Malcolm Jolley meets Ella Mills, the accidental British food celebrity.
What does it mean to be a food celebrity? I thought about that as I watched twentysomething Ella Mills perform on the daytime television show The Social recently, from behind a glass door at CTV’s downtown Toronto studios. Mills, does not go by her last name but rather the moniker she shares with her very popular, UK-based, blog Deliciously Ella. Blog is a term I use advisedly, the website is the centre of a lifestyle empire, which includes a growing number of Deliciously Ella Delis in London and a product line of ‘natural’ foods developed for supermarkets, and she has, naturally, a YouTube channel with over 137,000 subscribers and an Instagram account with 1.1 million followers. And, Ella Mills, is a bestselling cookbook author: her first cookbook, also called Deliciously Ella, has sold (to date) over 250,000 copies. Her second book, Natural Feasts, has just been published in North America, and I came to meet her to discuss it and her very modern food media career.
Mills’ appearance on The Social was the fourth appearance on Canadian television she’d made that day, and she had two more media appearances to fulfill after she took time to speak to me in the green room after the taping. She was not complaining about her busy schedule, and seemed energized by the laughter and applause she’d roused out of the live audience. She is, as one might expect, a kind of living advertisement for her brand of eating, which uses adjectives and adverbs like ‘healthy’, ‘natural’ and ‘plant-based’. It’s tempting to compare the young Ella Mills to the more established English author and media personality, Nigella Lawson. Both are attractive and articulate with what their compatriots might call a ‘posh’ accent, and both come from well to do, political families. And neither are formally trained cooks, but while the two communicators have similarities that span their respective generations, Ella Mills’ success in food media is very much a 21st century story.
Ella Mill’s path to food celebrity and cross-platform success began with a set-back. In her second year of university she became debilitatingly ill, and was diagnosed with Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, a condition she describes as “where you can’t regulate your heart rate normally.” The resulting peeks in heart rate and drops in blood pressure from simple physical actions like getting up out of a chair, she explained, “makes you extremely dizzy, you can’t focus properly and that can make you pass-out.” The condition, along with complications and side-effects, Mills told me, kept her “at home, in bed and watching every episode of The Kardashians” for a year at the age of 20, while all her friends went out and enjoyed the adventures of youth. After year of being incapacitated, Mills said she felt, “useless and pointless, and I reached a real rock bottom, mentally especially.”
What saved Mills from despair, was advice from her Godmother, who had faced a similar period in her life as a young woman. The advice was get a hobby, in the Godmother’s case it had been photography, and on advice from a Canadian friend, Mills adapted it to the 21st century: she would blog. At the same time she began to be increasingly interested in the beneficial effects of a healthy diet. She combined the interests and, as she put it, “I set about the task like it was the most important thing in my life.” And, arguably, it was.
Over the course of a year, Mills began to make and document nearly every meal and snack she consumed, evolving from a “pretty awful” neophyte cook into an accomplished one, or at least into one that pleased her. She also told me that she began to notice small, but hopeful, improvements in her health. At the same time, while she says that for the first month she’s pretty sure her mum was Deliciously Ella’s only reader, she began to share the blog with her friends, who shared it with theirs, and traffic to the site steadily grew until the end of it’s first year when it reached a million hits. By now it was 2013, Mills said, and her Canadian friend suggested she adapt Deliciously Ella to the newest internet platform, Instagram. She credits Instagram with growing her audience is even further, which led to personal appearances at things like cooking classes or supper clubs. Mills took the revenue she was beginning to make from those and her blog and invested in app, so her followers “wouldn’t have to scroll through 40 pages of the blog to find a recipe for dinner”. The investment paid off when her app reached the top spot of iTunes downloads for food and drink in its first week. Only then, was she asked if she was interested in writing a cookbook, something she said, “I never thought of doing in my life.”
Mills describes her first book, 2015’s Deliciously Ella, as “the game changer”. It sold out the entire print run before being put on sale, with 30,000 pre-orders. The British press picked up on the story and “it kind of exploded”. Mills was not entirely comfortable with the attention: “It was amazing, and I was really enjoying it but I was also a little overwhelmed: what had been a personal hobby that was very much about getting my life back on track was suddenly something that existed in the public space and people were talking about you instead of to you.” Opportunities, as they say, began to come in, which Mills also found overwhelming, as she explained, “I had never had a job before as I started this when I was in university; I had never even been to a job interview.” Now, it was Mills who was conducting interviews looking for help with what was becoming a growing enterprise. This is how she met her husband, Matthew Mills, who brought business experience to the operation, and expanded the brand into the delis and supermarket products. (When the couple, who each come from prominent political families in the UK married last year, their wedding was covered by the press.)
I asked Mills why she thought her style of vegan cooking was so currently popular. She replied that she thought it was a combination of things including the obesity epidemic, concerns about sugar and refined carbohydrates and a horse meat scandal in Britain that “made people take a step back and ask what am I eating, what’s in this stuff?”. At the same time she said the “environmental and ethical sides to vegetarianism have really come to the forefront,” have encouraged more and more people to be interested in eating more plants. Mills sees her work in terms of sea change around the meaning of the term “healthy eating”, as she explained, “It used to be so stuck in the diet category, which it still is in a lot of people’s heads and one of the biggest challenges is to get people to see that healthy eating is not about [going on] a diet: it’s not about saying I am never going to have a pizza again, it’s about saying I am going to eat more broccoli.” She went on, “It’s about making the broccoli taste good, whereas diets are traditionally about calorie counting and deprivation: they’re not fun.” Fun is at the centre of Mills philosophy and, I suspect, the real secret to her success: “This needs to be fun because for anything to be sustainable you have to enjoy it.”
Mill’s new book, Natural Feasts, features, many photographs of her and her friends (I presume), having fun. It’s also, like her blog and Instagram account, visually driven, full of picture of beautiful plates of food. I asked if she thought that the beauty of her food was part of her success; that preparing a pretty looking dish might create an access to visual beauty that most of us could get to without too much effort or expense? She agreed, but brought it back to getting people to eat their five recommended portions of fruit and veg, “If we’re going to solve quite a lot of the health issues and environmental issues that we have, then we’ve got to make broccoli and lentils a bit cooler,” adding, “We live in a visual society, and if we’re going to change people’s perceptions, then we have to think about how healthy eating looks.”