Strictly Come Dancing's Craig Revel Horwood talks love, sex, harsh words and hip operations
In a frank interview, the show's Mr Nasty delves into his days as a drag queen, marriage, and the real reason he says 'Disaaaaaster, darling'
What's the campest thing this side of Christmas? For sheer old-school, glittery and fake-tanned artifice you can't really beat Strictly Come Dancing, the most rococo television concoction since Bet Lynch's beehive or Danny La Rue's ostrich-feather headdress. From Bruno Tonioli's histrionics and Sir Bruce Forsyth's knowingly terrible jokes to the sort of open-shirted, tight-trousered machismo that went out with Seventies disco and frocks usually only found in a drag queen's wardrobe, the BBC talent show illuminates the dark winter evenings with its sparkly wattage.
And sitting deadpan in the middle of all this outré overkill, like a sequinned black mamba preparing to strike its prey, is perhaps the show's campest element – its very own Mr Nasty – Craig Revel Horwood, with his unnaturally elongated catchphrases, "Fab-u-LOUS", "A-ma-ZING" and "Disaaaaaaster".
"That happened out of time limitation," Revel Horwood explains when we meet. "They come to me last [on the judging panel] so Bruno might be going on... you know, endlessly... and they might say 'You've got 10 seconds... we need one word', so I have to say something... and sometimes I have to stretch it out to three syllables."
The man himself is not at all outsized in the tanned flesh – except in the vertical sense. He is unexpectedly tall, and Darcey Bussell and Tonioli sit on cushions, he tells me, so that the judges' eye-lines are on the same level.
First thing on a Monday morning and Revel Horwood's camp-o-meter is set low. As uncomplicated as an Australian chardonnay – although he's a British citizen now – the thing to remember about 'Craig Revel Horrid', as the tabloid wags would have it, is that he has quite a serious day job. Behind the super-sized TV persona and waspish barbs, he actually knows of what he speaks, with extensive West End and international credits and Olivier Award nominations as a choreographer. He also directed the opening ceremony of the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.
Add to that his nationwide tour of Fiddler on the Roof, with Starsky & Hutch legend Paul Michael Glaser in the Topol role, which has just begun a nationwide tour ("Triumphant... heartbreakingly true and alive," the Stage newspaper has pronounced).
Craig Revel Horwood in the Eighties: 'Thankfully big hair and shoulder pads were in', he says
So when on this year's launch show he told Vanessa Feltz's partner that he would need a miracle to progress, then, well, perhaps he was on to something (he was – Feltz went out in round two).
"When I'm watching something I'm being professional about it," he says. "I'm not there to have a good time... I'm there to judge a competition." And apparently the producers don't tell him to ramp it up either. "The only thing they say is to be honest and to have an opinion." Not all the contestants are appreciative of his criticism and, during the 2006 series, actress Jan Ravens' husband apparently took exception to Revel Horwood's comments and shoved him repeatedly in the chest in the BBC bar afterwards.
"Actors are very emotional, whereas sports people are used to criticism," he says. "Actors take everything too hard, their talent is at stake... their persona is at stake. I'm not being as hard as any of my dance teachers... my dance teachers were night-MARES. They had a stick and hit you to get your leg higher."
I know all about his dance teachers, and pretty much everything else for that matter, having skimmed through his chatty autobiography All Balls and Glitter and its follow-up, the more restrainedly-titled Tales from the Dance Floor. Did he write them himself? "I've got a ghostie, but it's difficult for someone to do it because I want it to sound like me," he says. "So I change stuff... I guess I wrote about three-quarters of it."
Craig Revel Horwood, photographed at Quo Vadis in London
His father was in the Australian navy, which meant that the young Craig and his four siblings led a nomadic existence that took in a spell in England, before settling in Ballarat, a small town in Victoria where he was relentlessly bullied for being overweight. "They called me 'Tits' sadly," he says referring to the gynaecomastia, aka 'man boobs', that blighted his adolescence. "I've had those done now... two years ago. I should have had it done ages ago. So many men have that problem and it's so easy to fix if you're unhappy. I tried to do it through gym and dance and all of that stuff but none of it worked."
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Revel Horwood developed an eating disorder which remained with him until he moved to Paris in his early twenties. By then – in a splendidly Glee-like manner – he had found salvation through dance. He took up hoofing in an effort to lose weight and discovered his metier. He also encountered his sexuality, aged 16, after he became a dancer on a local TV show and met an older man referred to in his autobiography as 'Mr X'. Revel Horwood was whisked away by Mr X on an all-expenses around-the-world trip. "I was a rent boy, I suppose," he wrote metaphorically, although the red-top press recycled the quote literally as a splash headline. "I got to see the world and paid for it the only way I could."
Revel Horwood's fledgling dance career led him to Sydney, where he had a nose-job and found work on the musical La Cage aux Folles. Frustrated with only ever being on the chorus line, he borrowed La Cage's handmade high-heels and started up a solo drag queen act by the name of Lavish. "I used to go to clubs and sing as myself but people weren't interested," he says. "And then I turned up as a woman and suddenly everyone was interested. Thankfully, in the Eighties, big hair and shoulder pads were in... Joan Collins wore more make-up than I ever did."
Lavish was a hit, but Craig felt he had to kill off his glamorous alter-ego. "She was becoming just too popular and taking over my life, which wasn't the real reason I started her," he says. Does he ever re-visit her now? "Only in panto – in the guise of the Wicked Queen. However, she's a bit older and a bit lumpier than she used to be."
Craig has done pantomime for the past four seasons, playing the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with former Strictly contestant and resident game-for-a-laugh Ann Widdecombe playing his maid in the two most recent productions (Lisa Riley is taking over from Widdecombe this year in Southend). "It's absolutely exhaust-ING," he says. "I thought I'd be walking on and saying 'Mirror, mirror on the wall', but I'm never off-stage... singing and dancing the entire time I wasn't doing costume changes. And I didn't eat. I lost three stone in three weeks."
Revel Horwood gets into character for the pantomime season
If that sounds like a boast from the cover of a diet book, it was putting on weight that concerned the 22-year-old Revel Horwood when he travelled to Paris to perform at the Lido cabaret on the Champs-Élysées. "Constantly > on the Scarsdale," but hiding his dieting from friends and family, he found that performing in a g-string (you had to have been there, I guess), he could no longer conceal his eating disorder. "Even though I was just bone... literally just rib... you still think you're fat," he says.
Paris proved to be a stepping stone to London, which has been where Revel Horwood has based himself ever since, taking up British citizenship in 2011, partly, he admits, so that he no longer has to queue at airport immigration. His first job here was touring in the Danny La Rue Show (and being shocked at the poor quality of the digs), before winning West End roles in Miss Saigon and Crazy for You and eventually stepping over the line and starting to direct and produce.
By this time he had also acquired a wife: his then-flatmate, Jane. Was this his Elton John and Renate Blauel moment, or is he genuinely bisexual? "I guess I fell into falling in love," he says. "I fall in love with a person and then I sleep with them. I can't think of any other way of describing it.
"I've slept with women throughout my career, but I just prefer men," he says. "Anyway, I was living with Jane and then we decided to get married because her body-clock was ticking and I was 25 and wanted to have kids as well." Actually, he adds, three years earlier he had got a girl pregnant back in Australia and they had decided on a termination. Does he still want to have children? "No I don't. I used to want to but now I don't. My life has got way too busy, plus it's a lifetime commitment that I'm not prepared to [make]."
As it happens, after a year Jane "fell in love with her boss and then she moved out" – or, as he says later in the interview, "Jane eventually committed adultery", which strikes me, I say, as a surprisingly Biblical way of putting it. "When I'm in a relationship I'm monogamous," he says firmly. "I'm not like most men who sleep around on their wives or their boyfriends. I like committed, one-on-one relationships. That's just who I am."
He's rather enjoying not being in any relationship at the moment, but his biographies chart the course of his love affairs with various men – some named, others disguised with pseudonyms, such as the aforementioned Mr X, or Doctor D. "He was most upset because I told him, 'I'm just going to call you Old Flame in the book' and then he went, 'No... I want to be Doctor D'.
"Grant [Harley Street pharmacist Grant Macpherson, with whom Revel Horwood had a five-year relationship until 2011] wanted to be known as himself. Plus he had depression and I had never lived with that before. A lot of people have to deal with it, so I have no problems talking about it if it might help somebody.
"I remain friends with all my ex-lovers, like Lloyd for instance, who I had the 12-year relationship with... he's staying at my house now. And last night I was at [Strictly dancer] Robin Windsor's birthday party and Grant and Lloyd were there together. And Jane runs my website. She's happily married now, with kids. So everybody's loved up, except for me really," he says matter-of-factly.
Craig has done pantomime for the past four seasons, playing the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
In any case, Revel Horwood has had more pressing concerns, having just emerged from hip-replacement surgery. And on the subject of bones, Craig is a patron of the National Osteoporosis Society, through which he has struck up a friendship with Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, whose mother, like his, was afflicted with the bone disease. If he hopes that he doesn't inherit his mother's bones, naturally the same goes for his father's alcoholism.
"Children of alcoholics have to be careful," he says. "I like a drink but I try not to overdo it because when you're dealing with other people's money – producing a show – you don't want to be caught up in all of that.
"Living with an alcoholic is a nightmare – just a lot of shouting and the kicking of furniture and burning things. My father would put Chiko rolls [a sort of Australian spring roll] into the oven, and just be out cold and his teeth would fall out of his head and everything would be burning... and that happens every single night. Friends could never come back to your house, it was too embarrassing."
His parents are now divorced, and while he's flying his mother over next summer, he hardly ever sees his dad, who lives a hermit-like existence on the opposite side of town to his mother. Revel Horwood is remarkably level-headed about a past that might have driven a less robust soul into a lifetime of therapy. Not that he probably has much time for self-reflection what with hip ops, judging Strictly Come Dancing, his tour of Fiddler on the Roof, pantomime and the next Strictly tour, which he is directing.
He's off now to appear on Loose Women (I race home to catch him knocking out a few more "darlings", slightly more in character as Craig Revel Horwood than he had been with me). "People didn't get me to start with, or my sense of humour," he says. "But now people embrace it and actually enjoy the whole sadistic side of things."
'Strictly Come Dancing' continues on Saturdays and Sundays on BBC1
Mr Nasty's Strictly put-downs
'The only good thing about that was the end'
'All the Ls: lifeless, lacklustre, laboured'
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