"I want to get people excited about eating plants"

In the six years since Ella Mills wrote her first blog post, she’s amassed 1.3 million Instagram followers, opened a London deli, created an app, and got her product line stocked across 6,000 stores. Now, with a fifth cookbook about to hit stores, she tells HOLLY O’NEILL ahead of her IMAGE event on September 4 at Medley Dublin, in partnership with Innocent, that her main goal is to get people excited about eating more plants.

In six years, Ella Mills has turned her plant-based food blog into 1.3 million Instagram followers, a chart-topping app, five books, one deli, four product lines in 6,000 stores, and a team of 40. And she’s not even trying to convince you that courgette tastes the same as spaghetti or that a fistful of almonds is a captivating substitute for a slab of Dairy Milk.

Health is the new handbag, according to The Business of Fashion, which you’ll already know if you have an Instagram account – the benchmark of all cultural phenomena today – where the word “fitness” can be found hashtagged in 279 million posts. We’re in the year of mainstream vegan – at the moment in the IMAGE fridge you’ll find coconut, almond, rice and soy milk, and increasingly less of us groaning when the dairy runs out (you’ll also find goat, presumably the Birkin of handbag health, if not vegan). Sitting on a turmeric throne of the wellness empire is the daughter of Sainsbury’s heir Camilla Sainsbury and former Labour MP and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward – Ella Mills.

She’s got better hair than you, a year-round tan and a saccharine, wholesome disposition that has over a million followers interested in not just her acai bowls, but also her husband and business partner Matt, her yoga positions and her working cocker spaniel, Austin, who has his own Instagram account with 22k followers.

Vegans are usually the butt of the joke, but those excelling in it entrepreneurially ought not to be sniffed at. The health and wellness market was valued at 2.9 trillion euro in 2014, growing 12 per cent each year, according to the Global Wellness Institute. Ireland is in no position to sniff at any healthy lifestyle, considering the World Health Organization (WHO) pinpointed us as the country on track to becoming the most obese nation in Europe by 2030, so we could do with taking a leaf out of Ella’s new book – Deliciously Ella The Plant-Based Cookbook: 100 simple vegan recipes to make every day delicious. Her first book was the fastest-selling debut cookbook ever, and the new one, out this month, will be her fifth.

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Ella hasn’t always been Instagramming chia seed overnight oats. She came to her plant-based lifestyle after she was diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome.

“I hit rock bottom physically and mentally. I started looking at what else I could do, and that’s when I came across diet.” So six years ago, Ella Mills wrote her first post on her blog, Deliciously Ella. “I never starting writing with the intention of people reading it or creating anything off the back of it,” she says, but it all blew up when she created the app. “It came out at the beginning of 2014. I’d started teaching cooking classes and doing workshops, but I wasn’t clear on whether this was a viable career for me. I invested the money I’d earned from the workshops into the app, and it went to number one overnight in the iTunes Store in the UK and in the US.”

One million Instagram followers, best-selling books, product lines and one deli in London later, here we are. (There were three delis, but two closed in March.)

“When we started, Matt and I, we thought that would be the focus of the business. We then saw the opportunities in the product space. We started developing products for retail, and in 18 months, we were in 6,000 stores. We’ve got three different product lines at the moment and one launching in October, which will be our biggest and most innovative. Closing the delis was the most difficult decision we’ve had to make yet.” Ella’s husband Matt came on board in 2015 as CEO. “He oversees all of the business development, operations, finance. We’re looking to go international next. I look after all the creative and brand side of Deliciously Ella, so anything to do with our community; I manage all our social media, I do all our books, look after the app, all our events, the deli menu look and feel, pop-ups, etc.”

There’s so much in it. “Honestly, sometimes I sit at my desk and I think, what have I done?”

So what’s the goal? “Our big aim as a company is within our food products because there is space in the supermarkets for natural products that don’t have preservatives, additives, E numbers and all that. I want people to eat more plants and I want people to be excited about them. I’m trying to engage people in it and change the preconceptions that it is a boring, deprived world, when it’s the polar opposite.”

Is this why you’re against the phrase “clean eating”? “It doesn’t sound fun, does it? People always say to me, ‘What’s your guilty pleasure?’ and I always say – because I think it really irritates people – I don’t have one. Not because I don’t enjoy having a pizza, but because that’s not what food is about – it’s about feeling good. Sometimes, that’s about eating to have great energy, and sometimes that’s about indulging after a long day. You shouldn’t ever feel guilty about what you eat. I think that is everything that’s wrong with the way we look at food now. I want to be a resource for people who know they should eat a bit more broccoli, but don’t know how to do it in a way that makes them actually want to do it.”

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September is fast approaching, with a fresh outlook, like a mini New Year. After months of summer messing, it’s time to get back on track and put away the Whispering Angel. We start considering lifestyle changes. Do I want a new job? Do I need a new hairstyle? Do I need to eat a bit healthier?

Deliciously Ella has some advice if you’re thinking of making some new season resolutions: “My number one piece of advice is to remember that for anything to be sustainable, it has to be enjoyable. Don’t throw yourself into something that makes you unhappy for short-term gain. This is about feeling good for the rest of your life. Find the balance for you to do that between eating well and indulging. Start with things that you know and that you are comfortable with. Make things you know you will like and use familiar ingredients. If you’re going to try and eat five a day, think about interesting ways you can do it – like a turmeric cauliflower lentil salad; roast cauliflower with turmeric and cumin, toss it with lentils and raisins and parsnips and spinach, and do a tahini lemon dressing. The question people often ask is, ‘What’s the one thing I need to do?’ but you don’t need to do one thing. Feeling good is about everything in your life – it’s about sleep, it’s about stress, it’s about relationships, just as much as it’s also about, you know, kale.”

IMAGE x Deliciously Ella, in partnership with Innocent on Tuesday, September 4 at Medley Dublin has all sold out, but Deliciously Ella The Plant-Based Cookbook: 100 simple vegan recipes to make every day delicious (Yellow Kite, approx €28) is out now.

Photography by Sophia Spring.

This article originally appeared in the September issue of IMAGE Magazine, on shelves nationwide now.

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