Maro Itoje, 27 — England rugby icon, Ralph Lauren model, racial justice campaigner and celebrity podcaster — is listing the three types of people who tend to slide into his DMs: teenage girls asking him to add them on Snapchat; 18-21-year-olds asking him to send their boyfriends a happy birthday message; and middle aged women asking him to do the same thing for their partner or husband.
The Camden-born sportsman chuckles and plays with his pearl earring, a nod to his on-pitch nickname, The Pearl (a sign of his preciousness within the team). At 6ft 5 and as arguably the most famous British rugby player since Jonny Wilkinson, the Saracens player and England regular is well-accustomed to being fan-girled by now.
His good looks, “Super Maro” on-pitch reputation and glittering off-pitch CV from digital literacy-campaigning to poetry-reading have earned him broad appeal with rugby and non-rugby fans across the country — and though he admits he can’t reply to every message, he certainly doesn’t seem to mind the attention.
Since he made his England debut six years ago at 21, the Harrow-educated forward has posed for Vogue, appeared topless on the cover of Tatler alongside young royal Lady Amelia Windsor, and built a following of more than 307,000 on Instagram and 110,000 on Twitter, where he posts about everything from his love of African art to the state of the Tory party. “It’s a pretty dire situation [in politics] at the moment,” he tells me of the ongoing Westminster chaos. “Almost unthinkable.”
Itoje might be focused on the autumn internationals and recovering from a shoulder injury for now, but he’s long been vocal about his political interests. He’s appeared on BBC Radio 4 presenter Nick Robinson’s Political Thinking podcast and always been upfront about his potential political ambitions, so our interview — just hours before Prime Minister Liz Truss’ resignation bombshell — feels timely.
I ask what he makes of the current Government and and he chooses his words carefully, saying they seem to be “running out of steam” and “all over the shop” and that he believes Labour would win “fairly positively” if there was a general election tomorrow. “Things definitely need to change,” he adds, reflecting on the “gross mismanagement” of the last three weeks.
He is diplomatic, too, when I ask about Boris Johnson, who is an ardent rugby fan and dropped out of last night’s leadership race last night this week after teasing an extraordinary political comeback. “I can see why people like him,” Itoje says of meeting Johnson in the changing rooms after a match in 2020. “He’s a very likeable character, but I guess that’s not necessarily what you want as the leader of a country. He’s charismatic, but his exploits are… well documented.”
Itoje believes current politics “needs to change” after 14 years of the Tories in Downing Street — so would he still run himself one day? “I always say never say never,” he says with a grin, but he’s focused on the day job for now: first, the autumn internationals, then the Rugby World Cup in Paris next September. “At this stage I’m not necessarily thinking about running for public office, but I guess there are numerous ways that one could engage in politics without running for office.”
Indeed, activism is a key focus for Itoje. He has announced that he’ll no longer be singing rugby anthem Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as its African-American slave trade roots make him feel “uncomfortable” (the RFU has since stopped selling merchandise featuring the lyrics and no longer displays them on its stadium billboards) and has been a keen supporter of Black Lives Matter protests.
Also off the pitch in recent years, he has joined Marcus Rashford in pushing to end digital inequality, taught rugby to disadvantaged children in Kanya with The Atlas Foundation, and has campaigned tirelessly for black history to be taught more thoroughly in schools, curating his own exhibition, A History Untold, last year, in a bid to highlight the history absent from the UK curriculum.
He’s not doing anything for Black History Month but “it’s not something that I just attribute to one month, it’s an ongoing thing for me,” he says. “Obviously this issue is close to my heart… there are always things I’m looking to push and to advocate and to help the communities of which I’m from and I represent.”
For Itoje, it’s the “intrusiveness” that puts him off going into politics more than the chaos. “I get a small fraction of [the public attention that politicians] get,” he tells me. Indeed, the rugby international might be used to the Six Nations crowds and fans sliding into his DMs, but he also enjoys his downtime out of the limelight, whether it’s tending to his collection of tropical fish at home or taking social media breaks to focus on his dissertation, part of his current MBA course at Warwick Business School.
The business course is fresh in Itoje’s mind when we speak as he’s just met his dissertation supervisor and honed in on his subject: family business succession planning. “The reason I think it’s interesting is that the further and further you go in a family from the initial matriarch or patriarch who’s run a successful business, it’s more likely that the business is going to fail or diminish over time,” he tells me excitedly, sitting up in his chair to talk me through his hypothesis. “So [my dissertation] is just looking at ways you can counteract that kind of trend.”
Itoje speaks calmly and thoughtfully throughout our interview, looking relaxed in a black Under Armour sweater. And true fans won’t be surprised to hear of his enthusiasm for his latest educational pursuit. The sportsman has long spoken of how his Nigerian parents allowed him to pursue his rugby career as long as he made it to university – which he did, graduating in politics from SOAS the year he joined Saracens.
Even now, as one of England’s most prized rugby players, he doesn’t see himself as “defined” by the sport. He is signed to Roc Nation, the management company owned by billionaire rapper Jay-Z; has worked with the likes of Under Armour, Therabody and Marks and Spencer (his mum was “even more excited” than he was, when he fronted their menswear campaign last autumn); and launched his own podcast, Pearl Conversations, in 2020, interviewing “leaders and groundbreakers” from footballer Eni Aluko to former New Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell.
Itoje has parked the podcast for now while he focuses on training, but his eyes light up when I mention a season two. “It’s definitely in the pipeline,” he tells me, listing his line-up of dream guests: former US president Barack Obama, ex-footballer Ian Wright, and Hollywood star Will Smith. “It was an unfortunate situation for both parties involved… I know that they were both doing a bit of soul-searching at the time but it was not something that you want to see at the Oscars,” he says of Smith’s now-infamous slapping of fellow actor Chris Rock at last year’s Academy Awards.
In the meantime, Itoje is enjoying listening to another “fascinating” podcast, a six-part series called The Dropout about former Silicon Valley darling Elizabeth Holmes, and is a “massive” House of the Dragon and Game of Thrones fan in his evenings at home in north London. He lives there with his brother Jeremy, who plays rugby for a local team in Harrow, plus his collection of koi carp, who keep him calm when he’s feeling the pressures of the game.
After a shoulder injury at the start of the season, Itoje is taking his recovery time seriously. He is focusing on sleep and tells me he’s enjoying using Therabody’s new compression ‘JetBoots’, which look like something from a sci-fi film but he assures me are a game-changer for muscle repair.
Therabody’s massage guns and red light therapy, a muscle-healing treatment, are the other new additions to his usual post-match sauna and steam room programme, then it’s just “the normal stuff” in his moments of downtime: seeing friends and family, “chilling out”, “doing some background research for my diss…”.
Itoje might have a few more side hustles than some of his teammates, but he’s good at the compartmentalisation right now. “I’m a believer in finding the time to do the things that you think are important. If you value something and believe it’s important, you find the time to do it,” he says, smiling and leaning back in his chair. “I’m in a good space mentally. Everything is going according to plan.”
Maro Itoje is a Therabody athlete and investor. Therabody’s product ecosystem provides recovery solutions to help individuals improve their health and well-being
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