ANNA WOOLHOUSE sits on a bench in Darren Barker’s Paddington gym on crossed legs and prepares to be asked the same old question. When it comes, she smiles wryly and nods before answering with all the enthusiasm she can muster.
“I’ve always enjoyed boxing,” she begins. “I’ve hit pads. I’ve never sparred or anything like that, but I’ve always had an interest in it, and I was totally up for the challenge.” The need to justify her existence as a boxing presenter on Sky Sports clearly wrangles but she understands it. “I think my… not necessarily worries… but I was aware I was stepping into different territory and I did feel like I had to prove myself.”
Two-and-a-half years later, Woolhouse is tired of having to prove herself. Not tired of the job, she adores the job, but tired of the suggestion that being a woman made the task of proving herself harder than if she were a man. Indeed, as Anna points out, the fact she’s repeatedly asked about being ‘a woman in a man’s world’ shows the sexism some like to believe is a thing of the past remains prevalent. But the truth is she is a woman in a role that, until she came along in January 2017, was always deemed a man’s role. That alone should merit significant praise. But not everyone feels that way.
You what? A female boxing presenter with no prior experience in boxing? Needless to say, the combination did not sit well with certain fans. And those fans – you know the type, the faceless sociopaths who prowl social media like dribbling hyenas – can make boxing a cruel and somewhat territorial environment. New faces are eyed suspiciously, particularly pretty ones, before the jealousy manifests itself on social media because someone is doing a job they wish was theirs. Another imposter. Another chancer. Another person who has worked harder than them to get to where they want to be.
Woolhouse’s career began in radio before she joined Sky Sports. She presented Ice Hockey, Netball, Formula 1 and was an anchor on Sky Sports News – all successfully and without viewers losing their minds over her presence – before Adam Smith asked her to join the boxing team.
“I think the thing that the public need to understand is my role in what I do,” Anna explains. “I think there is confusion in what a presenter is and what a pundit is. I am not there to give my opinion – yes of course I’ve got to be knowledgeable, yes of course I’ve got to do my research, I have to immerse myself in boxing and I want to do that because I love it – but my job is not to give my opinion, not to be this encyclopaedia; I am there to draw that out of whoever I am with.
“I do think a lot of people, on the outside, wonder what my experience is in boxing – ‘when has she ever fought? what does she know?’ – because I’ve never stepped in the ring and had a fight, you know? And that’s hard.”
The hardest thing Anna had to deal with was the death of her brother. Harry Woolhouse was killed at the age of 32 when the bus he was on plunged into a ravine in Malaysia on April 20, 2014. It was Easter Sunday.
“The day that changed my life,” Anna says, momentarily looking to the floor. “My brother worked out in Singapore; he was a chemical engineer. He’s like me, mad on sports, mad on fitness, kite surfing, anything with a bit of adrenalin attached to it and he’d gone to Malaysia for the weekend with his mates. They were travelling back on the bus and it was very rainy, and he was on the upper deck, and the bus flipped, went down a ravine and very sadly…”
Anna pauses. She realises she’s on autopilot. It’s the only way she can get through the story of that day. Yet she’s disappointed in herself.
“Sadly?” she says, mocking her own choice of words. “Tragically. It’s horrendous. He was the only person who was killed on the bus outright and I found out from his friend who was on the bus with him, from a message on Facebook.
“I’d just finished a shift at Sky Sports News and… I had a Facebook [message] pop up saying that Harry… had been killed.”
She pauses again, looks away, and stifles the sadness before it submerges her for the umpteenth time. It’s easier to talk about what came before, about the bond they shared and how Harry continues to inspire her.
“It’s weird,” she says. “So when it happened, I didn’t really talk about it. People around me knew. It was in the media, but personally, I chose to just carry on with my life and I didn’t speak about it. It was really hard. Particularly with the job we do, to stand in front of a camera and be this person, be upbeat and be happy, it was a hard thing to do.
“As time has gone on, I now want to talk about it, do you know what I mean? I want him to still be in my life and I want him to be remembered. Every day I think about him. Genuinely, if I’m cycling or if I’m running and I see someone just in front of me, I hear his voice in my head. He always used to go, ‘You can have them, you can have them!’ And it makes me run that little bit further so I can overtake them.”
Anna has always taken pride in her fitness. She regularly posts about her routines and progress on social media where she is approaching 200,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram combined. Yet the flipside of such exposure is the poison it can attract. Last year, Woolhouse was subjected to trolling of the worst kind. ‘I hope you join your brother in death soon,’ one idiot posted. ‘Probably killed himself to get away from you.’
“He’d be devastated,” Anna responds when asked how Harry would react to such abuse. “He’d be angry, he’d be upset, I think. When people disagree with what I say, that’s one thing, that’s okay. But when people say that my brother killed himself because of me, it’s awful, it’s horrendous for me, it’s horrendous for my family to read. It’s just disgusting.”
It certainly makes one wonder if social media is worth the hassle. Did she consider closing her accounts?
“Yeah. I genuinely thought about it. But then you’re giving in to them. And why should I? I don’t put anything offensive out there. It’s so simple, if you really don’t like someone, if you don’t like their content, what do you do? You don’t follow them.
“A good 90 per cent of the time I have rhino skin and I don’t let it get to me. But then we are all human and sometimes you can’t help but take it to heart. I want to be doing my job and doing the best job I possibly can, and that’s all that matters. It shouldn’t matter what I wear or where I come from, as long as I am doing the best job and I’m happy. But people have their own opinion, they have their mouthpiece on social media, and they think they can just say anything on there. You do have to accept that when you do a job like this, when you put yourself in the public eye, that you’re going to have to take the rough with the smooth a bit.
“But it’s the levels of what you can take. If someone says, ‘I don’t agree with what Anna said there’ or, God forbid, you say a name wrong or whatever, fine, have your say. But when it gets to the point where it’s about your physical appearance, about family things that have happened and they’re downright ignorant and they’re playing the ‘why’s a girl doing that job’ card, you do wonder when it’s going to change, when it’s going to stop.”
Whether it changes or not, Anna Woolhouse has no intention of stopping what she’s doing. She’s turned her back on any negativity, she’s come to terms with her brother’s death and is thriving on one of the biggest broadcast platforms in the country. “It is my dream job,” she grins. “I love it.”
Never more so than April 2017 when Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko engaged in a titanic battle inside an electric Wembley Stadium.
“I hadn’t really imagined what 90,000 people was going to be like,” Anna says when asked to pinpoint the best moment of her career. “We usually have a meeting on the Friday, and I remember walking into Wembley and Johnny Nelson – he calls me Tinkerbell – he said, ‘Tinkerbell, are you s**tting yourself yet?’ I looked around and they were building everything, and I suddenly thought, ‘Oh god. This is quite big isn’t it?’ It was all everyone was talking about and not just boxing fans, everyone.
“I can honestly say I don’t think anything in my career is going to top that night. I remember looking up at the sky and it was dusky and, as cringey as it sounds, I thought ‘You’re one lucky girl to be doing this’.”
Luck can only take someone so far. Anna Woolhouse, by challenging stereotypes, breaking convention and standing up to the lowlifes and the bullies, is showing it takes far more than luck to succeed. But for her to feel like a success, to really feel like she’s made a difference, the tone of the next interview will have to change.
“If I had a pound for every time somebody said to me, ‘Do you like sport?’ ‘How does it feel to be a woman working in a man’s world?’ I would be stinking rich. I don’t think they’d ask a male the same question. I personally feel like, yes, things are changing. Things are changing in terms of acceptance and women being on equal terms but there’s still a long way to go. I think the more that people make it an issue, the more people ask.
“Look, I feel very proud to do what I do. I don’t feel like I’m a woman working in a man’s role.
“I am just doing my job to the best of my ability and I work with some awesome women in the team. But I never look at them and go, ‘She’s a woman!’
“‘Do you like sport?’ Well, yes, obviously, I love it. Of course I do! The landscape is changing but I won’t feel like we’re really making progress until people stop asking me that question.”