Joe Wicks: ‘People say I’m a cross between Jamie Oliver and Mr Motivator’

A ripe Thursday afternoon in Richmond, and for Joe Wicks it is a “content day”. I join the Body Coach at his favourite restaurant, Rock & Rose, to find Wicks uploading an old photo of prawn linguine to Instagram. “Content!” he is saying to his PR, loudly. He hands me a Pimm’s.

Joe Wicks is the kind of contemporary phenomenon you find yourself having to explain to your dad. He has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter! “Right …” And 1.4 million followers on Instagram! “So?” A personal trainer turned social media millionaire, at 31, Wicks is the author of two bestselling books, and one of the most influential people in the food industry, second only to his hero, Jamie Oliver, according to the trade magazine The Grocer. He looks like an X Factor winner, that combination of ambition, approachability and bouncy hair. He is the man responsible for a 25% increase in sales of Tenderstem broccoli.

He puts down his phone. Shines his face at me. “So a content day is basically … where I do new content.” With his employees, Wicks will cook quick recipes for Instagram and Facebook (“Bosh! Try this nawwwty cheesy chorizo chicken and spinach recipe”), or make a video for Youtube, occasionally performing an impromptu set of lunges in a public picnic area.

While his debut book, Lean in 15, broke publishing records and the first episode of his Channel 4 show got 836,000 viewers, they’re a means to an end: content. He uses it to direct new fans to his social media, the aim being that they sign up to his three-month body transformation plans at £147 a go.

“The plan is the product,” he says. I read that he makes £150,000 a week. “That’s an old article,” he says, holding my gaze. “Now it’s more like a million a month.” I believe him when he says that money isn’t the goal. He is fanatical about fitness, nutrition and the word “lean”. “The goal is to get people off low-calorie diets. They’re struggling, they’re barely eating anything. They need educating.” He orders an Asian sharing platter, his favourite. “My goal is to take the nutrition world globally. You’ve got chefs who do their chef thing, you’ve got fitness trainers who do the fitness stuff but I’m the only one who does both.”

The restaurant is unashamedly opulent – a sofa the colour of bubblegum, flocked furniture, velvetty curtains. His rented flat is down the road (his house in Surbiton will take a few years before the renovation with pool and gym is complete) and he eats here at least once a week. His office is local – there’s a running track through the room, and when Youtube visited to celebrate him hitting 100k subscribers they told him they wished their offices had half the energy of his.

Is he too young to remember Mr Motivator, I ask as he bemoans the difficulty of styling a salad for Instagram. “Love him! People say I’m like a cross between Jamie Oliver, Russell Brand and Mr Motivator,” he adds with pride. “I’m not motivated to be famous,” he says, gravely. “I’m motivated to be successful. To reach people, I’ve got to get on TV, I’ve got to get in with the government, I’ve got to get on TV abroad …” I have no doubt he will break America like a matchstick.

His broad message – to eat better, take regular exercise – seems like reasonable advice. But a person whose career is based on changing people’s bodies has a certain responsibility. I ask about the pressure to keep his audiences safe. He pauses. “My job is to keep them entertained and give them content.” I rephrase the question. “My view on exercise is never about looking a certain way, it’s about feeling amazing.” A thoughtful bite of calamari. “I mean, why wouldn’t people exercise? It makes you feel so good! Why wouldn’t you eat well when it gives you so much energy?” I realise he’s expecting an answer. “Umm,” I say.

Later, over a tandoori chicken salad decorated with fist-sized onion bhajis, he tells me that to relax, he does leg stretches while learning Spanish. Do you know that not everybody feels like you do, I ask. That some of us, come evening, want only to lie quite flat on a sofa with a packet of Hobnobs? He has a look of polite bafflement. “Why? You can be more productive, have more energy, love people more – exercise boosts your mood. I’m lean – it’s a by-product of being energised.” That word. “Lean” is one of a handful of catchphrases he repeats – the scales are “the sad step”, broccoli is “midget trees”. What does “lean” mean to him? The first pause of the lunch. “It’s just … health, isn’t it? It’s an energy balance thing. Lean recipes will burn fat, and that’s how I got the name. Lean.”

We meet on the day Theresa May abandoned plans to tackle childhood obesity by curbing junk food advertising. “Body fat is a choice, isn’t it? I have two goals: I want us to work with schools [to promote health], and I want us to work with the NHS.” So what makes him different from Jamie Oliver? “Jamie’s improved school dinners, and that’s great. But I want to do something where kids learn to cook themselves. Have a programme where once a week we teach a real recipe. And they’ll go home and cook it with Mum and Dad. By the end of the year they’ll make better food choices.”

He is leaning forward now, over our discarded napkins, over the dictaphone, talking about nutrition. “Different brands say you need different levels of fats, and the problem is they’re just following their own guidelines. The study saying that fat increases cholesterol, that’s from the 50s! I watch a lot of shows, I read, and I listen to a lot of podcasts.” I wonder if he’s one of these millennials who have given up drinking, drugs, sex … “If I do get drunk what happens is I eat crap food all day and don’t want to train … It knocks my content days back.”

He’s loving his salad. He takes a photo of it, then of my chicken, and of his PR’s sea bass. He says he’ll save these for Instagram posts. I get a small rush when some days later I see his salad appear on his feed – it gets 13,600 likes. He films it too, his voice rising to a soprano. It’s as if he’s suddenly come alive. Phone down, back to business. Much of his success is said to be based on his charisma. Off-camera, off-phone he is likeable: polite, smart, quick. But the charisma is that of a salesman, a motivational speaker. It’s no act – just that he appears more brand than man. Is this the future of work, of industry, of leisure? Nutrition and fitness is Wicks’ life. And while he exists in this new “wellness” world, constantly online, compared with his peers Wicks is fairly anonymous. His Instagram feed is recipes, workouts and fans’ pictures, with the odd snap from a wedding, or of his new nephew. There are no moments of contemplation, no candid responses to media stories – the tone is fixed, the brand is everything. There’s seemingly little depth required for a company based exclusively on appearance. Which, considering the 2016-ness of his story, makes the brand feel oddly old-fashioned.

Over the course of a pleasant lunch the concept of content begins to worry me. Is lunch content? Is the weather content? Am I? Yes, it turns out. Mid-sentence Wicks grabs his phone to Snapchat our conversation, “I’M HERE BEING INTERVIEWED FOR OBSERVER FOOD!” He adds a filter that makes me appear as an adorable puppy. “I’ve built this. I’m a social media business person,” he reminds me. “So it’s like a conveyer belt you can’t really get off of.” Joe, I say, as the bill arrives, that sounds horrible. Are you OK? “It’s not just content days, every day is the same, I do Instagram and Twitter and social media – it’s just what I do. You might think it’s stressful and like, I’m having a meltdown but, actually, till I burn out I’m going to keep going.” We walk down the road together, past a couple who, as we pass, squeal, “It’s him!” He smiles shyly. Checks his phone.

Lean in 15 – the Sustain Plan by Joe Wicks (Bluebird, £16.99) is published in November

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