I’ve been open with my kids about why I don’t drink – I’ve been sober for 12 years now, says Matt Willis...
WHEN Matt Willis held his newborn daughter in his arms for the first time, everything instantly changed.
That was exactly 12 years ago now – Isabelle celebrates her birthday today – but Matt still vividly remembers the shift he felt in that life-changing moment.
“It was like a lightbulb for me, because I realised life wasn’t what I’d thought it was.
“I remember looking at her and going: ‘Oh no… I’ve been getting everything wrong.’
“Suddenly everything became about this little thing who needed us so badly and I was filled with fear and dread and anxiety, and I actually felt very inadequate.
“I’ll never forget it, because it completely changed me in every possible way and had more of an impact on me than anything ever has. And it continues to.”
Alongside birthday girl Isabelle, Matt, 38, and TV presenter wife Emma, 45, are also parents to Ace and Trixie, now nine and five, and it’s clear that fatherhood has been the making of him.
Emma has said as much in previous interviews with Fabulous.CHAOS & TURMOIL
After years of chaos and turmoil, becoming a dad gave him focus and purpose and was something Matt had wanted from a very early age.
“The only thing I ever wanted to be in my life was a dad. Ever since I was a little boy I wanted that, so I really appreciate it, but I also understand that it’s a huge job.
“Looking back on my own childhood, it’s only once you get older that you realise certain things you grew up with have influenced you for the rest of your life.
“You don’t necessarily understand that until you’re forced to look at it, and I’m very into looking into myself and why I behave like this or that. I bore Emma senseless with it!
“So with the kids, I just really don’t want to f**k them up.”
Matt has shown great courage in being so honest about his battles with addiction, an illness that began in childhood and blighted his life until his mid-20s, when he checked into rehab a few weeks before his and Emma’s wedding day in 2008.
He’s been in recovery since then and completely sober for nearly 12 years now. It’s not something he’s ever hidden from the children, who are all aware that their dad doesn’t – and indeed, can’t – drink.
“I quit alcohol a few months into Isabelle’s life and I just hope she wasn’t impacted by [me drinking] at all.
"They’ve never known me to drink, but they’ve noticed I don’t do it and I’ve been very open about why I don’t, so it’s not really a big deal to them.
“We’ve talked about it and they know what I’m about and why I don’t do these things.
"They understand the words, although I try not to use them because they’re quite scary – words like ‘alcoholic’ and ‘addict’. So I say: ‘It doesn’t work for me, I can’t do that’, and that’s enough.”
He says the kids recently came across an old photo of him taken in the back of a cab and clearly the worse for wear. But it wasn’t the wired eyes they noticed and were shocked by.'OBVIOUS ADDICT'
“It was obvious I had been ‘on it’ but I also had a fag hanging out of my mouth and that’s what they were like: ‘Oh my god, Daddy!’ about! It was a very interesting discovery for them, I think!”
Does he ever experience temptation or is that something he’s moved on from after so long?
“I’m tempted by all kinds of things – I’m such an obvious addict. Anything you can take too far, I would, but that’s no longer drink or drugs, which is great. I’ve done a lot of work and I know the signs in myself and what’s healthy and what’s not.
"Drink and drugs haven’t entered my life for a long time and I haven’t thought about doing them, but it only takes one slip up to f**k all that up, so I am very on it and I do a lot to keep myself straight.
"It’s daily work and I have to keep my head in the game because I have a tendency to get enticed by things.”
Matt is lively and engaging company, instantly likeable and completely genuine. It’s hard to imagine anyone having a bad word to say about him.
The work he’s done on himself is impressive, because things could have turned out very differently – Isabelle, Ace and Trixie’s lives are a world away from the one he had growing up.
His parents divorced when he was three and, for a number of reasons, his childhood was often troubled.
“I had a stepdad, but we didn’t really get along very well, so it was a very different household to the one my children have. I love that my kids grow up in this house.”
He adds: “Being able to apologise to your kids is a big thing for me. I never heard an apology growing up. But if I’ve done something that I think is wrong, I will 100% apologise as quickly as possible. It’s not a weakness.”
Matt says he’s learned a lot from Emma’s family and in particular her dad Steve, who has long been his go-to person for parenting advice.
“I always refer to Emma’s dad: ‘What would Steve do?’ He is an incredible man and has more patience than any other person I’ve met in my life. I ask him for advice all the time.'EMMA'S FAMILY IS THE TEXTBOOK'
“Emma’s family are such a shining beacon of perfection, it’s ridiculous. When I first met them I was like: ‘Are you f**king joking?!’
"They were like this thing that I never really knew existed, because they all genuinely wanted to be around each other and loved each other – and thatwas fascinating to me.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be around that for nearly 20 years now and it’s been a massive influence on the way I bring up our kids. Emma’s family is the textbook.”
He laughs at what her parents must have made of him when she brought him home for the first time.
“I dread to imagine what they thought of me with my eyeliner, black nails, purple mohawk and trousers down my knees. I expect they were like: ‘What’s she doing?!’”
Matt’s entertainment career began more than 20 years ago when Busted first hit the pop scene and went on to sell 5 million records, scoring four No.1s and winning two BRITs in the process.
After the band split in 2005, Matt had a spell as a solo artist before moving into TV and theatre – he won I’m A Celebrity! in 2006, starred in EastEnders and Birds Of A Feather and fulfilled his West End ambitions with leading roles in Flashdance, Footloose, Wicked and Little Shop Of Horrors.
The live-performance work he thrives on has, of course, been on hold for the last 15 months (apart from a fleeting stint at the Dominion Theatre in A Christmas Carol last December, before the winter lockdown put paid to that).
But this autumn, he returns to the stage with a nationwide tour of the hit romantic musical comedy Waitress.
“I saw the show a few years ago in the West End and loved it. I felt like I was witnessing a very powerful and much-needed piece of theatre.
"It has a female creative team and it felt like that, like you were witnessing something from a completely different point of view. It’s a beautiful show and when I think about it, after the year we’ve had, this is the perfect way to deal with it.
"To get lost in another world but in a room full of people, it seems bonkers but it’s happening – I believe!”
Life in lockdown has been a mixed bag, but Matt says there have been some huge positives to emerge.
“The upside was that we got to spend more time together than ever, and the downside… was that we got to spend more time together than ever!” he jokes.
“Seriously though, parts of it were really good, especially for me and Emma, as we were really able to look at certain aspects of our relationship.
"We’ve always been like ships in the night or had short periods of focused time together and so this was a very different thing for us, a real changeof pace.
“At the beginning I was like: ‘Cool, let’s chill, let’s have fun, we can enjoy it’, and Emma found that quite difficult because she was so used to being an on-the-go mum.
"Then after a while we swapped, where she was very comfortable being at home with the kids and I needed to be doing something.
“But the overall feeling was great and there were some quite magical times.”
Matt and Emma have always deliberately kept the children out of the public eye – they never attend celebrity events with them and only ever post pictures where their faces are obscured.
When a photo of Ace rocking a pink crop top and showing his long blond hair prompted an astonishing response from a small number of social media trolls, whose tiny minds were frazzled by a boy who didn’t conform to gender stereotypes, it completely validated that decision.
“Definitely. It 100% did. I don’t read anything – for a good few years now I’ve tried to stay away from that, so I don’t read comments and didn’t know anything was happening [until later].
"But it’s funny, he’s just our amazing boy and we don’t think about it in any other way.
“He’s very musical and creative, he loves to dance, he makes clothes, he’s into fashion and does all of these incredible drawings and artwork that blows my mind.'HE IS WHO HE IS'
"I admire that so much, and the fact he’s so free to express himself is really beautiful. He is who he is and we love him.”
The three children have different personalities, although Matt sees elements of himself and Emma in each of them.
“Isn’t it the weirdest thing seeing yourself in your kids? Isabelle is so much like me it’s terrifying, although she’s naturally talented – I always had to work harder at something to get anywhere near as good as anyone else.
"She picked up the bass yesterday and was playing something I taught her within an hour, which would have taken me months at her age.
“We’ve drummed it into her that hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard. She’s so bored of me saying that now – but it’s true! She’s got both – if she works hard, she can do anything.”
“The little one is a maniac. She’s well-behaved and lovely, but she is properly jumping off sofas and s**t and hard to control at times. She is brilliant.”
Three is the magic number for the Willises. Matt is adamant that their family is complete.
“I’m one of three, Emma is too, so it felt right. I don’t want any more. I think we’d be jinxing it if we had more. Occasionally we have our moments but, no. No!”
The Waitress tour, which is due to start in September and carry on into summer 2022, will mean long spells away from the family, but Matt plans to drive back each Saturday and as much as he can.
“Touring is difficult and at times it’s the one part of my job that I don’t necessarily enjoy.
"What I do means sometimes being away from home and I always think on paper it doesn’t look that bad. But after six weeks of only seeing my kids once a week, it’ll start to feel different.”
There are no immediate plans to get Busted back together again – they reunited in 2016, releasing two studio albums and completing three arena tours, before calling a hiatus in 2019.
But it feels like there’s still unfinished business, despite the fact Matt, James Bourne and Charlie Simpson aren’t exactly bosom buddies off stage.
“It’s the most bizarre relationship between three men you could ever imagine,” says Matt.
“We have absolutely nothing in common, apart from this huge part of our lives. When we finish, we go: ‘See you later,’ and we go home. It’s a weird relationship, but I believe in it and it works, and I really feel what it does to the crowd.
"At various times I feel like it could be completely over or barely even started. It’s an unknown entity.
“I went to theatre school because I wanted to be an actor – Busted was an amazing and happy accident and it keeps being that. I love acting so much and in some ways I think it’s tied in with the band.'MATT FROM BUSTED'
"I became this guy from Busted and played him very well. ‘Matt from Busted’ is like me turned up to 11. But acting is probably what drives me. I just want to do everything I possibly can.”
Father’s Day will most likely be spent having a barbecue and Matt says he’s never felt more content.
“I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. Right now is a very good time for me and I think it’s something to do with lockdown.
"I’ve done a lot of self-discovery and therapy over the years and looked into parts of my life I’d maybe wanted to run away from or ignore. Through that I’ve found peace.”
Does he think he’s a good dad?
“The older I get, the more naturally it’s coming to me. When my daughter comes to talk to me about something that’s happening at school, that’s a really big deal to me, that she’d trust me to ask my opinion on something.
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"Being a girl at that age and the stuff she deals with are defining moments about finding out what you stand for and how you’re willing to be treated by others.
“So I listen and try to do the best job I can. I don’t always succeed but I try, and that’s all you can do.”
First kiss?In a caravan park with a girl who had just snogged one of my friends.
Last book you read?Hold On To Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté. It’s about preventing your children being led by peer pressure.
First car?Alfa Romeo GT.
Last box set you watched?This Is Us. I’m in floods of tears after every episode.
First gig?Status Quo at Wembley.
Last WhatsApp you received?From Emma – she needs some trousers returned and I have to print some postage labels and stick them on the box.
First record?Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice.
Last cry?Watching This Is Us two nights ago!