‘I’m serious now’ – Joe Wicks on his father’s heroin addiction and why he’s not taking his shirt off for magazine covers anymore

“I’m on my way to have lunch with the Happy Pear twins,” Joe Wicks tells me. The Greystones boys are over in London for the week and Joe is very excited about it. “I love them. I love them so much,” he says. “I still don’t know the difference between the two of them. I just look at them and go, ‘Alright boys?’.”

e is a top geezer, is Joe Wicks. Full of puppy-ish enthusiasm, polite and impossible not to like. The fitness guru has built up a health empire over the past 10 years with 11 million social media followers, podcasts, bestselling books, TV appearances and tours.

When he started out, Wicks was known for his bish-bash-bosh approach to cooking on Instagram, and his six pack. But that has changed radically in the intervening years. During lockdown, he was elevated from fitness coach into the realm of national treasure in the UK.

Dubbed the ‘Nation’s PE Teacher’, he raised over half a million for the NHS and was awarded an MBE. Then lockdown ended and he hit a wall. “I got to that point at the end of last year,” he says. “I did PE with Joe, the podcast, a tour, events and the documentary, which was very intense.”

Wicks and his young family have just returned to the UK after spending three months in their second home in Santa Monica. He used the time to train and recuperate.

“We love it there,” he says. “I can be myself, I’m not well known there, so it’s nice.”

Today, we are talking about his new book Feel Good Food. It’s the 11th cookbook he has written in seven years. “Most people do 10 in 10 years,” he says.

This is all the more impressive given Wicks’ appreciation of food came about pretty late in life. He was raised on a diet of frozen food, Iced Gems and ready meals.

“When I was a trainer, I would do bootcamps and then I would go to the cafe and have a full fry, a bottle of Lucozade and a chocolate bar before 7am. I remember thinking I was always tired, sluggish and didn’t have energy. I was a bit grumpy,” he says.

Wicks altered his diet and noticed an immediate improvement. “I instantly had this energy. I would be out all day from 6am till 9pm. I would come back and still be full of energy… you can’t out-train a bad diet.”

His new book, released on St Patrick’s Day, focuses on the symbiotic relationship between what we eat and how we feel. It’s important for him to be taken seriously in this regard, and this is one of the reasons he also has stopped doing ‘thirst trap’ photo shoots.

“When I look back at the old cringey photo shoots and I would turn up and they would say, ‘Alright take your shirt off and hold this head of broccoli’. And I did because I thought that was what you had to do, but now I do more serious and grown-up stuff, and I’ve outgrown that,” he says.

Wicks and his wife Rosie Jones have two children together — Indie and Marley — and on Saturday, they announced their third child is due in September.

“Being a parent changes things and being married, I am more sensitive to that. I think people want to see a more serious side to me, and when it comes to mental-health stuff, I really want to create an impact. I don’t want to be taking my shirt off to be on the cover of a magazine.”

The area of mental health and particularly parental mental health is pertinent to Wicks, not only because he is in the throes of early fatherhood, but because of his own background. His mother, Raquela, left home at 15 and was 17 when she had Wicks’ older brother, Nikki, and 19 when she had Joe. His younger brother George was born 10 years later.

Raquela suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia and bulimia. She would spend hours hoovering and scrubbing their house from top to bottom, and then start all over again. Wicks’ father Gary was a roofer. He also had mental health issues and was addicted to heroin. Both of his parents spent time in rehab during his childhood.

“My mum had really bad mental health issues and really intense childhood trauma. You don’t end up scrubbing the house five times a day for no reason,” says Wicks. “And the same with her eating disorder. It is that control — she tried to control her emotions, while my dad turned to drugs.

“[Mum] cleaned everyday. My whole childhood was cleaning and tidying, and screaming at each other, and arguing about it. It was rough, pretty rough as a kid.”

As a child, he was conscious but not fully aware of his father’s addiction. It was a presence but not something he could fully understand. When he became a teenager, he went through periods of animosity and resentment towards his father.

“They would say, ‘Daddy needs to take sleeping pills or take painkillers because of his back and that’s why he is really sleepy’… so they would lie. I knew something was up.

“Then as a teenager, I was really angry, really resentful. I couldn’t deal with that so I kind of pushed him away a little bit.”

He got through this time by throwing himself into training. “Exercise and movement was my therapy. It was my release,” he says. His father is now clean and through Narcotics Anonymous, they have a good relationship.

“As an adult, I am much more compassionate and I know if he is struggling, I need to pull him closer because he is an addict and he feels lonely and depressed. So you have to speak to him more or hang out with him more.”

He has huge love and affection for his family — he goes on motorbike rides with his dad and his mum sees her grandchildren once or twice a week. “I think that I need that closeness. I would feel really distant and lost without it,” he says. “I always say to my mum, ‘you should be proud of yourself as a parent’. She is always trying to apologise for things she did, but she worked really hard and to her credit, she raised three lovely boys.”

He will explore this relationship in a BBC documentary later this year, produced by Louis Theroux. Theroux and Wicks may seem like an unlikely pairing, but the filmmaker became a “missionary convert” to Joe during lockdown.

“Making it was really tough and way more emotional… stuff I didn’t know I was going to be affected by,” says Wicks. “I interviewed my mum and dad, my brother and lots of other charities that are working with parents with mental health and young families.

“Seeing what I went through… my mum said to me on camera that she went to rehab for five months when I was 10. I remember her going away for a few weeks, but never in a million years did I think… you kind of block things out, and kids are quite resilient and you just push on and crack on.”

He hopes it will encourage parents to start discussing their mental health and well-being with their children, instead of hiding it from them.

Having these conversations earlier, rather than later, is vital, he believes.

“In a censored way, and with the right language, you can help children understand that, ‘Mummy’s got a little bit of a cloud over her head today, she’s not feeling very happy, but it has nothing to do with you’. It’s little things like that.”

Most discussions around mental health and children inevitably turn to social media, and the negative impact it can have on kids and adolescents. As someone who has evolved out of that world and now has his own young children, he is aware of the pressure it heaps on people.

The fitness industry is rife with steroids and hormones, he says. He can recognise this because he has been training for 20 years, but teenagers may be unable to make that distinction. “They look and think ‘why don’t I look like that?’.

“Social media is not the real world,” he says. “Help your children curate their feed, help them follow people who are body positive.”

He frequently says exercise should primarily be about making you feel better, not look better. Doesn’t this sit at odds with the ‘before and after’ transformation photos he posts online?

“[Those pictures] are powerful and sometimes people need that image of a body,” he says. “I really try to focus on the testimonials — the written emotional and mental transformation people have gone through… it’s important to read the comments, not just look at the photo.”

But back to the book, which is filled with pictures of him and Rosie and their kids eating al fresco in their back garden. It seems eating together can also be a form of therapy.

“Food can bring a family together and you’re bringing kids into the kitchen… making a bit of mess, making a bit of chaos, and then making a recipe. It is a powerful thing to do.”

Sausage, sweet potato and mustard traybake

Serves 4

  • 4 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3cm cubes
  • 2 red onions, peeled and cut into 6 wedges
  • 2 sprigs of rosemary
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 8 pork sausages
  • 500g Brussels sprouts, halved

Dressing

  • 1 tbsp wholegrain mustard l Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 garlic clove, finely grated
  • Pinch of salt
  • Pinch of black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 220°C/ 200°C fan.

2. Spread the sweet potatoes, red onions and rosemary over a large, rimmed baking tray. Drizzle with the olive oil and toss together to coat, then lay the sausages on top.

3. Bake for 20 minutes until the sweet potatoes are starting to soften. Remove from the oven and add the Brussels sprouts, using a metal spatula to mix them into the vegetables on the tray. Flip the sausages over and return the tray to the oven for a further 20–30 minutes until the vegetables are becoming golden and the sausages are browned.

4. Combine the dressing ingredients in a jam jar, screw on the lid and shake. Pour over the contents of the tray and serve.

Sweet Potato Nachos

Serves 4

  • 4 medium sweet potatoes (around 600g), peeled and sliced into 5mm thick coins
  • 1 tbsp light olive oil 1 tsp salt
  • 60g Cheddar cheese, grated
  • 4 tbsp low-fat natural yoghurt, to serve

Spiced mince

  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 100g veggie mince (or minced beef)
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp smoked paprika pinch of chilli powder
  • 130g frozen sliced bell pepper (or the same amount of fresh, sliced)

Refried beans

  • 400g tin of black beans, drained but liquid reserved
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp ground cumin

Salsa

  • 200g cherry tomatoes, roughly chopped big handful of fresh coriander, finely chopped
  • Juice of 1 lime pinch of salt

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan.

2. Toss the sliced sweet potatoes with the oil and salt on a large baking tray, then spread them out into a single layer (you may need a second baking tray). Roast for 30-40 minutes, flipping them over halfway through, until starting to turn golden.

3. For the spiced mince, heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes until translucent. Add the mince, breaking it up with your spoon, and cook for a few minutes according to the packet instructions, or until the mince is no longer pink if using beef. Stir in the cumin, coriander, paprika, chilli powder and frozen (or fresh) sliced peppers. Stir until the peppers have defrosted and warmed through (about 5 minutes if using fresh, until softened). Tip into a bowl and set aside.

4. For the refried beans, return the same pan to the heat and add the drained beans along with 100ml of the liquid reserved from the tin, the salt and cumin. Mash with a potato masher in the pan, loosening with more bean liquid as needed, to make a creamy, slightly chunky paste. Remove from the heat and set aside.

5. Mix together all of the salsa ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

6. Once the potato nachos are roasted, top with spoonfuls of the refried beans, followed by a layer of the mince mixture and finally sprinkle over the grated cheese.

7. Return to the oven for 10-15 minutes until the cheese has melted and crisped up in places.

8. Remove from the oven, top with the salsa and some dollops of yoghurt, then serve.

Gingerbread Cupcakes with Date Caramel

Makes 6

  • 90g wholemeal plain flour
  • 30g soft dark brown sugar or coconut sugar
  • 25g ground almonds
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp ground clove
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • Pinch of salt
  • 90g 0%-fat Greek yoghurt 45ml water
  • 1 egg
  • 1 ½ tbsp melted coconut oil
  • 2 tbsp crystallised ginger chunks, to decorate

Date caramel

  • 100g pitted dates
  • 60ml milk or non-dairy milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Good pinch of salt

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/l80°C fan and line a standard muffin tin with 6 muffin cases.

2. Mix together the flour, sugar, ground almonds, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, spices and salt in a medium bowl.

3. In a separate bowl or jug, combine the yoghurt, water, egg and coconut oil.

4. Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and stir together until just combined. Divide the mixture between the prepared muffin cases.

5. Bake for 20-25 minutes until lightly browned on top and a toothpick inserted into the centre of a cupcake comes out clean. Set aside to cool.

6. Meanwhile, make the caramel. Place the dates into a small jug and cover with boiling water. Set aside for 15 minutes to soak.

7. Drain the dates and return to the jug, then add the milk, vanilla and salt. Blend until smooth with a hand blender or in a food processor or free-standing blender.

8. Once you’re ready to serve the cupcakes, frost them with the date caramel and sprinkle on some of the crystallised ginger chunks for decoration.

Belfast Telegraph