Extreme Measures: The interview that operates at the limit
No.1 Emma Willis
[For a new magazine launch in 2015, I came up with the idea of ‘Extreme Measures’, where we ask somebody famous about the wildest, most out-there moments in their lives. I’d met Emma Willis, the bespoke shirtmaker, a few times during my few years at GQ and – oof – I once drank too much champagne at one of Emma’s charity events. Her shirtmaking shop is still in Jermyn Street SW1. This was interview No.1 but I’ve no idea if there was a No.2. I departed after the launch issue.]
What’s the most pain you’ve been in?
I crushed a vertebrae on a skiing holiday in 2009. It was extraordinary, like a cold, white, metallic pain. A passing skier called the “blood wagon” and it arrived in a short time. They lifted me onto a stretcher, pumped up a warm cushion underneath me, then a phenomenal skier took me down steep slopes to the ambulance. I had to lie flat for six weeks, so no laptop. I rang friends I hadn’t seen for years and read a lot of books.
Have you ever run a marathon?
I ran the London Marathon in 2013 for Maggie’s Cancer Care Homes. It was hot that year – we were hugging the walls for shade as we ran. I was downing glucose drinks whenever I could. I don’t normally drink much sugar but it was like rocket fuel. They’re an unbelievable boost of energy for extreme running.
What’s the furthest you’ve been from home?
Bali, travelling when I was about 18, just after leaving school. Bali was quite new to tourism then. I remember sleeping outside an old iron bed with chickens underneath it. We’d been invited to stay by some Balinese friends we’d made. Their father was a priest. His chants echoed across the hills.
What’s the wildest night you’ve had?
Probably the 40th birthday of David Gilmour [Pink Floyd] at Groucho Club. I was dressed in a space-woman outfit, all in white and silver plastic, with white platform shoes. A friend took a picture of me before I went out, so I remember it. It was a great evening and when the Groucho closed, we went on to David’s house till the early hours.
What’s the best decision you’ve made?
Actually opening this shop [Emma Willis in St James’s] because it triggered the factory, which I love, my charity Style For Soldiers and I’ve met so many wonderful people through my customers.
What’s the most frightening film you’ve seen?
A terrifying film called The Shuttered Room , which I saw when I was about 12. Often, when I’m closing curtains on a dark window, it reminds me of the face I saw in the film. My children watch horror films but I don’t like them.
What’s the fastest you’ve been, not including an aeroplane?
When I was about 19, I had a friend with a motorbike who liked riding very fast. I didn’t, but it was a very efficient way of getting from A to B. Once, he gave me a lift to a party hosted by Emma Hardy, the actor Robert Hardy’s daughter, and when I got off the motorbike my leg touched the exhaust and we had gone so fast, and it was such a hot day, that I had the classic exhaust-pipe burn on my legs. I tried to avoid going to A&E; Robert Hardy, kindly, played doctor rather than vet [see All Creatures Great And Small] and bandaged my legs.
What’s the closest you’ve been to death?
When I was one, apparently. Measles.
What’s the proudest moment of your professional career?
Being awarded an MBE on this year’s Queen’s Honours List, for my business and Style For Soldiers.
Where do you feel most alive?
It’s unoriginal but I’d say running or walking in the countryside at home where I live, in the hilly countryside, on a beautiful day, when the sun’s shining and the birds are singing. I absolutely love it. LG
Emma Willis, 66 Jermyn Street, London SW1, emmawillis.com. Emma Willis’ charity, Style For Soldiers, provides injured servicemen with made-to-measure shirts and walking canes. For more details, emmawillis.com/styleforsoldiers