There have been “crisis talks” with ITV bosses over the claim of queue-jumping that reduced Holly Willoughby to floods of tears and damaged her £10m brand.
The co-host of This Morning has refused to apologise for the row sparked by the allegation that she and co-presenter Phillip Schofield jumped the queue of mourners paying their respects to the Queen.
The darling of daytime TV has been shaken by the public anger directed towards herself and Schofield over the claim that the pair used “VIP access” to jump the Westminster Hall line and file past the Queen’s lying-in-state.
A blame game with ITV has resulted, after the claims spread on social media at the end of last week, accompanied by images of the masked pair solemnly walking past the coffin.
Willoughby and Schofield insist the story is false. They were at the Hall as “accredited journalists”, in a professional capacity as part of the world’s media to report on the event for a piece, which ran on Tuesday’s This Morning.
Like other journalists, they were led down the side of the hall to a media area at the rear and did not cut in the line or pause to pay their respects at the coffin. They said they were there on behalf of all the viewers unable to mourn the Queen in person.
Willoughby, who earns about £600,000 a year for This Morning, was said to be “absolutely devastated” and in tears over the backlash.
She is said to blame ITV bosses for not setting the story straight earlier in the day after the visit began to attract a furious reaction on social media.
Comparisons were immediately made with David Beckham’s refusal of an offer to jump the 13-hour line of mourners on the same day.
After Willoughby and Schofield begged their employers to intervene, ITV, possibly distracted by preparations for Monday’s state funeral, issued a short statement on Saturday defending the pair.
This Morning producers then published a more detailed Instagram post, explaining the presenters’ presence.
The statement read: “We asked Phillip and Holly to be part of a film for this Tuesday’s programme. They did not jump the queue, have VIP access or file past the Queen lying in state – but instead were there in a professional capacity as part of the world’s media to report on the event.”
If this was an attempt to shut the story down it failed. Memes and mockery continued to spread on social media.
Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby have said they did not jump the queue for the Queen’s lying-in-state (Photo: ITV)
Willoughby has brought in lawyers to defend her reputation from the “false narrative” placed on events and was even considering quitting This Morning, according to a Daily Mail report.
Those who repeated the “queue-jumping” claim say they have yet to receive any legal correspondence.
While supportive of its star presenters, some within ITV have questioned internally why they needed to enter Westminster Hall at all.
Willoughby and Schofield would not have been able to interview anyone and the only footage allowed was a camera feed used by all broadcasters. Alice Beer had previously reported from the queue for This Morning on Thursday.
A petition calling for Willoughby and Schofield to be sacked has garnered more than 40,000 signatures.
After “crisis talks”, a damage-limitation dialogue with ITV is ongoing, with Willoughby continuing on air this week and telling friends she does not wish to quit.
Yet given the chance to offer themselves up to the mercy of viewers, Willoughby and Schofield took the politicians’ route of merely apologising for the appearance of doing something wrong.
“We recognise it may have looked like something else and therefore totally understand the reaction. Please know that we would never have jumped the queue,” she said, presenting their report on the affair on Tuesday.
That may not be sufficient to appease ITV’s paymasters, said reputation manager Mark Borkowski.
“Lawyers can’t really help this situation. It’s not just whether she can get back onside with the viewers, advertisers may consider she has damaged her brand and This Morning,” he told i. “If people don’t believe you, you are in real trouble. It looks like she will try and brazen it out.”
Willoughby will struggle to repair the damage to her “girl-next-door” reputation unless she gives a full apology for the row which now threatens her future as one of ITV’s star names.
Likeability and relatability have been key assets for “brand Willoughby”, a £10m business which stretches from fashion to children’s books and beauty product endorsements to her own wellness website.
She is suffering from a “toxicity” surrounding This Morning, Mr Borkowski added.
Former presenter Eamonn Holmes, who has made no secret of his feud with Schofield after he and his wife Ruth Langsford were axed from presenting This Morning, gleefully joined the “Queuegate” backlash, on GB News.
Willoughby, 41, who launched her career in 2000 on children’s channel CITV, remains a valuable asset for the commercial broadcaster.
On primetime, she has presented Dancing On Ice (alongside Schofield) and I’m a Celebrity… when Ant McPartlin was indisposed.
Her image as an accessible style icon, wearing outfits, often from Zara, Warehouse and Oasis, paired with higher-end accessories, made her a hit with the largely female daytime TV audience.
She signed brand ambassador deals with M&S and Garnier Nutrisse hair colour while her own Wylde Moon lifestyle brand sells products ranging from £65 candles to £495 earrings.
Well aware of her worth, Willoughby fought a legal battle to free herself from management company YMU, which wanted 15 per cent of her future salary on contracts it had arranged and launched her own all-female firm, Roxy management.
She has received offers to become “the face of prime-time BBC One” and co-presented Freeze The Fear with Wim Hof, a new entertainment show on ITV’s biggest rival, this spring.
Now the star, who earns around £500,000 from product endorsements, is being advised to bring her hugely successful 13-year stint on This Morning to a close on her own terms.
“Her ratings are solid but the future of the show is the new presenting team of Dermot O’Leary and Alison Hammond. They all know it,” said a TV insider.
Willoughby is considered too accomplished a presenter to let “Queuegate” fatally harm her career. Regular This Morning viewers are not as agitated over the row as social media commentators, insiders say.
“Holly is very good at what she does, she’s a nice person and she has a large, loyal female following,” said Mr Borkowski.
He urged Willoughby and ITV, which declined to comment, to smooth over any ill feeling over the row. c
“She attracts a lot of clickbait and Holly would face even more scrutiny at the BBC. She is perfect for a commercial broadcaster, they should focus on defining her prime-time role.”