The last time I saw Jessica Ennis, I could not keep my eyes off her. Neither could the rest of Greenwich Park, as we all anxiously watched the big screens in the park to see her take to the track to run in the 800m race. I, along with 16.3m others, tuned in to see her take to the podium to claim her gold medal on “super Saturday”. Meeting her today was a completely different affair. “Meet Jess,” her PR said, at least twice, noticing that I hadn’t realised that she had arrived.
With her famous six-pack and that bottom – which has quickly become a YouTube sensation in its own right – firmly covered under the spring/summer 2013 adidas collection, it was easy not to recognise her. Despite being only 2 inches taller than Ennis’ 5ft 5 frame, it was as if I towered over her. At 8st 13lbs, she is slight and a lot smaller than TV would have you believe, making those comments about her being “fat” even harder to take seriously. “I knew exactly where I was that year so it didn’t really bother me much,” she said, completely unfazed when the issue came up in conversation. “I was always pretty skinny so doing athletics has given me some shape,” she said as I marvelled at how tiny her legs are. “They’re pretty strong though!” Looking at her, you wouldn’t believe she is the same woman that absolutely mastered all seven heptathlon disciplines less than three months ago as the whole world looked on.
Her entrance to the adidas showroom, the backdrop for our interview, was understated. Joined only by a hair stylist and make-up artist, who both could easily have been close friends, there was no fuss, or at least not the fuss that you would expect from someone of her stature. But that wouldn’t surprise anyone that knows her. Until she arrived on the track for the first leg of the competition, she was nowhere to be seen. While the rest of TeamGB were continually snapped leaving their house in the Olympic park, Ennis would taker the back door, hoody up. To some, this understated, tunnel vision approach to competing might come across as cold, detached even, but after spending just a short amount of time with her, it quickly became apparent that this is the result of years of meticulous training and preparations rather than her being standoffish. “I just wanted to make sure that everything was 100 per cent right”.
As the face of TeamGB’s Olympics effort for the past three years, she had both her own and the nation’s hopes and dreams in her hands – not an easy burden for a seasoned pro let alone a 26 year-old Olympics virgin. “It’s been a relief being able to relax and not worry that if I don’t do this or I don’t train now, I’ll let myself down, let the whole country down and those kind of thoughts,” she laughs when asked about life post-Olympics.
When she first came onto the scene in 2005, winning gold in the European Athletics Junior Championships, many doubted whether she had what it takes to be a top class heptathelete so she’s had a lot to prove. In the 2.08.65 seconds that it took her to complete the 800m, she did just that, instantly becoming the nation’s sweetheart as 16.3 million tuned in to see her claim the gold medal, Britain’s first gold of the Games in the track events. Not a bad response to the haters, eh?
Off the track, her once anonymous existence has been replaced with a furore of media attention about every detail of her life, from how much she’s being paid for her latest endorsements to interest in the most minute details of her upcoming nuptials to childhood sweetheart Andy Hill. I ask her how she’s coping with all of the attention, to which she responds, firstly, with a default smile, developed, no doubt, in response to the number of times she’s been asked about it since the big win. “It’s really weird. It was such a big build up to the Olympics and the pressure kind of piled on me but I literally wouldn’t have changed anything. The whole build up was brilliant but when you actually achieve it, your goal, your dream, it’s a strange feeling.”
Unlike others who have quickly turned against the public that helped make them, Ennis understand that she’s now public property and accepts the attention gracefully. “It’s been nice to be able to do different things I would never have had the opportunity to do,” she said, genuinely surprised and grateful for the opportunities that come from all of the support.
Now, brands are clamouring to work with her. “It’s just really busy now. Busier than I’d ever imagined,” she said of all of the new projects she has on the go. In the run up to the Games she is said to have earned a reported £1m thanks to endorsement deals with adidas and Olay. She has since signed lucrative deals with Aviva, Jaguar, Powerade and British Airways but this wasn’t always the case. Born in Sheffield to a social worker mother and self-employed decorator father, Ennis has come from humble beginnings. It’s only after fronting the Adidas campaign that she was really propelled into the public consciousness. “I’m having to say no to quite a bit and am picking and choosing things. It’s a brilliant position to be in, it’s just different.”
And it seems to be a transformation that happened over night, fashion-wise anyway. It wouldn’t be too harsh to say that you would have been hard pressed to find someone that would have called her a style icon three years ago, or even six months ago for that matter, but that’s quickly changed. One moment she’s a promising hepathlete, relatively unknown outside the group of loyal fans committed to the sport; the next, she’s the nation’s sweetheart and an unexpected style icon. “Lots of people were used to seeing me in sweats and trainers so it’s nice to kind of mix it up and try something different,” she said in the Sheffield drawl that makes it hard not to be completely charmed by her.
Talking to her on a rainy Thursday at adidas HQ, that she had already stepped out in a string of designer outfits to attend various glitzy award ceremonies in London. “Alexander McQueen? That was Tuesday,” she said, in response to me asking about the white knee length dress from the brand to attend the Cosmopolitan awards. She followed that outfit with one of the much-celebrated illusion dresses by Stella McCartney on Wednesday. “I love going shopping,” she confessed. “I love Victoria Beckham dresses and Alexander McQueen.”
So how is she enjoying going from being best known for wearing lycra, and looking very good in it mind you, to being dressed by some of the most sought after labels in the world? “It’s a brilliant position to be in,” she said. “It’s nice to have the option to pick and choose, which is good and less stressful when you’re deciding what to wear.” The big question is whether she has design ambitions for herself? It would make sense, particularly for her to collaborate with Adidas or a big sportswear giant. After all, she understands what an athlete needs to be able to perform and feel confident in doing so. “You have to feel comfortable and confident in you what you’re wearing,” she said assertively. “I always feel like my kit needs to support me and look well so I can go out on the track and perform well. I don’t want to have to worry about my leggings or what I’ve got on”. As far as her own design ambitions go, a collection is definitely in her future. “At the moment I’m still very much competing and training and there’s lots going on but I would love to kind of go down that line, whether it’s collaborating with someone or else or doing that fashiony side,” but she quickly qualifies this by saying that it’s “something that I look forward to do in the future hopefully.” In the meantime she’s busy promoting the latest adidas collection.
And it’s not hard to understand why the endorsement deals are raining in and brands are clamouring to dress her. Ennis is pretty but not in a threatening way. She has a quiet, natural beauty that you cannot forget but would not necessarily make you break your neck to have a second look. Her day-to-day style is simple – “I’m more of a skinny jeans and nice structured top girl” – and even dressed to the nines on the red carpet, she looks like the girl next door rather than looking wholly unattainable. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s this lack of pretention in the way she dresses and carries herself that has brands transfixed.
One can safely assume, then, that the responsibility of designing her wedding dress will be bestowed upon one of the big British designers. But even if that is the case, don’t expect to hear about it. She’s private, fiercely so. It takes the mention of Christmas for her to allow us a glimpse into Jessica Ennis, the girl from Sheffield rather than “the star athlete”. Aside from the odd mention of “my fiancée,” Ennis keeps everything professional and work related. Recognising that she’s maybe given too much away, she quickly returns to talk about the game. And this is what makes Ennis different to many that have gone before her. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that she likes the new opportunities that have come along with her win but at the end of the day, if there’s anything she wants to be known for, it’s her sport. And don’t be fooled. Behind the sweet smile and friendly face is a woman that knows what she’s doing and where she’s going. Listening to her workout routine, it quickly became less of a shock that she decided to write her dissertation on ”self-regulation” – she studied psychology at Sheffield University before competing full time. Self-discipline is something that she has in abundance. So expect to see a lot more Jessica Ennis, sporting hero, style icon, very soon…