When Emma Willis was growing up, she thought she’d end up working in a hospital. She laughs when she describes herself as a teenager at school in Sutton Coldfield in the Midlands: “I had a blonde perm, brown eye shadow up to my eyebrows and I loved Bros. That was me.”
Now, though, the perm is long gone and Willis is one of several female presenters – including Tess Daly, Claudia Winkleman, Caroline Flack and Holly Willoughby – dominating the Saturday-night schedules. But back then, television just didn’t seem like a real job.
Willis’s father, Steve, was a postman and her mother, Cathy, an auxiliary nurse on a labour ward. Presenting primetime TV programmes was about as far away from her daily life as the idea of walking on the Moon.
“I never thought it would happen to someone like me,” she says now, sitting in a brightly lit café in north London next to the studio where she has just had her Radio Timesphotoshoot. “I wanted to do what my mum did. I love blood and guts, I’m fascinated by it.” Her bright blue eyes sparkle unexpectedly at the thought of entrails and gruesome operations.
Despite her ghoulish preoccupations, Willis was never destined for a job in surgical scrubs.
At the age of 17, she was signed by Models 1 after a friend of her mother’s suggested she should give it a go. She moved to west London and was put up in a flat in Fulham with several fresh-faced wannabes. After ten years of modelling for GAP, Chanel, Vogue and Elle, she was hired by MTV and made the jump into TV presenting.
At first, she found it ludicrous. “I felt silly saying things!” she recalls. “I was terrified, do you know what I mean?” At one point, a producer at MTV made her say the line: “Hello, and welcome to MTV” over and over again until she stopped sounding embarrassed. It worked – eventually.
Now, at the age of 39, Willis is rapidly becoming one of the most recognisable faces on primetime: she is the regular host of Big Brother on Channel 5 and has fronted two series of The Voice UK, the BBC’s flagship talent show. This week she returns to BBC1 as the co-host of a new Saturday-night game show alongside fellow presenter and DJ Reggie Yates.
Prized Apart features ten contestants, with partners. Each week, the ten competitors are given a range of tasks to carry out on location in Morocco, from jumping out of helicopters to navigating through one of the biggest souks in the world. Those who come last are flown back to the UK, where their partners (be it a spouse, parent, friend or child) must successfully answer a series of general knowledge questions to keep them in the game.
It was the relationship between the contestants that most appealed to Willis. “I love people. Especially when you have that element of slight jeopardy… I mean, I like real people,” she adds, “not celebrities. I like the public.”
And it’s true that, on screen, Willis conveys an authenticity and empathy that means people instinctively seem to warm to her. She enjoys getting to know what makes people tick. It’s part of the reason she likes Big Brother so much – she claims never to have missed a single episode. So who is her favourite contestant of all time?
“Oh God, so many,” she replies. There is an anxious pause while she runs her fingers through her short, spiky hair. “Victor [Ebuwa]. Jade Goody. Kate Lawler. Brian Dowling. Nasty Nick… I will just go through all of them.”
The Big Brother connection, the on-camera emoting and the dark-brown bob have all led to inevitable comparisons to Davina McCall. “Yeah, people say I’m a cut-price version,” Willis says, matter-of-factly. “For me, she’s the best. I’m sure I am a disappointment to lots of people but I know I’m not trying to copy someone, so f*** ’em.”
In fact, her hair isn’t even naturally dark brown: she’s “a mousy, browny blonde” and these days she says she mostly dyes it to cover up the grey. Willis turns 40 next year. Her husband, the rock musician Matt Willis, is seven years her junior and she insists she is completely unfazed by the ageing process, despite working in an industry that has been accused of discrimination against older women.