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Interview

Shirley Ballas on Strictly and survival: ‘I always vowed that I would support women’

Thanks to ‘bullying men at the top’, Shirley Ballas was on the brink of quitting the dance world to become a fitness instructor. Then she was made ‘Strictly’ head judge. She tells Katie Rosseinsky about this year’s star cast, family grief, finding her voice and the unexpected emotional significance of rhinestones

Saturday 11 November 2023 06:30 GMT
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Family values: ‘This show doesn’t leave anybody behind. When you’re on board, they’re very protective’
Family values: ‘This show doesn’t leave anybody behind. When you’re on board, they’re very protective’ (PA/iStock)

When Shirley Ballas returns home late on a Saturday night, having dished out compliments and critiques to Strictly Come Dancing’s celebrity hopefuls, she has one final job left: a debrief with her 86-year-old mother, Audrey. “As tired as I am, I know she’ll be sitting at the breakfast counter, dressing gown on, rollers in, arms folded, and she wants to give me her full lowdown on the show she’s just watched,” she smiles. “What she liked, what she didn’t, ‘why did this one go home?’ It’s like the third degree.” She briefly slips into the theatrical cadences she puts to good use as the BBC show’s head judge and all-round queen bee. “And I love it.” 

It’s an irresistible image: 63-year-old Ballas still resplendent in her sparkly eye make-up and primetime finery, getting cross-examined in the kitchen like an errant teen returning from a night out. These tête-à-têtes give her “balance” after the adrenaline rush of filming, she says when we meet over Zoom. “When [mum] tells me the show is phenomenal, because she’s not over-complimentary, I know it’s in a good place.” The dancer turned TV star, who replaced the late Len Goodman on the Strictly panel in 2017, is speaking from the study of the south London home she shares with Audrey. She is wearing a green sweater vest and white shirt; when she gestures to emphasise a point, you can just spot the “SB” monogram at the cuff. The only sign of Strictly-esque razzle-dazzle is the fluffy pink cover on the back of her office chair, to protect it from scratches. But even off-duty, she sprinkles the conversation with the kind of old-school showbiz glamour you’d expect from the “Queen of Latin” (that fluffy cover is “practical, darling, not for show”). 

Surely the current series has been enough to satisfy even Audrey’s stringent standards. We’ve had high kicks from 79-year-old Angela Rippon, the oldest contestant in Strictly history; Channel 4 newsreader Krishnan Guru-Murthy donning eyeliner for a Cabaret-themed Charleston; and some jaw-dropping routines from the show’s latest same-sex couple, actor Layton Williams and pro Nikita Kuzmin. “[The BBC] want to make it as diverse and as inclusive as they possibly can,” Ballas notes. “And that goes for the Sunday evening [results] show, too, when we’ve had young ladies dancing together, men dancing together, we’ve really tried to [make sure] everything is included within the show, without the show losing the glitz, the glamour, baubles, bangles and beads. And that’s quite a feat to navigate.”  

We’ve had a dash of backstage upheaval, with actor Amanda Abbington leaving for “personal reasons” a few weeks in (Ballas, like the rest of the show’s team, is keeping schtum on the specifics). And it’s been a season suffused with emotion too. Last week, tennis player Annabel Croft danced a Couple’s Choice routine in tribute to her late husband, leaving the judging panel (and plenty of viewers) in bits. “Motsi [Mabuse] and I didn’t want to use our sleeves as a hanky,” Ballas says. “I think that we both weren’t expecting to be so overcome … And of course, my gorgeous Anton du Beke, knowing his girls, had already brought tissues.” Good old dependable Anton, ready with the Kleenex. She’s also been captivated by Guru-Murthy’s “emotional journey”. “Now he’s reconnected back with his family, and they keep saying to him, ‘You look really happy.’ And now he questions whether he’s shown that happiness throughout raising his children. And I think it’s just beautiful to watch him grow. [The contestants] all grow from the Strictly experience, for sure.” This evening’s upcoming show, she promises, will be pivotal. “You will really feel hot. Tension. Sizzle” – she enunciates each word, that theatrical streak jumping out again – “because everyone wants to go to Blackpool” to perform at the Tower Ballroom (“by far the best dance floor in the entire world… and I’ve danced on all of them!”). 

She and her Strictly colleagues have also been feeling the absence of pro dancer Amy Dowden. A former pupil of Ballas’s, the 33-year-old has taken time off while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. “I talk to Amy about once a week – she’s one of the most powerful, strong ladies that I know,” Ballas says, full of warmth as she praises Dowden’s decision to go without a wig during a surprise Strictly appearance last month. “She wanted to share with the nation – with any small children, anybody going through the same as her – and say, ‘look, I’m on national television, this is what I’m dealing with. And it’s OK.’” Dowden, she adds, “is hoping to dance by the Christmas shows – and I wouldn’t be surprised if she does, you know, God willing. This show doesn’t leave anybody behind. When you’re on board, they’re very protective. If you choose to leave, then that’s your choice. But whilst you’re under this umbrella, they’re always very, very aware of what situations you’re going through or what’s going on in your life.”  

With her fellow judges Craig Revel Horwood, Motsi Mabuse and Anton du Beke (BBC/Guy Levy)

Ballas has had first-hand experience of this support. Since joining Strictly in 2017, she has faced cruel trolling on social media, and last year revealed that the BBC had offered her counselling to deal with the onslaught (this season, she has hired an assistant to sift through her messages). And she also knows what it’s like to have to plaster on a smile for the TV cameras, show-must-go-on style, while dealing with personal tragedy. Last year, her son Mark (a three-time Dancing With the Stars winner, who she shares with her ex-husband and former dance partner Corky Ballas) and his wife BC Jean lost a baby through miscarriage. The couple – who are now expecting their first child – are based in Los Angeles; Ballas was filming Strictly at the time. “We cried all night,” she recalled in a recent tweet about those phone calls from the US. “They’d waited a long time for their miracle baby,” she tells me, warning that she’s “going to get all emotional” at the memory. “And then to lose it, and for Mark not to be able to be in the hospital with his wife, and I couldn’t be there because I was on Strictly here – it was one of the most difficult things as a family that we’ve ever had to endure. And we endured it just as a family: we chose not to share it at the time because we didn’t want to spoil anybody else’s moment on TV or anything like that.”  

We struggled way beyond anything anybody will ever realise. I would find myself in Wales doing a competition with no way of getting home

She has “compartmentalised” her emotions during her professional life since the death of her brother, David, in 2003; he died by suicide aged 44. He “was 18 months older than me and would protect me with his life” when they were growing up on the Leasowe housing estate on the Wirral, she says. “I learnt a long time ago when my brother passed away, and I had to do some [dance] work in my own industry. And my mother grabbed my arm as I was walking out the door because she could see I was still a bumbling mess. It was my first day back at work. She said: ‘Listen to me, young lady, you hang your problem at the door and you pick it up on the way out. And you get on with your work.’ And I think I’ve adopted that pretty much all my life.”  

Ballas rose from the Leasowe Estate to the very top of the dance world. At 23, she won the British Open Latin Championships with her partner and first husband Sammy Stopford (in the dance world, they earned the nickname “the non-stop Stopfords”). After she married Corky Ballas in 1985, she trained him up; the pair were crowned US Latin champions seven times. Looking back at this remarkable ascent, I’m struck by her resilience: she credits this, of course, to mum Audrey, who brought her and David up alone after their father left when Ballas was two years old. Audrey would juggle “three or four jobs, just to keep two kids going” – at one point, she even got a licence to operate a forklift truck in the local Cadbury factory (“I have a photograph somewhere, actually”) in order to “just get a few pounds more” for the family.  

Hooked on dancing from the age of seven, when she stumbled across a class in a local church hall, Ballas would spend hours travelling back and forth alone between competitions. “We struggled way beyond anything anybody will ever realise,” she recalls, her tone matter-of-fact, but a little quieter. “I would find myself in Wales doing a competition with no way of getting home. I literally would walk around at age 11 or 12, asking every single person in the ballroom to see if they wouldn’t mind doing a detour to take me home.”  

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Ballas started dancing aged seven and climbed to the very top of her industry (PA)

Did she experience classism as a young dancer? “When I look back now, yes, for sure,” she replies decisively. It seems like this was tinged with straightforward jealousy, too. When Ballas was about 11 or 12, her mum “was able to manage to buy the dress” she needed for a competition, “but we didn’t have enough money for the rhinestones”. Her dance partner’s sister stepped in to decorate the gown with gems, but a year later, Ballas had found a new partner. “So we split up and she took all those stones off the dress. And of course, I had to compete with it with just the glue on.”  

The grown-ups weren’t much better either. The mother of a girl that she used to dance with was so incensed when Ballas was paired up with “the best boy” that she would make hurtful jibes about her skin. “I had a few spots on my face, and she’d say, ‘you’re going to end up with a crater face,’” she says. “It starts building low self-esteem. You don’t realise it at the time, but you’re looking at yourself and thinking: ‘Do I have that kind of skin? What are people talking about when I go out in the dress that’s got no stones on? Or are people talking behind my back because I couldn’t afford tan, or because I’ve got an old pair of dancing shoes on?’” When she has to face negativity online, it can bring back these memories. “You only have to look on the computer – if we send somebody home, people come out and say all sorts of horrible things about you. And it takes me back to that time when it was the same.” These days, she tries to be pragmatic. “When I go into work, I think: ‘OK, this all comes with that. I can do that, but I’ve got to accept everything that comes with it. That’s what it was like as a little girl. There’s going to be the mean people, there’s going to be those people that won’t give you a ride or lend you a couple of pounds.”  

She has zero qualms about describing the world of professional dance as “a mean industry”, which feels like an understatement. There’s a casual cruelty to some of the critiques she still remembers clearly from her own dancing days, like when one teacher told her, six weeks after she had given birth to Mark: “I refuse to look at your stretch marks, and as for the wobbling on your legs – get a pair of tights on, it’s disgusting.” It is no surprise that she developed a tough exterior. “I’ve just had to be careful over the years not to build walls up around me so that people can’t see the real me.”

Seven years ago, before the BBC came calling, she “was being bullied out of [dance] by men at the top” and was seriously considering packing it all in to “be a keep-fit instructor”. It’s not too hard to imagine her as a no-messing, terrifyingly effective aerobics teacher, but the fitness industry’s loss was certainly telly’s gain. Strictly, she says, has been a “life-changing” gig, not because it has made her a household name but because it has helped her get her voice back beyond the ballroom. “Of course, who doesn’t want to go into work on that Saturday morning and see all these beautiful humans?” she says with a flourish. But the show’s platform has helped her raise money and awareness for causes close to her, like the suicide prevention charity Calm (the campaign against living miserably). She did a sponsored skydive for it last year: “[Mum] showed me that you can accomplish things that people say you’re too old to do.” 

The light and shade of her experience in dance “made me grow as a human being”, she reflects now. “I always vowed that I would support women, or support anybody who needed help. It moulded me: I’d look and I’d think ‘I never want to be like that, I never want to be that person.’” And, she adds, returning to that dance competition of yesteryear, “I certainly would never take all the rhinestones off somebody’s dress just as a personal vendetta.” 

‘Strictly Come Dancing’ continues on Saturday night at 6.05pm on BBC One & BBC iPlayer 

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you are in another country, you can go to befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

You can contact the Miscarriage Association helpline on 01924 200799 or email the charity at info@miscarriageassociation.org.uk. The helpline is open from 9am to 4pm Monday to Friday.

For more information, help and support regarding pregnancy loss, you can contact Tommy’s on 0800 0147 800.

To contact Petals to enquire about the charity’s counselling services, you can call 0300 688 0068 or email counselling@petalscharity.org.

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