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Joe Wicks: ‘My own childhood made me think about the kind of parent I wanted to be’

The TV personality and lockdown fitness hero had to deal with the huge struggles of his parents growing up, but says it drove him to become a success

Joe Wicks suffered a troubled childhood, with a father battling a heroin addiction and a mum struggling with OCD.

With the stuff going on at home, he wasn’t expected to amount to much. But is now known to millions as a fitness coach, TV presenter, social media personality and author. And, of course, he kept us all fit during lockdown by broadcasting essential morning workouts from his home.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, he talks about his troubled past – and insists, that despite his parents’ obvious issues, he’s never been short of love.

The age of 16 was a challenging time because that was when I really understood my dad’s addiction [Gary Wicks was a heroin user]. I understood that relapse is a constant disappointment and I felt like I was just being let down by him, so I was quite angry and resentful. I didn’t want to be around him. He’d be clean for a year then relapse, so then he’d be gone again in rehab, and it just got harder and harder.

I had a girlfriend at the time as well, and trying to explain to her why he wasn’t around was difficult. I was still a happy kid on the surface. I loved being in school, I loved sport and fitness. But I was very disruptive and distracted in every other lesson, especially the ones that required a focus I didn’t have.

That led to me being ‘the naughty kid’. But with PE I found a way to deal with my energy, to really harness it. So that was a big release for my stress.

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I was never diagnosed with ADHD but maybe I did have it. I just wanted people to ask me, what’s going on? What’s wrong? Why are you playing up? Not just say, you’re that annoying kid, go to detention – that isolation didn’t help me.

My PE teacher was the first male role model that I really connected with and who inspired me and loved me because he knew I was always going to be there, and I was going to motivate people and get everyone out on the playing field. I loved that leadership role in sport, and I represented the school. I always loved exercise, it was always my therapy.

Home when I was 16 definitely wasn’t a sanctuary. It was the opposite. My mum wasn’t an addict or anything, but she was very uptight. So we couldn’t bring mates for a little party or have someone stay over because it was always “Turn the TV down” and “Don’t make a mess”. It was just constant “Don’t leave the house until you’ve tidied your bedroom”, twice a day every day. It was pretty draining.

My dad wasn’t around as much because he was just in a cycle of relapsing then in rehab. But my relationship with my mum was so tense. We argued and fought all the time, shouting and slamming doors and punching walls.

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I didn’t want to talk to my friends about what was going on at home. I didn’t want them to think I came from a really bad family. I did have one friend, Brendan, at school. We talked once about his mum being a single mum and his dad had issues with drugs. That was the first time I met someone else who knew about addictions, so it really helped having him. Other than that there wasn’t anyone really.

If you had met the 16-year-old me at school you’d see a bit of a clown, someone who wanted everyone to like him and talk to him. Yes I was an attention seeker, but I was a kind boy, I was a nice boy, even though I was annoying and disruptive. I wasn’t a bully and I cared about people.

I don’t think you’d have seen a troubled young boy who had problems at home and was dealing with addiction and OCD and mental health issues, because you keep that stuff under the surface. You worry about what people will think, so you just hide it.

If I could talk to my teenage self now I’d say, don’t believe all the bad things other people say about you. One of the feelings I had about myself was that I was from a shit family and we were wrong ‘uns and we’d all end up like my dad. If my mum ever had an argument with the neighbours on the block they’d be like, your kids are gonna be junkies like their old man. And I believed all that stuff, that I’d be in that vicious cycle of drugs and council housing and I would never get out.

So I’d say to my younger self, don’t listen to those voices. You’re going to change your perception of yourself, and you’re actually going to be an amazing adult. You’re not a loser, you’re gonna do loads of good stuff.

I can’t even imagine telling the teenage me about what’s happened in his life. He thought if he was lucky he might be a PE teacher. Imagine telling him, millions of people will watch your videos, you’ll go to Windsor Castle with [brother and “right-hand man”] Nikki and meet Princess Anne and get an MBE. You’re not just some little nutter running round a council estate, ending up in prison. I love what I’ve done, I’m proud of what I’ve done. You can imagine how proud my mum and dad are, and they tell me every day.

Lockdown was such an extreme experience. I just happened to be there with the time and the energy and the lust, and I cared about other people. So I guess I became a driving force. It was never, I want to get more famous, I want to be recognised. I just wanted to get families with young kids moving. If they were like me they were probably climbing the walls. It was never about adults. It was really about children, kids who were stuck in their bedrooms. I just knew if I was a kid in lockdown, stuck in a one or two-bedroom flat, and I couldn’t see my friends, I would have been overwhelmed. I would have been in a really bad way.

I’d tell my younger self one day he’ll actually be thankful that his mum is so strict. I can see now how important the boundaries she set were. She sat us down and said, you have to be home by this time, you can’t do this and that. If we hadn’t had those reins on us, we would’ve been a little bit loose. We wouldn’t have come home by midnight. We would’ve been up to all those naughty things kids do between the hours of midnight and 4am; partying, getting drunk, experimenting with drugs. She had this really strict old-school approach. And it worked – I was there, running up that hill to be in by midnight. She never ever gave in – if she said something she meant it.

The thing that stopped me making a really big mistake when I was young was that I had unconditional love from my parents. As crazy and manic as that house was, they loved us. My mum always said, “I don’t care what you do in life. You can be a doctor, you can be a dustman, I don’t care as long as you’re happy.” That’s a really powerful thing to hear as a young kid. There’s no expectation or pressure. My dad, yes he’s an addict, but he’s a very loving, kind person. Of course he can be quite selfish and self-obsessed, but he’s still a beautiful human and I love him to death.  

If I could go back to myself at 16, 17, I’d tell the teenage me to change the way he is with his dad. That’s when I really pushed him away. I couldn’t deal with him and I couldn’t connect. And I couldn’t understand, I was just full of resentment. I said, don’t come and talk to me, I don’t want to see you until you’re clean, and I feel bad about that now. These days I have much more compassion and I understand addiction. I just go and give him a big cuddle.

Younger me would not believe I ever got married [he married Rosie Jones in 2019; they have a daughter Indie, and son Marley, with another on the way]. I didn’t believe in marriage and never thought for one second it would happen to me.

My mum and dad never got married [and separated when he was a teenager]. Now I know that marriages are legit and they can work. My own childhood also made me think about the kind of parent I wanted to be. I want to be a calm, kind, understanding parent. I don’t want to be intolerant and slapping the kids, I want to be really loving.

I’m constantly learning and challenging myself to be a better dad. Eight times out of 10 I think I’m fun and calm. Sometimes the kids go on and on and on and I end up going, “I can’t handle it.” But that’s just human nature. So I’d say two times out of 10 I might have a little shout, but that’s pretty decent I think.

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If I could go back to any time in my life it would be when I was a little kid and my mum and dad were really young. We went on these summer holidays camping in the south of France. This was before I knew my dad was an addict. I just saw him drink beer and he was a joker and I just I loved him. He was like Bob Marley, he had dreadlocks and smoked a joint.

Those are happy memories, happy summer holidays. I’d go back to being seven years old – me, my mum and dad, my brother Nikki [younger brother George came later] – on that last nice holiday before I understood what what heroin addiction meant and what was going on in my mum and dad’s life.

Joe Wicks: Facing my Childhood is on BBC One on 16 May and available on BBC iPlayer

Interview: Jane Graham @janeannie

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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