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Giovanni Pernice: The Strictly star at the heart of a storm

The Sicilian dancer has described himself as a ‘perfectionist’, while reports emerged that former ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ contestants had met up to discuss their ‘difficult time’ working with him. Now, there are claims that a male celebrity has come forward with his own allegations against Pernice. Ellie Harrison looks back at the performer’s journey from Palermo to London, and his history on the BBC’s hit Saturday night show

Thursday 06 June 2024 10:06 BST
Giovanni Pernice has been a pro on the show since 2015
Giovanni Pernice has been a pro on the show since 2015 (Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images)

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Back in March, there was a shocking development to a story that had been bubbling away in the background for months. It was reported that Sherlock star Amanda Abbington, Good Morning Britain host Ranvir Singh, and former Love Island presenter Laura Whitmore had met for a “tearful summit” about their respective “difficult experiences” working with Strictly Come Dancing pro Giovanni Pernice. The dancer has since denied all allegations of “abusive” teaching methods, saying that he looks forward to clearing his name.

Fast-forward three months, to this week, and a new report claims that a male celebrity has now come forward with their own allegations about Pernice. It’s said that the unnamed star is aiding an investigation into Pernice’s behaviour.

The news follows weeks after The Sun reported that Pernice had officially quit the show. An internal memo, listing this year’s professional dancers, has allegedly been circulated at the BBC without the Sicilian performer’s name on it. And a source told the publication: “He wants to focus on other TV projects, and feels he’s achieved all he can on Strictly, having won the trophy back in 2021 and reaching the final an unprecedented four times.” The BBC neither confirmed nor denied the report, releasing a statement to publications simply saying: “The professional dancers for 2024 will be announced in due course.”

Giovanni Pernice addresses Strictly Amanda Abbington 'feud'

The 33-year-old Sicilian, who has been one of Strictly’s cohort of professional dancers since 2015, has not yet commented on the new reports. But in March he had defended himself on a podcast, following months of reports about a feud with Abbington, who was paired up with Pernice on Strictly last year. Abbington quit the show in October, just five weeks into the 2023 series, citing “medical reasons” at the time. In her first Instagram post after leaving, she didn’t mention or thank Pernice at all, and the rumour mill began to turn.

In January, reports broke that Abbington was seeking legal advice and had requested video recordings of her practice sessions with Pernice. The following week, Abbington stated that she had been diagnosed with “mild PTSD” after taking part in the show.

Speaking on The Mirror’s Invite Only podcast in March, Pernice said: “It was a shame that [Abbington] had to leave for medical reasons because I think, in my opinion, we could have gone all the way.”

The suave pro – who holds the Guinness World Record for Jive kicks and flicks, performing 55 in 30 seconds – has gone all the way before. He won the competition in 2021 with Rose Ayling-Ellis, and has been a finalist five times during his nine years on the show. Pernice said his reputation as a “perfectionist” comes from “caring” about the celebrity he’s partnered with, adding: “In every single part of the world, if [you’re] a professional dancer, we have to get these people on the Saturday night looking the best as they can. And if we get to have good scores at the end, I look back and say, ‘I’ve done a great job.’”

Pernice and Abbington performing on ‘Strictly’
Pernice and Abbington performing on ‘Strictly’ (BBC/Guy Levy)

Even before the “tearful summit”, we knew that Abbington wasn’t the first person who appeared to have been on the sharp end of Pernice’s perfectionism. There haven’t been any specific details of allegations concerning his behaviour, but it’s been publicly alluded to before, with Whitmore, who was paired up with Pernice for the 2016 series, previously writing of her time on Strictly: “I was placed with a dance partner I was extremely uncomfortable with – and in the end I felt broken, I cried every day. And I really was broken, both mentally and physically, by the end.”

The Irish presenter was Pernice’s second ever celebrity pairing on Strictly. His first partner was Corrie’s Georgia May Foote in 2015 – with his arrival on the show marking the first time he’d ever been to London. He has since spoken about how, because he didn’t speak English when he joined and “couldn’t understand anything”, he filmed the first season with a translator in his ear.

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Born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1990, Pernice left his home aged 14, moving to Bologna to live alone and chase his ambitions of becoming a professional dancer. He trained at a top school in the Italian city, specialising in Latin dance. “I was properly living on my own and I really had to grow up quickly,” he wrote in The Times.

Singh was partnered with Pernice in 2020
Singh was partnered with Pernice in 2020 (BBC)

He has talked a lot about the difficulty of being alone so much when he was young, telling The Guardian: “It begins to feed itself – this lifestyle of being on your own can push you towards a more focused mindset. There are no distractions. Then came the experience of winning – something I became addicted to. The first time I won a competition, I thought: ‘Being the champion feels nice. Let me have more of it!’”

After leaving school, he went on to become an award-winning performer, with his biggest accolade being the top prize for the Italian Open Championship in 2012. Three years later, his Strictly adventure began, and he now holds the record for most 10s ever awarded on the show, with a total of 98. His win with Strictly’s first ever deaf contestant, EastEnders actor Rose Ayling-Ellis, was historic. She said she loved dancing with him because, as an Italian, he is “very direct”: “When they talk, they don’t waffle or use metaphors, because that’s just confusing for deaf people.” The duo went on to win a Bafta TV award for their spectacular silent dance, universally celebrated as one of the most powerful, boundary-breaking moments in the show’s 20-year history.

RosAyling-Ellis and Pernice were awarded the must-see moment Bafta TV award for their silent dance
RosAyling-Ellis and Pernice were awarded the must-see moment Bafta TV award for their silent dance (PA Media)

Pernice has described himself as a “workaholic”, writing in The Times: “I’m such a workaholic, I don’t really do holidays. I’ve never been on a mates’ break.” And he is certainly a perfectionist. He has opened up before, on Spencer Matthews’ Big Fish podcast, about finding it hard to balance romance with his career. “It’s impossible sometimes,” he said, “but that’s the reason why most of the dance couples are together, because it’s either this or nothing.” He added that dancing puts a “lot of pressure” on his ability to have a “normal” relationship, but insisted: “I do believe that behind a big man there is an even bigger woman, which means that if a woman understands what I want and what I want to achieve then she will be the right one.” In recent years, Pernice has had relationships with Love Island‘s Maura Higgins, Pussycat Doll Ashley Roberts, his former Strictly partner Georgia May Foote and fellow pro Jowita Przystal.

Speaking to The Guardian about how disciplined he has had to be in his career, he said: “The journey getting to where I am today took hard work and a lot of sacrifices, but it was worth it. From those teenage years onwards, I had competitions every week.” He’s been so set on training that he’s missed numerous Christmases and birthdays over the years.

Pernice’s work ethic aside, Strictly fans know the dancer as a dapper, unflappable presence. Debbie McGee enjoyed being paired with him in 2017 – in January she supported him by posting on Instagram that they had had the “best of times” together.

After the torrid headlines though, it’s been odd to see him on a jolly with fellow Strictly pro Anton du Beke in their recent BBC travel show Adventures in Spain. It was awkward timing for the BBC, but the corporation was promoting the series – in which we see Pernice suffer from vertigo on the Caminito del Rey and engaging in banter with du Beke – heavily on its socials.

What really happens between Pernice and his celebrity partners in rehearsals? Is he too tough? Or simply direct? Whatever the answer, this story isn’t quite over yet.

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