwickshire, where the eponymous ruffian sport is said to have been invented and whose alumni include Salman Rushdie and Lewis Carroll. She grew up with her older brother Thomas and her two younger sisters Olivia and Katherine in the family home, Sarsden House - a listed 17th-century Oxfordshire mansion set in 459 acres that sold, 10 years ago, for £24m. There's also a £7m villa in the Hamptons, an apartment in the Alps, a holiday home on Mustique, a house in the South of France and a townhouse in Oxford.
But Woodward is well aware of the potential pitfalls all this presents. When I bring up her expensive ingredients, a bag of oatmeal, she reminds me, is a whole lot cheaper than sugary breakfast cereal. It's a politically perfect response, cleverly dodging the privilege thing, chicaning around an issue to steer the conversation back to the big picture. Does Woodward think she's learned any oration skills from her politician father, now Labour MP for St Helens South? "Oh, definitely. If you have a large family like ours, you have to fight to get your point across and I think I learned that from my dad."
Yet one reason she strikes a chord with so many is that, despite her material advantages, she's had her fair share of knock-backs. While studying History of Art at St Andrews University, she was suddenly struck down by a rare illness called postural tachycardia syndrome (PoTS), which is characterised by an abnormal increase in heart rate after sitting or standing up, and which left her physically exhausted and struggling to get out of bed in the morning. "I'd get this sort of 'rush out' feeling where my heart rate would go from 60 to 190. The blood just drops out of you. Every time I got up, the world would go black." Without the energy to see her friends, her social life fell apart, she lost confidence, and despaired of her future. "I thought, nobody's going to stick around for this. I will have no friends, I will live at home forever, I'll never have a job or kids." To make matters worse, it took weeks before she received a diagnosis; her GP initially claimed the problem was psychosomatic and recommended therapy.
At the time, her diet was high on sweet treats and low on leafy greens. On her blog she describes her former self as a "sugar monster"; tomatoes were picked out of sandwiches and baby sweetcorn would only be ingested if melted in macaroni. Her kitchen speciality was Rice Krispies cake, made from Kellogg's finest golden syrup, marshmallows and melted Cadbury's Caramel chocolate bar, topped with a bag of pick'n'mix sweets. But that all changed during a denial-fuelled trip to Marrakech with her then boyfriend.
An attack of food poisoning left her on a drip and led to her being repatriated less than 24 hours after she arrived. Back in the UK, on a course of steroid-based medication, she decided to take her health into her own hands. Inspiration came via the fruit and veg regime of American wellness guru and best-selling author Kris Carr, who has incurable stage four cancer but whose upbeat writings about healthy living (which she sees as a complement, not an alternative, to more conventional medicine) have won her millions of fans, and seen her tour medical schools, hospitals, wellness centres and universities to deliver lectures.
When she told her pasta-loving parents of her plans to cut out gluten, dairy and refined sugar, and document it all on a blog, they were dumbfounded. It was pointed out that she could neither write nor cook. "Both of which were true, of course," laughs Woodward. There's undoubtedly a certain irony to it: at school she had been placed in the bottom set for English. "I was a very, very slow learner. I was good at nothing," she says self-deprecatingly. Despite this, she says she came up with the blog's now-famous name in a few seconds: "There was no sitting down with a bunch of creative people for a branding meeting or anything like that."
Perhaps it's this detail that offers the biggest clue to her appeal. While her lifestyle may be aspirational, Woodward presents it with such warmth, and with so little affectation, that it's difficult - even for a cynical, croissant-loving hack - not to warm to it. And you can tell from her writing that she's motivated not by book sales or profit margins but by enthusiasm. As she puts it on the blog: "More than anything I want the blog to show how easy and delicious healthy food is - it's so much more than bland salads and iceberg lettuce!"
Having graduated from St Andrews in May 2013, she says she has no plans to 'do a Jamie' and market a line of products or politicise her dietary message to sugar-rushing school kids. Anyway, she's far too busy cracking America, having recently appeared with presenter Matt Lauer on NBC's Today show and on Good Morning America (which pulls in a total viewing audience of around 11m), writing her second book and training as a nutritionist at the College of Naturopathic Medicine - all while maintaining a punishing regime of yoga, spinning and boxing (see her Instagram for headstands and the like). "I'm going to write the next book and then stop. Take a bit of time to decide what I want to do next."
But it's not all work and no play. Currently single, she enjoys eating out. Does her no gluten, no dairy, no sugar, meat, eggs or anything processed diet make her something of a waiter's nightmare at other, less 'Deliciously' on-brand spots? "I just ask for a simple piece of fish - any decent restaurant can do that, can't it?" She also loves to shop at the haute-grungy fashion houses of Rag & Bone, The Kooples and Sandro, and lives in a London house with a large kitchen where she experiments with recipes, helped by her two assistants. Does she ever feel the desire to go crazy, get wasted and pull an all-nighter at a club? "I go out quite a lot," she insists. "Just because I like being healthy doesn't mean I can't have fun - I don't drink excessively but I'll have a couple of vodka-and-sodas." Who would have thought it? The poster girl for clean-eating, a fan of hard spirits. You heard it here first.
- Deliciously Ella by Ella Woodward is out now, published by Yellow Kite, £20