His lockdown PE lessons gave Joe Wicks an army of followers. He's paid with his mental health

21 mins read

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He’s known for being relentlessly cheerful, but lately Joe Wicks has spent a lot of time in tears. 

‘I was absolutely exhausted at the end of every day filming,’ he says of a new documentary called Facing My Childhood, in which the health and fitness guru explores what it was like to grow up in a chaotic home with a father who was a heroin addict and a mother who cleaned the house obsessively four or five times a day. 

‘It was all so raw, having conversations with my mum and dad and my brother that brought up things I had forgotten or didn’t even know.’ 

The documentary is produced by Louis Theroux, one of the millions of us who bounced around our homes doing PE With Joe every day during lockdown, keeping the kids – and ourselves – from going stir crazy. 

Joe Wicks, 36, (pictured) speaks about how his mental health suffered due to fame in new BBC1 documentary called Facing My Childhood

Joe Wicks, 36, (pictured) speaks about how his mental health suffered due to fame in new BBC1 documentary called Facing My Childhood

‘I hope there’s an uplifting message at the end of the film,’ says Joe, 36, who gave all the advertising revenue from PE With Joe to the NHS and raised more than £1.5 million for Children In Need by exercising nonstop for 24 hours. 

But the real revelation of the new documentary is the pressure he’s under right now because of his newly acquired fame. ‘Some days I just want it to stop,’ he says, breaking down in the opening scenes. 

‘I don’t want to be the Body Coach. I just want to be Joe. I don’t want to have to carry all these emotions.’

The emotions he talks about struggling to carry are not just his own – they belong to the hundreds of people who contact him directly on social media every day, many simply to say thank you but others to pour their hearts out to him and ask for help with depression or anxiety. 

‘I ain’t trained in how to respond to this kind of stuff,’ he says plaintively on camera, staring at his phone. 

‘His wife Rosie, mother to Indie and Marley, aged three and two, with another child on the way in September, expresses her concern. ‘He can’t save everyone, can he?’ 

Joe and Louis Theroux working out together. The documentary is produced by Louis Theroux, one of the millions of us who bounced around our homes doing PE With Joe every day during lockdown

Joe and Louis Theroux working out together. The documentary is produced by Louis Theroux, one of the millions of us who bounced around our homes doing PE With Joe every day during lockdown

It’s a worrying scene to watch, so when we meet I have to ask what’s going on? ‘I’ve got better,’ he tells me thoughtfully, pushing back his long, lush, corkscrew black hair with his fingers. 

‘I’m doing about six hours a day on my phone now whereas I used to do nine.’ Still, six hours is a huge amount of time. 

‘It’s a little bit of scrolling, a little bit of posting, but then mainly replying to people. Voice messages are quicker and they’re much more impactful.’ 

These are total strangers, remember. Wicks was already famous as the Body Coach before Covid with his own workouts and healthy cookbooks, but PE With Joe went global with more than 100 million views. 

I CAN SEE WHEN DAD’S SLIPPING AWAY 

In the new documentary, Joe gently confronts his father Gary, a former heroin addict, about all the times he’d said he was going to the shop for milk but vanished instead, sometimes for days or even weeks. 

‘It was your code word for going to score some gear,’ says Joe, sounding heartbreakingly like the young boy he was then. 

‘You never came back with milk. I just wanted to stop you going.’ 

His father is sincere in his repentance, saying, ‘I’m lucky you still talk to me. I thank God that we have what we have today. I need to stay clean so that your kids never have to see me like that.’ 

Father and son are close these days. ‘I’m more understanding of him as an addict now and I’m ready,’ Joe tells me. 

‘My dad’s never relapsed on heroin, but he might have a little drink or a joint, and I can see when he’s slipping away, so I ring him up and I say, “Let’s go for a dinner. Let’s get the motorbikes out.” Because all he wants is love and connection. That’s all he needs. So, I’m quite good at that now.’ 

He has just received an MBE from the Princess Royal at Windsor Castle, which made his mum Raquela cry. But the thing that really seems to have shocked him about Joemania is the way so many people want to share their intimate thoughts and feelings. 

‘Through lockdown I realised what I’d done wasn’t about people’s physical health, it was about their minds,’ he says. ‘Women and their husbands messaging me separately, saying they weren’t talking to each other, or people telling me they were going through depression, or having suicidal thoughts.’ 

They continue to open up to him. ‘I don’t see it as a negative, it’s a gift that I’ve got.’ 

Still, Joe feels compelled to help as many as he can, responding to direct messages with a question or a physical challenge that might prompt a change, and asking people to let him know how it goes. Not surprisingly, this handsome, caring man attracts devotion. 

‘Sometimes you never hear from them again, but sometimes they become super-reliant on you, super-needy,’ he says. 

‘I’ve got people that reply to every single story I post, because you’ve formed that bond and it’s quite an intimate thing. That’s quite hard, when people don’t see that they’re taking a lot from you.’ 

Online stars often attract stalkers – has that happened? ‘I don’t want to say the word, but I definitely think people come to depend on it. 

‘So I have to sometimes not engage as much with them, because I want to let new people in,’ he smiles. ‘It’s intense, but it’s my addiction.’ 

Now that’s a very strong and surprising word for him to use, given his background, but Joe is sincere. ‘It’s my energy source. It’s my happiness. It’s my purpose. 

‘Without it, I think, “What am I doing? Why am I filming videos? Why am I sharing recipes?” I need to see the impact, to feel there’s actually a reason behind it.’ 

He’s now estimated to be worth upwards of £10 million but says it’s not about the money. ‘My purpose is not more pounds in the bank, it’s about helping people.’ 

Clearly, he loves to connect with his fans, including Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. ‘I met Kate at Wimbledon,’ he says breezily. 

‘She was sitting just in front of me and she’s so wonderful. I mean, she’s beautiful. She turned around and said, “Oh, congratulations on PE With Joe. It’s amazing what you’ve done.”’ 

Joe with wife Rosie and their two children. She was a model when they started dating in 2016 while he was a fledgling online fitness star who’d just brought out his first recipe book, Lean In 15. They married three years later and now family comes first

Joe with wife Rosie and their two children. She was a model when they started dating in 2016 while he was a fledgling online fitness star who’d just brought out his first recipe book, Lean In 15. They married three years later and now family comes first

He says the conversation took no more than ten seconds, but isn’t that the day he was also photographed yawning in the Royal Box? ‘I was eating loads of food and drinking gin and tonics and Pimm’s, so I was a little drunk,’ he admits with disarming honesty. 

‘The papers were like, ‘Body Coach Falls Asleep!’, as if Wimbledon is boring. No! It was an amazing game and it was amazing to see her. But the photographers like catching you picking your nose and stuff, don’t they?’ 

They do indeed. But then Joe himself is not against posting candid images like the recent topless shot of his so-called ‘bingo wings’ – apparently the result of letting his diet go for a while. 

When we meet he’s dressed in a white shirt and gunmetal sweat pants that hang close to his body, and I can tell you, if that man’s got bingo wings, then I’m two fat ladies. 

My hunch is he was pushing his belly out to entertain his followers, because – as he puts it in the new documentary – ‘I would say that love, that connection, that bond I get with people is very addictive for me.’ 

 I always end up crying when I read the letters sent to me because I’ll open one that really hits me in the heart

There’s that A-word again. Joe Wicks is addicted to love, in a handsoff kind of way. It pops up again when he talks about keeping boxes of letters from fans in the garage of his home in Virginia Water, Surrey. 

‘Sometimes I go through and find one that’s unopened and I read it, and that’s an emotional thing because of the real impact PE With Joe had on people,’ he says, voice cracking. 

‘I always end up crying because I open one that really hits me in the heart, like a letter from a young girl with anxiety. 

‘It’s a box of love, a drawer in my garage of love and gratitude that you don’t often feel from strangers. So, it’s very addictive.’ 

He even compares the feeling of connection with the effect some people get from taking a South American psychedelic brew. ‘I haven’t ever done ayahuasca, but one thing I always hear about it is that it makes people feel that we are all connected by love.’ 

Is Rosie worried about him spending so much time replying to strangers? ‘If you mean her being jealous about women messaging me, she’s not. She doesn’t have to be. Rosie knows me.’ 

She was a model when they started dating in 2016 while he was a fledgling online fitness star who’d just brought out his first recipe book, Lean In 15. They married three years later and now family comes first. 

‘I’m not an up-and-down person. I’m pretty consistent.’ 

But if Joe is so busy loving and connecting with everyone else, is he really that involved as a father? 

‘Definitely. I’m not going to say I get up every night, because Rosie does most of it, but last night I was actually up at 3am,’ he says. 

Joe feels compelled to help as many or his followers as he can, who reach out to him on social media

Joe feels compelled to help as many or his followers as he can, who reach out to him on social media

‘Marley had got out of his room and he couldn’t get back in the door so he was sleeping on the landing out by the stairs. I went and brought him into bed. 

‘Rosie gets annoyed. She knows if I do that he’s going to want to do it every night and I’m away next week on a book tour.’ 

Somebody brings banana bread with cream and before I can usher them away from the health guru he proclaims, ‘I’ll have that! I’ve just come from working out at home.’ 

So how about food for the little ones? Does he ever let them visit the golden arches? ‘I haven’t taken my kids to McDonald’s, no,’ he says firmly. 

‘I used to love a McDonald’s breakfast. An Egg McMuffin, two hash browns. But then I kind of went off that sort of food. 

‘I still go to the pub and have a roast and a burger, though. I just wouldn’t go to McDonald’s and KFC. The kids never ask, they don’t know about it yet.’ 

They’ll find out soon enough. ‘Sure, through kids at school. I just don’t think I’d enjoy it, you know?’ 

 I still go to the pub, but I don’t drink beer. I like sweet cocktails like daiquiris and piña coladas

Does he drink much? ‘I’ve got a gin collection. I love my flavoured gin. I collect rhubarb gin, mango gin, different flavoured gins, but for me it’s more of a tasting. 

‘I like one gin and tonic, maybe every other night I’ll share one with Rosie. But if I’m going out to drink with friends, I’ll probably just drink mojitos, daiquiris. I like sweet cocktails like piña coladas.’ No pints then? ‘I’m not a beer, Guinness or cider drinker.’ 

We’re talking just before a big trip to America for a music festival though. ‘I’m going to Coachella because it’s my mate David’s stag do. 

‘There are 20 of us. Now, that will be well boozy,’ he says with a grin. ‘Three days of drinking and partying.’ 

You can bet he’ll be back on a treadmill soon after though, because Joe Wicks is a serious man. When I ask (for a friend, of course) how he gets his hair looking like that, he laughs dismissively. 

‘Just shampoo and conditioner. And a bit of sweat – that makes it curly. The key to my hair is a good sweaty workout!’

So instead we talk about a really beautiful part of the documentary where he visits a charity called Our Time which supports children who have a parent with mental health issues. 

In the documentary Joe visits a charity called Our Time which supports children who have a parent with mental health issues

In the documentary Joe visits a charity called Our Time which supports children who have a parent with mental health issues

‘Governments and healthcare providers spend billions at the end of the story, don’t they? When it’s too late for medication. 

‘We need prevention. It’s about shifting some of that budget to the front to help parents.’ 

I wonder, would he be able to talk about his mental health to his children? ‘That’s the biggest challenge, isn’t it? Say Rosie has postnatal depression, which can hit anyone. 

‘I would sit down with her, Indie and Marley and try to explain, “Mummy’s suffering a bit right now. There are chemicals in her brain that are making her feel a little bit sad because she’s had a baby, but once that’s over, she’ll feel happier. 

‘But it’s not your fault. Let her just have a moment and she will be fine soon.”’ 

His voice is tender as this is a man who learned from bitter experience as a boy. ‘Explaining like that matters. 

‘The biggest issue is when you start to lie. Kids just want to be loved and they want honesty. They want a stable person they can look up to and trust.’ 

So do a lot of people, I say. It’s why they message him in such numbers. 

‘Sometimes the physicality of my job buckles me,’ he admits. ‘But the more I do for people, the happier I feel.’ 

  • Joe Wicks: Facing My Childhood will air on BBC1 and iPlayer later this month. 

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