British fitness guru Joe Wicks, a.k.a. The Body Coach, has five best-selling cookbooks and viral YouTube workouts designed to “keep you lean and healthy.” I took him to a greasy spoon in South London.
“Are you sure you don’t want something to eat?” I ask Joe Wicks, gesturing to a blackboard menu of paninis, breakfast dishes, and cakes on the wall of a South London cafe.
“No, I’m fine, really. I’ve just eaten at Itsu so I’m super full,” he says—a feeling I’ve personally never associated with the low-calorie Asian restaurant.
It’s a stormy day in January, and I was looking forward to having lunch with fitness coach sensation Wicks at Rich Cafe, an old-school caff in Richmond with proper mugs of tea and an impressive selection of sandwich fillings. Hungry—and personally offended—I decide to order a veggie fry-up. That’s right, I think, you can watch me eat deep-fried hash browns and have a big old think about your multi-million pound diet hegemony. Yeah. I place my order at the counter and we find a table. Wicks helps himself to a glass of tap water.
Given that his personal brand revolves around being “The Body Coach,” it’s unsurprising that 32-year-old Wicks doesn’t fancy a stodgy full English. Starting his fitness career in 2008 with a personal training business, Wicks began uploading recipe and workout videos to YouTube, encouraging viewers to stick to “lean” meals and 20-minute exercises geared towards dropping body fat and building muscle. With a growing following attracted by his pally presenting style and trademark bouncy hair, Wicks expanded to Instagram in 2014 and garnered more likes for his food uploads—many involving "high fat" and highly Instagrammable avocado, eggs, and halloumi. He published his first cookbook, Lean in 15: 15 minute meals and workouts to keep you lean and healthy, the following year and sold over over 900,000 copies.
“It's an amazing thing,” says Wicks. “It kind of snowballed very quickly."
Wicks is also known for his fitness plans: 90-, 60-, and 30-day diets that can be bought through his website and include online training videos and recipes, as well as personalised feedback. In 2016, Channel 4 gave Wicks his own weight loss show, which followed the transformations of contestants who adhered to his diet plans.
With all of that dependant on avoiding a bacon sarnie, I’d probably have gone to Itsu this morning as well.
“I was quite a hyperactive kid, always energetic, and running to school,” Wicks tells me when I ask whether he has always been into fitness. “I was always doing some kind of sport so I always knew I was going to do something in fitness.”
Thanks to this natural ability for sports and a good relationship with his high school PE teacher, Wicks decided to study sports science at university. After graduating, and a short stint as a teaching assistant, he became a personal trainer. He began filming the YouTube training videos when he found himself with too many clients and too little time.
“Fast forward to today and I've got two million followers, a DVD, and a TV show, a big company in Richmond and merch,” he says. “It's been a crazy couple of years.”
Crazy would be an understatement. It was recently reported by the Daily Mail that Wicks’ company turns over a million pounds a month. However, despite his earnings (“I don't personally make a million pounds a month,” he says), Wicks manages to fill a gap in the fitness market not reserved for the Waitrose-shopping elite. Compared to Sainsbury's heiress Deliciously Ella or Natasha Corrett, daughter of entrepreneur and Dragons Den investor Kelly Hoppen, his way of eating and exercising seems achievable for everyone—even those without easy access to organic food or yoga studios.
I ask Wicks whether he intended for his diet and fitness plans to be widely accessible.
“Yeah, totally,” he says. “My message is very consistent: Stop telling yourself you haven't got time. You don't need an expensive gym membership.”
But at almost £100 for a three-month’s worth of recipes and work-out videos, these plans aren’t cheap. The price does include a live chat service for customer support, as well as real-time exercise videos, but none of the food or exercise equipment needed to complete the programmes. Can you really call that accessible for everyone?
“Ninety-seven pounds is the same as having two or three personal training sessions,” Wicks reasons. “I think it's a fair price. People spend £97 on a night out on a gin and tonic and beer.” He does concede, however, that “in an ideal world, it would be nice if it was much cheaper.”
Halfway through trying to work out whether £100 is a fair price for a virtual cookbook, my lunch arrives. It is the definitive greasy spoon breakfast: cheap white bread soaked in butter, moist mushrooms, and hash browns crisp from the deep-fat fryer. I reach excitedly for my knife and fork. Wicks drinks his tap water.
"Oh look at that,” he says, eying up my plate. “That looks banging."
After a few moments of awkwardly eating while trying to conduct an interview—something I hadn’t calculated into my fuck-the-diet-hegemony scheme—I stop and pull out a copy of this month’s Observer Food Monthly magazine. Wicks looks suspicious.
“Did you read the Observer Food Monthly this weekend?” I ask.
“Am I in it?” he replies, with equal measures of optimism and fear.
“Erm, sort of.”
I turn to food columnist Jay Rayner’s article, and read out a quote to Wicks: “I abhor the language of diets, especially modern ones with their implicit moralising: ‘if you don’t eat like I do, you are not only fat. You are Bad.’ You are degenerate. I laugh in the face of pseudo-scientific faddery. I do not want Joe Wicks’s body. He’s all sharp points and angles. You could have your eye out on one of his abs.”
Wicks laughs quietly.
“I've read worse,” he says. “I'm definitely not someone who says if you don't eat like me you're a loser. I'm just an inspiration to people. I'm not saying you need to cut any food out.”
Which is weird, seeing as Wicks literally makes money from telling people to cut certain foods out of their diets. The trainer has also distanced himself from the “clean eating” movement, despite coming to fame during its emergence in 2015 and using many of its more worrying hallmarks in his own messaging—the moralising language around "cheat" foods, the cult-like social media community, everything covered in coconut oil.
But Wicks seems reluctant to associate himself with any aspect of diet culture. At one point, he tells me, “I don't believe in the word ‘dieting.’”
"Look, I went to a pub on the weekend and had a massive roast dinner and a sticky toffee pudding and loved it,” he says, before turning to my food. "That's not a bad breakfast really. You've mushrooms, toast, and er, hash browns. But if someone was into to clean eating, they'd think it was awful and terrible. It's just breakfast. It's fine.”
"I've not made anyone fatter, I've not made anyone unhealthier."
Does Wicks ever worry about giving people food advice when he’s not a qualified dietician?
“All I can say is, I just give people healthy recipe ideas. It's not saying you have to follow this exact recipe, it's just generic inspirational advice. I've not made anyone fatter, I've not made anyone unhealthier."
But … is there anything wrong with being fat? He pauses.
“No, of course not. There's nothing wrong with being fat. It's a lifestyle choice, if you're not someone's who's into exercise and you're overeating and you hold a lot of body fat, it's a lifestyle choice.”
He continues: "If people want to be overweight … there's no perfect image, there's no perfect body. If you're happy and confident in your body that's all that matters.”
I practically choke on my coffee.
This isn't the only contradiction in Wicks' message. His 90-day fitness plan is for everyone, but it also costs £97. His books and eating plans aren't "diets," despite being about—by his own admission—"cutting shit out of your diet." He tells me that “if you're happy and confident in your body, that's all that matters,” but also sells a book called The Fat-Loss Plan. He boasts of not having “made anyone fatter,” but denies that there is anything wrong with being fat. His diet plans purport not to focus on body expectations, but his website features before and after photos from clients.
At the end of our (my) lunch, just as I'm walking with Wicks towards the door of the cafe, he gets spotted by an eager fan who can’t believe she’s bumping into "the actual Body Coach." After stopping to pose for a photo and chat, Wicks says goodbye and I sit back down at the table. A middle-aged man on the other side of the cafe puts his newspaper down.
“Who was that guy?” he asks me.
“He’s a famous diet coach called Joe Wicks," I tell him. "The Body Coach."
“Oh. Never heard of him.”
The man goes back to his newspaper. I order a cheesecake.