CRAIG BROWN: Is this the most banal self-help book ever written? 

Is this the most banal self-help book ever written?


Holly Willoughby                                                                                        Century £20


On the opening page there’s a colour photo of Holly Willoughby in an awkward-looking pose, holding a scented candle (£65 from her recently launched Wylde Moon collection) on her outstretched palm while looking in the other direction. 

‘I want to share with you a personal ritual,’ she writes in italics beneath. 

It turns out that whenever she wants ‘to set an intention to connect with myself, pause for a moment and create a space that helps me to achieve my goals’, she likes to light a candle, because ‘there is endless possibility in the flicker of a flame’.

The book has a pleasant, breezy tone, but Holly’s (above) ‘reflections’ have a certain hand-me-down quality to them

The book has a pleasant, breezy tone, but Holly’s (above) ‘reflections’ have a certain hand-me-down quality to them

‘So before we begin,’ she goes on, ‘light a candle and take a deep breath… Now you’re ready to turn the page.’

The next page – which is actually the page opposite, which means that if you turn the page you’ll miss it – is headed ‘Hello!’ in fancy pink script. 

She goes on to explain that she wrote this book because ‘I wanted to understand what it means to be beautiful, in every sense of the word. I wanted to explore what it means to be a woman in this modern world and how I fit into the story.’ 

She swiftly adds, for those who worry about such things: ‘Just to be clear, whenever I reference men and women in this book, I mean anyone who has come to identify as a man or woman. 

‘I write this from the point of view of someone who has always identified as a woman, but I hope this book will feel relatable to all genders.’

Reflections, she says, is ‘all about being free to live as your truest self’, since ‘the greatest skill in life is to be able to tune in and listen to what it is you need and want’. Holly ends this opening section with the word ‘Enjoy!’, also in fancy pink script.

So it is basically another celebrity self- help book, and the overall message is much the same as all the others: learn to love yourself, pursue your dreams, laughter is the best medicine, confidence comes from within and eyebrows are best plucked from beneath.

The chapters, quite a few with ambitious, hard-hitting titles such as Guilt, Feminism and Embracing Individuality, are all very short and plumped up with photos galore, mainly of Holly looking lovely. 

I counted 126 separate pictures of Holly in a book of 272 pages, which totals roughly one every two pages.

The book has a pleasant, breezy tone, but Holly’s ‘reflections’ have a certain hand-me-down quality to them. For instance, I hoped a chapter with the bold title Anger might tell me something new but, sadly, no.

‘We do need to be careful how we behave and speak to others when we are angry,’ she warns. Thanks for the top tip, Holly! 

Anger, she reveals, ‘is a powerful emotion’ and ‘refusing to acknowledge anger when we feel it is unhelpful and takes us further away from our true selves’. 

Not only that, but ‘we might sometimes say something unkind that we don’t mean’. Who’d have guessed it? On the plus side: ‘Feeling anger can be a positive’ and ‘apologies can go a long way’.

For a celebrity book, Reflections is surprisingly free of personal revelations.

Publishers tend to count on celebrities to pepper their books with searing accounts of miserable childhoods and marriages ending in tears, but Holly Willoughby is unusually reticent. 

She tells us that she is dyslexic, that she was shy as a child and that she is ‘a mass of contradictions’, but not much else.

In the Anger chapter she reveals that she was once working on a project that was really important to her, and that, at the last moment, a colleague undermined her confidence by telling her she should do it differently. 

‘I could feel my anger pulsating through my body,’ she says, but she won’t reveal what the project was, or the identity of her inconsiderate colleague.

This discretion means her precious few personal anecdotes lack colour. 

Early on, she writes about a time, not long ago, when she was feeling strangely detached. ‘I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t depressed, it was just a feeling of being a little adrift.’ 

Clearly sensing the reader’s curiosity, she adds: ‘I’m not going to be detailing what triggered my detachment in this book… talking about it is a boundary that I’m not ready to cross.’

Fair enough, but with so little clue as to her problem, it is hard for the reader to follow her recovery with any great fascination. 

When she hastily adds ‘That doesn’t mean that this book isn’t deeply personal’, most readers, however sympathetic to her desire for privacy, will probably find themselves thinking: ‘Oh yes it does!’

Without detail, the book drifts into an amorphous mass of platitudinous humdrummery. It’s hard to say which of her aperçus is the most banal, but my top five would probably be: 

  1. ‘I think one of the biggest decisions you can make is making the decision to get married.’ 
  2. ‘I think it’s fair to say that most people have regrets.’ 
  3. ‘As we all know, confidence comes from within.’ 
  4. ‘Looking good on the outside doesn’t help us if we don’t feel good on the inside.’ 
  5. ‘Adolescence is the doorway to the next stage of life.’

Has anyone ever argued the opposite? Have you ever heard anyone saying that getting married is a matter of little consequence, or that most people are as pleased as punch about everything they’ve ever done?

Willoughby undermines her own protestations of imperfection by placing them alongside glossy photographs of herself looking perfect. ‘Expecting perfection of yourself and others is a road to nowhere,’ she reflects on page 124. 

Opposite it, taking up the whole of page 125, is a photograph of her with perfectly styled hair, sitting in her dressing room in a perfectly fitting dress with a slit up the side revealing perfect legs.

Though she is keen to stress that ‘being able to accept yourself as you truly are is beauty’, she devotes the last 70 pages of her book to good old-fashioned tips about cosmetics. 

‘I have a wealth of beauty tips from my years in the make-up chair,’ she says, ‘and I want to pass on some of those secrets.’

She does her best to reassure the worldwide community of the ungorgeous that, hey, you’re as beautiful as you feel, and, yes, we’re all lovely in our own way. But despite her best efforts, a very different message often bubbles to the surface.

‘When you see a close-up photograph of someone’s face and they have no visible texture at all, it’s because the photo has been airbrushed or a filter has been applied,’ she reassures us on page 230, ‘… my skin is definitely not perfect – I still get breakouts from time to time – but that’s just life.’ 

But opposite, there just happens to be a full-page close-up of her pretty face which, like all the other photos, has, as she would put it, ‘no visible texture at all’.

The book clearly has good intentions. ‘Most of all, love yourself,’ she advises us towards the end. Holly wants to let us know that we can all be happy, no matter what, though a decent lipstick is clearly a key ingredient.

A section called Icons consists of photographs of the predictables – the Spice Girls, Dolly Parton, Helen Mirren. One of them is Joan Collins. 

‘I’ve been lucky enough to meet her a few times and she’s as fabulous in real life as you’d expect,’ writes Holly. ‘She knows exactly what works for her and what doesn’t – I think she’s probably an expert at applying make-up.’

These books are designed for the Christmas market. Someone out shopping thinks to themselves that this or that relative loves watching breakfast telly, so is bound to be happy with a book by Holly Willoughby off This Morning. 

And happy with it they may well be, though I suspect it’s more of a book for dipping into than reading.

‘Breathe… It’s beautiful out there,’ is the final sentence. Thankful for the reminder, we can take time off to mull over all the wisdom contained within. 

I think my favourite comes under the heading Tips For Special Events, and it goes like this: ‘Underwear should never be so tight as to make you uncomfortable.’




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