He's the Instagrammer turned publishing phenomenon who built a fitness empire worth millions. But, Joe Wicks tells Orla Neligan, it's only since helping families around the world keep fit during the pandemic that he's found his true calling - just don't ask him to take his top off...
Joe Wicks yawns as he plonks down, gym-gear casual, in a chair in his sitting room, a familiar view to millions around the world who have been tuning in every morning at 9am for his online workouts streamed live from his home in Surrey.
"Sorry if I'm a bit sleepy, I just had a nap," he says.
It's 2pm on a day much like every other, somewhere around week seven of lockdown and Wicks is feeling the pace, which jars somewhat with the Wicks we saw bouncing around our screens just hours earlier like a gazelle in pursuit, encouraging us to "touch our toes" and "keep going".
As he rubs his eyes I glimpse the underlying exhaustion that lingers over all working parents of young children like an invisible weight. He's been up since dawn with his three-month-old son Marley and two-year-old daughter Indie, answering emails and planning his day as the world's much-loved PE teacher. And, to top it off, his broken wrist, the result of a bike accident, is causing him sleepless nights. (A few days after we speak, Wicks's wife, Rosie, has to step in to help him lead his daily classes after he has to undergo surgery on the wrist).
"I've never worked so hard as I have in the last six weeks," he laughs. "Like everyone, I thought lockdown would be a week or two," he says, eyes wide in mock horror. "And yet, here we are weeks later but, I would be so upset if I missed a day; I'd feel I'd let everyone down."
Before Covid-19 he had an impressive 800,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel The Body Coach TV along with over three million Instagram followers and his own Channel 4 TV series. His YouTube channel has now tipped 2.4 million with more than one million tuning in each day to see him put young and old through their paces. I recall the moment he read out a message from an elderly man living alone who cited Joe as his 'lifeline' - it seems everyone from hyperactive toddlers to stir-crazy parents and the lonely are hooked.
So what is it about Wicks that has caught the zeitgeist? For starters, he is refreshingly free of faff. All ruffled hair, doe-eyed good looks and boyish bonhomie edged with innocent affability, he bounces on to your screen with that mop of hair, 12-ish pack, contagious enthusiasm and that chirpy London patter, encouraging, not disciplining, showing not telling, endearing himself to the masses.
"I honestly had no idea it would be so popular when I started; it's been a very emotional for me, and makes me feel like what I'm doing with my time is exactly what I should be doing right now," he says.
"Whether you're in a massive house or a tiny apartment, everyone needs stimulation and connection. Parents want kids to be active and energised and I think when you start your day with exercise it helps you focus for the rest of the day."
Whatever you want to call it, focus, determination, steely ambition, Wicks has blazed a remarkable career trajectory for such a young age - he's 33. While his story is an Instagram-celebrity version of the classic Hollywood rags-to-riches tale, he was not plucked from obscurity but rather his success has been a consequence of years of 'hard graft'.
Growing up on a council estate with his mum and two brothers, his childhood didn't exactly foster the warm and fuzzy family environment. His dad, a recovering addict, dipped in and out but there was no communal family meals, instead a haphazard 'help yourself' atmosphere. So, where did the ambition and appreciation for good living come from?
"My mum wasn't a great cook so it was a sandwich, a bowl of cereal or a frozen pie for dinner and I wasn't pushed to be successful, all I knew was that I didn't want to go down the route of my dad," he admits.
After getting his degree in Sports Science and doing a stint as a PE teacher he quickly realised his calling as a personal trainer. But it wasn't until 2014, when he arrived on our social media platforms (often in just his shorts), that he hit his meteoric stride, with his simple recipes and quick, accessible workouts delivered in that distinctive southwest London patois, winning him legions of fans.
His first book, Lean In 15, sold one million copies (the second-best selling cookbook of all time after Jamie Oliver), quickly followed by seven more best-sellers putting him top of the publishers' wish list.
In an industry saturated with cookbooks, Wicks has managed to puncture the thick industry pelt, his recipes cutting through the 'noise'. And while his latest tome Wean in 15 - a nod to his new-found role as a dad (one of the hardest jobs yet, he admits) - is a slight departure from its predecessors, the new direction is a natural one.
"Meal time was chaotic when I was a kid," he confesses. "And since I've become a dad I'm trying to make a real conscious effort to be present in the kitchen with my kids. Indie loves helping me cook and we try to sit down as a family at every meal time."
The book is time sensitive to where he is in his life right now.
"I'm a dad and I love to cook but I also didn't have a clue what to give a baby for the first time so I teamed up with expert nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed to provide a complete resource for other parents. I didn't just whizz up a load of vegetables in a blender," he says.
"I did a lot of research about the profile of food babies could eat from a few months right up to 12-plus months; there's plenty in there for families too."
Daughter Indie, he tells me, is adventurous with flavours, happy to try spicy dishes. "We all love the Caribbean spice chicken and squash curry from the book - that's a great all-round family meal."
Unsurprisingly, Wicks wields a can-do attitude when it comes to fussy eaters, telling us not to "give up too easily" on certain food types.
If your child doesn't like broccoli, try roasting it in the oven with some cumin or paprika or fry it in butter and spices, he says.
"Don't be afraid to try something different," he encourages, "just don't let your bad habits rub off on them. As parents we're the chefs and what we put on the table determines how adventurous kids will be so if you crack and give them an alternative, it fuels fussy eating; it comes down to consistency."
What about those time-pressed parents who may not have the energy or the will? "As parents we have the lovely notion that we'll make everything from scratch and it'll be organic and as time goes on so does the reality and we cut things out and take short cuts," he says, matter-of-factly.
"I get it, but being organised and doing some batch-cooking is a fantastic way to get ahead and saves so much time." And, what about bribery, I offer sheepishly. "I think it's okay to allow treats every now and again but not to rely on them. I prefer to focus on three consistent meals a day."
A lot has changed for Wicks in the last few years. Now the green-juice-drinking family man, he confesses to struggling with "two crying babies at once" and is working hard on his tolerance and patience, using his wife Rosie as his role model. If we are to believe the papers, his twenties looked very different; the lad-about-town enjoying his 'salad days', happy to show off his washboard torso. He's reflective of that now, if not a little uncomfortable.
"When I left uni I was completely lost and when things started to take off, I just went along with it," he admits. "That was me but just a dialled-up me. Now the narrative and the sentiment around what I'm doing for the world and my family has changed so that doesn't feel right anymore." So no more topless shoots then?
"I was talking to Jamie Oliver recently about those early days and we were cringing about the time he was photographed in a bath surrounded by fruit," he laughs.
"But we were young and it was all a bit of fun," he shrugs, before raising his finger to make a point. "Can I just say, though," he smiles, "that I never suggested taking my shirt off. I mean, I wasn't trying to show off," he says a little defensively. "You expect it for Men's Health magazine but I'd turn up for an interview with the Guardian or The Times and they'd want me holding a broccoli climbing up a tree with my shirt off," he laughs. "I'd sulk for a while and tell them I wasn't doing it but then would feel bad and well, if it's good for the brand…," he trails off. As for now, he's not adverse to a 'shirt-off' shoot for a fitness magazine but that's as far as it goes. He's become something of a sage, it seems. When asked what advice he'd give his 20-year-old self, he's quick with that sage advice.
"Don't worry about what people think of you; not everyone is going to love what you're doing but if you think you're adding value or helping even one person in the world then that's enough. Just believe in yourself and you'll smash it."
Wicks is a glass-half full type of person but what does raise his ire is negativity. He has had his fair share of unfair comments, usually from other personal trainers, but is philosophical. "I never used to respond but I realised they are suffering themselves so now I reply to offer my help and send them good vibes."
More recently, he heard someone on Gogglebox mention that he was doing the PE with Joe "for the money". He is clearly piqued. "Of course some of the things you do are commercial but every single penny raised from the online workouts has been donated to the NHS charities. I had no idea it would generate over 50 million views and I've no need to capitalise on it, instead we've raised over £150k for the charity. I've turned down millions of offers from brands because I don't want to use people's attention to sell products I don't really believe in."
Authenticity is what makes Wicks so compelling. You're just as likely to see him tucking into a burger and fries and a large vat of ice cream (his guilty pleasure, he tells me) as you are a kale salad. As someone who enjoys his online 20-minute HIIT workouts, I'm always relieved to hear him out of breath or complaining that it "hurts"; he's eager to show his flaws. I know, it's hard to believe 'washboard Wicks' could be out of breath but he assures me he genuinely is.
"That's real time and don't forget I'm talking all the way through those sessions," he impresses. It's telling that, when I ask for something that people would be surprised to learn about him, he's a little stuck. Everything he does is already out there. Navigating the balance between authenticity and family privacy might be the only grey area.
"I'm lucky I've been able to use my iPhone to create a business that helps millions and that I can do that while being close to my family. My journey is so integral to my life and I'm proud to share every moment but perhaps when Indie and Marley grow older that will change."
He is au courant as one can get on social media: self-deprecating, youthful and exuberant, there is no pause button, it seems, on the Wicks machine. I ask if he manages to ever step off the proverbial treadmill. A long pause ensues.
"I love travelling," he finally answers, wistfully. "Somewhere new and exciting but I also love spending time in Santa Monica where I go for a few months of the year to recharge." And since we're all still locked down, he says he will take an action movie and popcorn evening with Rosie instead.
"I really miss going for dinner with her and just catching up, but I'll take a peaceful evening at home for now," he smiles. Like much of what he does he's handling lockdown with a positive bent. He's at home with Rosie and the kids, something he's very used to. They have a nice garden, good food on the table and the days are busy.
"It's been so incredible to see the amount of people tuning in each day," says Wicks, thoughtfully. When he gathered 4,800 people in Hyde Park in 2017 for the world's largest outdoor HIIT session, it was a proud moment but this, he admits, tops anything he's done so far.
"This woman sent me a message saying she'd been feeling suicidal since her husband left her but since we've been quarantined she's been doing 'PE with Joe' every morning with her daughter and says it's transformed her. I've read a lot of transformation stories about weight loss, anxiety, depression but to go from suicidal thoughts," he pauses, "that's probably the most powerful story I've read so far and it just endorses why I'm doing this. I've found my purpose. I want people to remember me as the guy who got everyone fit and feeling good during quarantine."
And it seems the fitness guru may well get his wish after this week rumours surfaced in the media that Wicks and his wife had been nominated for an OBE.
When he started out, it was all about getting lean but he agrees too much emphasis is placed on how you look; it's the biggest misconception about wellness, in his opinion. Instead, he prefers to start with your mental health; that's what's going to motivate you to eat well and stay healthy in the end. His words of encouragement to those struggling: "Just get started, the motivation is waiting at the end of the workout. Oh, and work hard, have fun and be nice."
If ever you needed a motivational push, Wicks's 'let's do this moxie' is likely to get you over the line, shining a bright light in these dark times.
The following morning he's back, in full superhero costume. It's Fancy Dress Friday and despite the broken wrist, and broken sleep, he's his usual chipper self. "Happy birthday to Sam in Scotland, who's dressed as a giant crab. Must be hot in there," he says with a grin, his son Marley nestled in one arm while his daughter Indie feeds him raisins. Our very own virtual superhero.
Wean in 15 is published by Bluebird, priced £16.99