Could Ella Mills be proof of the perfectibility of the human condition? Her hair would suggest so.
It is as glossy and pliant as Kate Middleton’s. She has immaculate teeth, an exemplary diet, her own business (a healthy-eating empire) and one million followers on instagram. Last year, she married her boyfriend Matthew Mills, a predictably handsome “ethical financier” on a beach in the Caribbean.
Her Deliciously Ella news-feed is the apotheosis of #inspo culture – every day she furnishes her army of followers with a daily dose of motivation, prettiness, positivity and status-envy. “When life gives you Monday,” she broadcasts, “dip it in glitter and sparkle all day.”
Mills is so much the sum of millennial aspirations that she is ripe for parody. The internet being what it is, it’s no surprise that the satirical instagram account Deliciously Stella – set up to poke fun at her earnest, wholesome, head-girlishness has 143,000 followers. Last year, its author, Bella Younger, published a book of her own.
Ella may be the butt of the joke, but all this is only further proof of the breadth of her influence.
I meet her downstairs in Mae, one of two deli stores that she and her husband (who last year joined her at the helm of the Ella empire) opened last year. Mae stands for Matt and Ella. Here, fragrant staff serve up her vegetarian, nutrient-dense fare to the yoga-loving public of Mayfair and Marylebone. I am presented with a plate filled with broccoli, cauliflower and sweet potatoes, jazzed up with kohlrabi, turmeric and sun-dried tomatoes, among other things. To my astonishment, it is delicious. Just as promised.
In person, she is lightly tanned and unmistakably posh. She is firmly of the establishment – her father is former Labour MP and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, and her mother, Sainsburys heir Camilla Sainsbury.
She is, however, the first to admit that social media isn’t the whole story and that her life isn’t as perfect and soft-focus as the filters on her Iphone might make it look. She is no stranger to angst or to self-doubt.
Mills’s self-determined transformation from junk-food-eating, depressed student in cripplingly poor health to shimmering beacon of success and vitality has been well told. In 2011, she was in her first year at university when she was struck down with an obscure illness – postural tachycardia syndrome. The condition was disabling. “I couldn’t walk down the street,” she said. The symptoms included palpitations, chronic pain, blackouts and intense fatigue. The worst part, she says, was the psychological impact. “The physical side was really difficult. But I really struggled with the mental side of it. I had quite bad depression, and I really struggled with the isolation of it… I honestly used to sit all day watching the Kardashians and eating pick and mix.”
In a bid to do something, anything, constructive, she started looking into improving her diet. As she learned and experimented, she blogged about her efforts. At first, it was supposed to be a little hobby. “Playing around in the kitchen coming up with ideas. Learning how to use the camera to take a good picture. Learning how to edit it a bit… it all takes a couple of hours’ work.” The endeavour brought a “sense of achievement” that was therapeutic. “You learned something, you did something. There was an element of growing,” she says. She had no background in food so in those early days, as she began devising recipes, it was mostly trial and error. “There were terrible things. Inedible. But actually, with savoury food especially, I find there is always a way to remedy it.”
People started logging on in droves. It meant that all the learning happened in public, but the engagement with others that sprang from the project “was what I needed. Because I was really lonely”.
Her symptoms receded as her following grew. After being inundated with requests, she decided to launch a recipe app. Newspapers published stories describing how she had “cured” herself with her healthy diet, and her celebrity status was assured. Her success was precipitous and massive. Her app went to the itunes top five in the UK and US. Brand tie-ups and a publishing deal swiftly followed. Her first book was the fastest-selling debut cookbook in the UK.
A few short years later and Deliciously Ella has become a brand and expanded exponentially. She has just published her third book Deliciously Ella With Friends. This one focusses less on the health message and more on conviviality, because, she says, “in January everyone is on a diet and there’s no joy… just because you want to eat vegetables and eat well doesn’t mean you can’t share food and have fun with it. It should still be an exciting thing. It shouldn’t be just eating kale on your own in the corner. I think joy is the biggest part of it. I think if you don’t enjoy something it’s not sustainable”.
On the back of her success she was christened the “queen of clean” by the media, and somewhere along the way, she became associated with orthorexia – an obsessive, restrictive type of disordered eating, defined by jettisoning everything but health foods. The backlash clearly got to her, because earlier this year she was vocal in disavowing “clean eating,” and saying that the label misrepresents what she is trying to do.
Clean, she says, “has become such a stupid word. Because it’s become so loaded. It’s a slightly media-coined term to draw a massive circle around all sorts of different things and people. I’ve never talked about ‘clean’ and then suddenly I’m the queen of clean? What is that?
“It gets a little bit frustrating because I just don’t get it. And I’m just like, if you read what I write, I always say do what works for you. Only 27pc of the country say they get their five a day. That’s one in four people…
“I want to give you a way to eat your broccoli in a way that you actually want to eat it. I don’t care if you also want to have a pizza. I’ve never been someone to be like, ‘oh are you going to eat that burger!’ It’s about finding that sensible middle ground.
“And the problem with ‘clean’ is that it has totally distorted that whole concept…it makes it so binary and black and white.
“I’m very anti-diets because the minute you say you can never ever have that again, don’t do this, don’t do that, it doesn’t work. Whereas if you say, I’m just going to try and incorporate more fruit and veg into my meals, it’s totally achievable. It suddenly becomes a doable, plausible thing.”
Ultimately, she’s convinced that “if more people are eating avocados and broccoli now as a result of the kind of things that I do, I think that’s a really good thing. And I don’t think you should say it isn’t. We have an obesity crisis. There are two billion people who are obese. Which is the same as the population was in the 1920s. That’s not OK.”
She’s adamant that thinking about food in morally loaded terms of vice or virtue is going about it all the wrong way.
“Every interview I’ve done, I’m always asked, what’s your guilty pleasure? I don’t have a guilty pleasure. No one should have a guilty pleasure. Have a pleasure. It’s such an oxymoron. Your pizza, your ice-cream, whatever. Maybe it’s not kale. It doesn’t matter what it is! It’s your pleasure. It’s what makes you happy.”
Last year was Ella’s busiest year yet. This is in no small part thanks to her new husband. There was the wedding to organise, of course. But it was the business expansion that loomed larger. The union with Mills seems a partnership Jane Austen would heartily approve of – it is both romantic and deeply pragmatic in character. They are not just a couple, but business partners – Matt has helped oversee much of the company’s recent expansion.
The pair were introduced by Ella’s father. “I wasn’t looking for anything, at all. I was loving being single. It was the right time in my life to be single, and sleep with loads of people. And then I met him and we moved in together a week later.”
At just 25 she knows that she’s young to be already married. But then, she is nothing if not precocious.”Through everything that happened with the business, I was very sure of what I wanted, who I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing, that I felt that I was therefore in the position to be able to make the commitment to somebody else,” she explains.
Getting married, she says, didn’t change much between them.
“I think there’s something nice about knowing it’s forever. But I guess we were already so intertwined, especially because we work together, that we’d already taken all that on. We were already there in lots of ways.”
She had never been “that focussed on getting married” and had been distracted with other things in the run-up to the event itself – doing a book tour in America for three weeks, which finished just three days before the wedding. So it took her by surprise that on the day it all felt “more of a big deal than I expected it to… I guess I just thought it would be really fun, with all our friends. But I cried my eyes out the whole time”.
The wedding was a high point during what had otherwise been a tricky period of transition for the larger Woodward family. In 2015, her parents divorced after several decades of marriage and shortly afterwards her father came out. (He is now in a relationship with Luke Redgrave.) Ella admits all this came as a bit of a shock, but is sanguine about it now.
“I have real respect for both of them (my parents) and the way they’ve handled it. It’s not easy – but the way they’ve handled it and dealt with it has been amazing. I’m very grateful to them for… not having to go through court battles and all that – not speaking to each other.”
Her father’s new partner, who is part of the Redgrave acting dynasty, is “lovely” and ultimately, she remains convinced that things have worked for the best.
“Even if it’s not what you would pick in your ideal world, as long as someone is happier and everyone is handling it well, it’s much better to focus on that than trawl back through the past.”
Her family may have fractured, but she’s found new stability in her own marriage. It’s a huge relief, she says, having a husband who is also your business partner. Being part of a team effort relieves a lot of the pressure of having to juggle personal and professional commitments.
Towards the end of last year, their six-month wedding anniversary coincided with a crisis which led to a four-month delay in the opening of the second deli, “through all kinds of factors that were nothing to do with us”.
Matt had a whole itinerary planned to celebrate the anniversary, but “we ended up cancelling the whole thing and we were sitting here on the Friday in the morning, in the dark in a construction site, going ‘fuck, we’re out of money, we’re out of time what are we doing!?’
“There was no agenda, no problem, no arguments. Whereas if we weren’t together and I was calling him saying, ‘I’m not coming to anything you’ve organised because I’m at a building site’, it would have been a problem. While you are worrying about all the other problems, it’s nice to not have to worry about someone being annoyed with you as well”.
Matt covers the business and executive aspects of Deliciously Ella, while she brings the creative flair. He is, she says, “the most balanced person I’ve ever met in my life. I’m like a little yo-yo. He always says about me, I have a lot of feelings. I’ve always got thoughts and worries and opinions.
“And he is much more measured. He’s much better at taking the rough with the smooth. And always finding the solutions. Not panicking when something goes really wrong. And I’ve learned a lot from that”.
She’s not, she says, a natural entrepreneur, in contrast to her husband. “I’m a much more timid person. He’s got no fear, whereas I’m kind of fearful.” Indeed, her new ambition now is tackling the fear and improve her handling of all the stress that comes with the job.
“That’s been a really big focus for me over the last year,” she says. “And that’s my, I guess, New Year’s resolution for 2017- (finding) that mental balance. Just trying to switch off when I can, but more than anything trying to find the right mindset and balance that allows you to kind of take everything on. I know that word mindfulness is thrown around like there’s no tomorrow, but I’ve been having a look at bits of that.”
It doesn’t help that being a social media star means being connected 24/7. “For me finding some time most days where I can just switch off from technology is a really big help as well. You do have to force yourself into switching off.
“For me it’s just been about trying to stop being so stressed and worried about everything. Learning to go with the flow a little bit, and to just jump straight into finding the solution, not the problem. Which is easier said than done. That’s been my problem – trying to flip something around to see the good in something.
As the business grows, the stakes are rising all the time. They now have 60 employees to take care of, while still a relatively small and fledgeling company. Though that may be set to change. Deliciously Ella Energy Balls have already hit shops and are breaking sales records. And a complete supermarket range is in the works.
So in between the “100pc commitment” she brings to her professional life, she’s taking time to “not to have a mental breakdown about that”.
“I’m just really trying to change my mindset. And each time I get close to panicking, every time I panic, I try to stop and to wake my brain for a minute. . . to look at it with a different mindset. I guess (it’s about) realising things are slightly beyond your control.”
Deliciously Ella with Friends is out now, €19.99. Ella Mills will be signing copies of Deliciously Ella with Friends in Easons on O’Connell Street, Dublin next Saturday, February 11, at 12 noon
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