If you think I’m a tough judge, you should meet my mum! When Strictly’s SHIRLEY BALLAS was 16, her mother said, ‘Who’s been eating all the cakes?’. Now she’s 60 – and is STILL put on the scales by the mum whose standards helped her tango to the top
Shirley Ballas is swathed in satin, ready for showtime, and is looking, as her fellow judge Craig Revel Horwood would say, fab-u-lous.
Her false eyelashes have had an extra layer of glue applied because these are unprecedented times.
‘When we did the first show, I couldn’t stop crying. They kept having to put my eyelashes back on. This isn’t your regular Strictly journey. It’s much more emotional.’
Bumpier, too. This year’s Strictly journey started out in a modified bus, rather than the usual luxury coach, but now the hard shoulder beckons.
Oh so glam: Shirley Ballas gets up at 6am every day to work out with a personal trainer. She’s been working extra hard to get in shape for this series because she spent much of lockdown sitting around in her jogging bottoms
Last week, the most talked-about contestants — same-sex couple Nicola Adams and Katya Jones — were forced to leave the contest because Katya contracted Covid. Shirley’s fellow judge Motsi Mabuse nose-dived out, too, albeit temporarily, having to self-isolate.
She’s very sanguine, very show-must-go-on, but will Shirley’s eyelash glue hold? Absolutely. Never have we needed the Strictly sparkle more.
‘I’m heartbroken for them,’ she says of Nicola and Katya. ‘Their partnership was historic.’ But the over-riding message is that the show WILL go on.
‘People have got something — baubles, bangles and beads — to go to and then talk about all week.’
Thank goodness we have Shirley’s baubles to talk about, too. Last time I interviewed her, it was just a few days before she was due to have her breast implants removed. Given the enthusiasm with which she is throwing her arms around today, is it safe to say the scars have healed?
‘There is one right underneath each boobie, like two smiley faces, so my boyfriend Danny will say to me “Look, they are smiling”.’
She had the implants — which she only got at the behest of her ex-husband, fellow dancer Corky Ballas — whipped out because she was worried about any potential cancer being missed at a mammogram. And no, she doesn’t miss them.
‘They were cock-eyed. I had one up here and one down there. They were hard as a hobnail boot. And now, they’re perky and kind of soft.’
Keeping tabs: Shirley didn’t know she had put on weight until her mother Audrey weighed her. Shirley was then put on a strict diet
The rest of her body is not soft. She gets up at 6am every day to work out with a personal trainer. She’s been working extra hard to get in shape for this series because she spent much of lockdown sitting around in her jogging bottoms.
She didn’t know she had put on weight, though, she says, until her mother weighed her.
Pardon? She’s 60 and her mum Audrey is 83. Your mum weighed you?
‘Yes, my mum was the one who said, “Pop on the scales, darling”. I don’t have scales at home. Janet Street-Porter had thrown my scales away once when I was on Loose Women, but when I went to Mum’s she said: “Just hop on, let’s have a little look”, and I’d put on 20lb!
‘I’m so grateful she told me to do that. When I put some of my Strictly dresses on, I couldn’t get them zipped up.’
So it was straight on to an emergency diet, and thanks to her mother — whom she calls ‘Queen Bee’ — she was slimline Shirley again just in time for the new series.
‘Make no mistake, my mother was tough because she was providing for me and she knew how it worked. When I was 16, she came to see me in London and when I opened the front door she said: “Lordy be, who’s been eating all the cakes?” and she had me on a strict diet then.’
As her new autobiography, Behind The Sequins, makes clear, no sacrifice was too great on Shirley’s road to success.
Shirley had left home at 14 to pursue her dream of being a ballroom dancer, and twirled her way to exactly that.
She talks of watching footage of her in her dance prime with great nostalgia. ‘I look back at videos and I see this tiny little silhouette, this tiny little frame, and it was great,’ she says.
Are you a better dancer if you are svelte? Caroline Quentin has put in some great performances, despite not being the size of a Twiglet.
She shakes her head. ‘Should it be a beauty competition? Not at all. But do you want to see somebody’s bits jiggling and wiggling? No. But there’s a distinction between the dance world I come from and the Strictly experience. The celebrities there dip in for three months and it doesn’t matter what size or shape they are.
Shirley Ballas was ‘very excited’ for the return of the hit BBC series and described how ‘it will be the show of all shows’ on Instagram
‘I’m tough on myself. I’m OCD about my housework. I have to have things perfect. I can’t go to bed without washing the floor and putting all the dishes away.’
How exacting she is. How exhausting it must be to be her, too.
I joke that her autobiography is screaming out to be made into a stage show, and she quips that, what with all the men, ‘we’d need to have a whole string of shows’. She’s been married twice, but there have quite a cast of lovers.
She denies categorically that she cheated on Corky (who was husband number two) with ten other men, as he once claimed, but what’s fascinating is that all her partners-in-life seemed to be partners-on-the-dancefloor, too. ‘I think I was married to the dancing,’ she admits.
Danny — whom she met when they starred in a panto together — is the first man who wasn’t her dance partner or teacher.
What screams out from her account of her own life is that Shirley Ballas needs the spotlight. There has been such darkness in her life — her autobiography is a tough read in places, what with her father walking out on the family when she was two, and her brother David committing suicide in 2003, aged 44.
She was in a pretty low place, emotionally, when she got the Strictly gig, at the age of 57. She thought she was washed up, spent. She paints a damning picture of the dance world.
‘It’s brutal. Dog-eat-dog with people slagging you off, laughing about you.’
She moved to the States but returned to the UK to compete with Corky — and she feels that the ballroom dancing world didn’t embrace her return.
‘They said: “Oh, what’s she doing coming back? And now she’s got a baby and she’s dragging this little boy all over the world.” Not only did they criticise my dance skills, they criticised my mothering skills.’
Shirley is a perfectionist on and off the dancefloor. She’s OCD about her housework and reveals can’t go to bed without washing the floor and putting all the dishes away
By contrast, she was cheered on Strictly.
‘The British public lifted me up again. I have everything to thank them for.’
Most showbiz stalwarts are more complicated underneath than they seem on the surface. She certainly is. There have been periods of anxiety in her life, and depression.
She says the counsellor she has been seeing has told her she has an ‘on button’ which she can kick into action at will. ‘It means my whole life can be falling apart, my marriage can be over, my mother can have cancer, but I can still put all those things to one side and have the show go on.’
She admits she struggled in lockdown, and not just with her weight. Writing her autobiography meant reliving the death of her brother, and her own guilt, ‘which you never get over. No matter how many times the counsellor says you can’t blame yourself, you do’.
Even in this interview, she beats herself up about the sort of parent she was. Shirley says Audrey stepped in to do the day-to-day caring of her son, Mark, because she was so busy dancing. If she had her life again, that would be the one thing she would change.
Shirley admits she struggled in lockdown, and not just with her weight. Writing her autobiography meant reliving the death of her brother, and her own guilt
‘I wasn’t there for the first ten years of his life, at Christmases, when he got chicken pox, when he lost his first tooth. I look back and think, “the dancing still would have been there” but I was on that hamster wheel. If I could go back, I wouldn’t miss a single minute of what that child did.’
A lot of her torment (and tenacity) possibly stems from her father walking out on the family when she was two. She says she told schoolfriends he was dead, because it was easier.
‘Well, I was just a small child and I didn’t understand it. He was so absent it felt like that.’
They reconnected when she was an adult, and are in touch now.
‘Deep down I love him, but it’s not like a father/daughter relationship. I see him twice a year or so, but I would never think about calling him on a daily basis.’
She says that while it would have been nice to have had a dad who would go to watch her dance, it’s all ‘swings and roundabouts’ because if her father had been on the scene there would have been no dance lessons.
‘He wouldn’t have paid. He just wouldn’t have allowed it. I wouldn’t be here today talking to you.’
Judges have taken their place on the panel again although this year we see them sat on separate desks to maintain social distancing
Interestingly, given the recent debate about free school dinners, she remembers getting ‘a full tummy’ because of them.
‘We were bullied because of it, my brother and I. During the holidays, when the school would still provide them, he would hide by the gate because he didn’t want to go in. There was a stigma attached.
Now she spoils her mum, treating her to posh afternoon teas, and making sure she is part of the Strictly family (‘she loves Craig, the panto villain, and we’ve been friends with Bruno for ever, and she thinks Motsi is a ball of fire’).
When she landed the job, though, Audrey was beside herself that her little girl would be working alongside the elegant Darcey Bussell. Talk about pressure!
‘She had followed Darcey’s career and said, “Now, come on Shirley, hold your side of the flag there. Darcey is so beautiful and she’s got such beautiful deportment and she’s so feminine with her hands . . .”.’
Was she intimidated by Darcey? ‘I’m not going to lie, when I first saw this beautiful, iconic woman I was a little apprehensive, but she said: “Shirley, this is my thing and that’s your thing, and we will have the most amazing time. Girl power.” And those words stuck. I will forever be in her debt.’
When they toured together, the two shared a dressing room. ‘I would come in and she would be upside down in a full split. I could never have done that in my whole career. I called her Bendy Wendy. I thought of her as Snow White, so ethereal and beautiful.
‘When she left I was mortified. I thought who on earth are they going to replace her with?’
Enter Motsi — whom she had judged as a dancer in many contests. ‘She was this little bumblebee I had known for 20 years. I thought, “they got this right”.’
Have the Covid restrictions prevented her mother from coming to the studios? ‘She only comes to Blackpool. She came to Elstree once and said: “To be honest, Shirley, I get a better view in my armchair with a tipple”.’
She still FaceTimes her mum every Saturday at 5pm before Strictly is filmed, showing her dress options.
‘She gives her honest opinion. She likes this dress, doesn’t like that dress, this other one is “too much fabric for a little lady”. My mother has no problem saying how she feels, but she has my back.’
She didn’t see her mother — who lives on the Wirral — for the strict phase of lockdown, but she did live with Danny for the first time.
Now, she says, he can even make the bed to her high standards.
‘When Danny moved in over lockdown, I had to teach him to make it my way, which means lots of cushions and throws in exactly the same place, and two teddies placed exactly the right number of inches apart,’ she says.
What about in the bed? ‘Oh my goodness, that is a world all of its own. I’m telling you, darling, I LOVE IT. Of course, he’s amazing, I feel like a Queen.
Watchful eye: Judges Craig Revel-Horwood, Shirley and Motsi Mabuse are sat on separate desks to maintain social distancing
‘Before, I was so self-conscious. If I was coming out of the shower, I would cover up because I was so embarrassed about how I looked. Now, with Danny, I’m much more comfortable. In fact, he is always telling me if the doorbell goes “put some panties on. Put your top on. Get yourself dressed” and I say “but you make me feel FREEEE”.’
Obviously, it’s not all about swinging-from-the-chandeliers.
‘At our age, it starts with communication and kindness. He’s not someone who uses bad language or name calling. He loves life and he loves the world. He plays the guitar, and he plays me songs and I can be cleaning downstairs and he is playing a song and, I know it sounds corny, but it just sets the mood for the whole day.’
Was he reticent about getting involved with an older woman who has, let’s face it, considerable baggage?
‘I asked him that and I love that he said: “Everyone comes with baggage, Shirley, everyone”.’
Her baggage is just that bit more sparkly, of course.
Behind The Sequins by Shirley Ballas is out now (BBC Books, £20). Strictly Come Dancing: Shirley & Craig’s Perfect 10 DVD is out on November 23.
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