In focus

11 dramatic Strictly Come Dancing scandals, from Amanda Abbington’s exit to Seann and Katya’s kiss

As the BBC One show hits the headlines once again, Katie Rosseinsky looks back at some of the most dramatic on and off-screen moments from the competition series

Tuesday 21 May 2024 06:00 BST
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Giovanni Pernice, pictured with former dance partner Amanda Abbington, has denied allegations about his ‘Strictly’ teaching style
Giovanni Pernice, pictured with former dance partner Amanda Abbington, has denied allegations about his ‘Strictly’ teaching style (BBC/Guy Levy)

Even when Strictly Come Dancing is off-air, barely a few weeks seem to go by without the BBC’s shiny-floor show making headlines good and bad.

The competition, which sees professional dancers team up with celebrities to teach them some fancy footwork, recently celebrated its 20th birthday – but Strictly has also been in the news after pro and past winner Giovanni Pernice, who has been a fixture on the show for almost a decade, released a statement slamming speculation over his teaching methods.

The 33-year-old denied “any suggestion of abusive or threatening behaviour”, months after his most recent dance partner Amanda Abbington quit the series on medical grounds.

The saga surrounding Pernice is just the latest in a string of high-profile Strictly scandals, from rows over ageism to well-publicised love affairs (it’s become so common for contestants and dancers to fall for one another that the phenomenon has been branded the Strictly curse). Here are just a few of the show’s most dramatic moments.

‘Kissgate’

The Strictly curse hit hard in 2018, when comedian Seann Walsh was pictured kissing his dance partner Katya Jones outside a London pub (Walsh was in a relationship with actor Rebecca Humphries at the time, while Jones was married to fellow Strictly star Neil). Naturally, the grainy snaps ended up splashed all over the tabloids. How best to contain the scandal? By having the errant pair dance a cheesy, utterly sexless pizza-themed Charleston on the Saturday night live show (rather than the rumba they’d reportedly been planning instead). They lasted another week before being voted off.

Humphries later tweeted a statement in which she claimed that Walsh had called her “mental” and “psycho” when she questioned his behaviour (she also refused to apologise for taking their cat in the split). “I think everything she said in that statement is right,” Walsh later admitted on The Jonathan Ross Show. “And I think if you lie and cheat on the person you’re meant to care for and be in a relationship with, then that is a form of abuse, of course it is.” In the aftermath of the incident, the comic said he struggled with depression and panic attacks.

Stacey Dooley’s ex calls Kevin Clifton a “rat”

Stacey Dooley and Kevin Clifton got together a few months after winning the show
Stacey Dooley and Kevin Clifton got together a few months after winning the show (Getty Images for SOLT)

Was there something in the water in the Strictly ballroom during that 2018 season? A few months after Stacey Dooley won the glitterball trophy with dance partner Kevin Clifton, the journalist and TV presenter parted ways with her boyfriend Sam Tucknott and started dating Clifton. The couple had been together for five years, and Tucknott blamed the split on Clifton, who he branded a “rat” and a “snake” in a no-holds-barred interview.

Dooley and Clifton, meanwhile, maintained that there had been no overlap between the relationships. Looking back at the row, Dooley later said that she “didn’t want to get into a slanging match” with her ex. “[Kevin and I] started seeing each other months after the show had finished,” she added. “By then there was a brilliant foundation. We were so fond of one another. Kev has always respected me and I respected him.” The couple welcomed their first child, a daughter named Minnie, in 2023.

Craig Revel Horwood puts his foot in it

Craig Revel Horwood is never one to shy away from a barbed comment when he’s dishing out his verdict, but the long-time Strictly judge went a bit too far while filming the launch episode for the 2019 series. When asked by presenter Tess Daly what advice he would give to the show’s latest cohort of dancers, he told them to take inspiration from past winner Dooley – then reportedly added “of course, if you sleep with your dance partner that helps”, in a dig at her new relationship with Clifton. The incident reportedly brought filming to a halt, according to The Sun, and the sequence was re-filmed. Revel Horwood later issued an apology, saying he was “deeply sorry for the offence caused to Kevin and Stacey and everyone who works on the show”. He went on to admit that the comment was “hurtful, cruel and incredibly disrespectful” and described it as “a huge error of judgement that I very much regret”.

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Arlene Phillips’s departure sparks ageism debate

Arlene Phillips was axed from the panel while her male colleagues stayed put
Arlene Phillips was axed from the panel while her male colleagues stayed put (Getty Images)

After spending four years as part of Strictly’s original judging panel, choreographer Arlene Phillips was booted from the line-up in 2008, only to be replaced by Alesha Dixon, who was 35 years her junior (plus, her only dance experience came from her winning stint on Strictly the previous year). Phillips’s male colleagues all kept their jobs. The shake-up kickstarted a row about ageism and sexism in the TV industry, and Labour’s then-deputy leader Harriet Harman waded into the debate: during Commons questions, she described Phillips’s axing as “shocking” and said she was “suspicious that there is age discrimination there”.

Jay Hunt, then the controller of BBC One, hit back at those claims, arguing that age hadn’t been a factor in the decision. “When I looked at the four people we had, Bruno is the joker, Craig is the Simon Cowell of the show and Len is the head judge,” she said. “Arlene has elements of all of them, but when you look at it, Arlene was the obvious one to change.” Phillips returned to her career as a stage choreographer, and won an Olivier for her work on Guys and Dolls earlier this year, shortly before her 80th birthday. Looking back at her Strictly experience in a recent interview with The Guardian, she revealed that she felt angriest about the way the whole affair was handled. “I was a grown-up when I did that show, so I resent that the BBC didn’t come to me as soon as they had the thought,” she said.

John Sergeant bows out

God loves a trier and so do Strictly fans, apparently. In almost every season of the show, there’s one contender that manages to cling onto their place in the competition in spite of a total lack of natural rhythm – all because the public has taken them into its heart. The best example of this strange phenomenon remains two-left-footed broadcaster John Sergeant, who won over viewers in 2008 with his truly, ahem, unique style of dancing (who could forget when he dragged his partner Kristina Rihanoff across the floor during a Paso Doble?)

Despite repeatedly receiving low scores from the judges – a despairing Arlene Phillips claimed in an interview that he would “sit and read The Guardian” instead of rehearsing –  Sergeant managed to avoid the dreaded dance-off thanks to storming performances in the public vote. His success began to make judges, professionals and eliminated contestants feel a little irate… so in week 10 of the competition, Sergeant announced that he would be bowing out voluntarily. “The trouble is that there is now a real danger that I might win the competition,” he said. “Even for me that would be a joke too far.” The BBC ended up having to offer refunds to fans who had phoned up to vote for him.

Racism row

In 2009, Anton du Beke made headlines after it emerged that he had used a racial slur when speaking to his dance partner Laila Rouass in a rehearsal. “During the course of rehearsals Laila and I have exchanged a great deal of banter entirely in jest, and two weeks ago there was an occasion when this term was used between the two of us,” du Beke said in response. “There was no racist intent whatsoever but I accept that it is a term which causes offence and I regret my use of it, which was done without thought or consideration of how others would react.”

The incident prompted calls for the BBC to sack the Strictly veteran, but the broadcaster stood by du Beke. Footballers’ Wives star Rouass, meanwhile, said that she had accepted his apology and had “moved on” from the episode. However, then-presenter Sir Bruce Forsyth didn’t exactly help matters when he came to du Beke’s defence, saying: “We used to have a sense of humour about this. You go back 25, 30, 40 years and there has always been a bit of humour about the whole thing.” He later backtracked in a statement, noting that “the use of racially offensive language is never either funny or acceptable”.

Amanda Abbington leaves the show

Last autumn, actor Amanda Abbington and her dance partner Giovanni Pernice were storming up the Strictly leaderboards – there were even whispers that they might make it all the way to the final. But in the fifth week of the competition, Abbington quit, citing “medical reasons” (and the fact that she didn’t mention Pernice in her leaving message sent the rumour mill into overdrive). Then in January, reports emerged claiming that Abbington had requested rehearsal footage from her time on the show while allegedly seeking legal advice; the Sherlock star later revealed that she had been diagnosed with mild PTSD after her time on the show. Plus, she reportedly met with two of Pernice’s former dance partners, Good Morning Britain host Ranvir Singh and former Love Island presenter Laura Whitmore, for a “tearful summit”, where the trio apparently discussed their “difficult experiences”.

The saga took another turn when a report claimed that Pernice had quit the series; the BBC, however, did not confirm or deny the speculation, only stating that the line-up for the 2024 season would be released “in due course”. Over the weekend, the pro dancer posted a lengthy statement on his Instagram account, addressing speculation over his teaching style. “I reject any suggestion of abusive or threatening behaviour, and I look forward to clearing my name,” he wrote. “Those who have followed my journey on Strictly Come Dancing over the last decade will know that I am passionate and competitive. No one is more ambitious for their dance partners than me.”

The Strictly curse hits Joe Calzaghe

Kristina Rihanoff paired up with dance partner Joe Calzaghe after the seventh series finished
Kristina Rihanoff paired up with dance partner Joe Calzaghe after the seventh series finished (Getty Images for MTV)

Just a week into the seventh season of Strictly, boxer Joe Calzaghe split up with his long-time girlfriend, and denied that the break-up had anything to do with his new dance partner, Kristina Rihanoff. “We really enjoy the training, and that’s about it really,” he said. Not long after, though, the pair confirmed that they were in a relationship. Their eventual split in 2013 came just a few weeks before the start of another season of Strictly, in which Rihanoff was paired up with rugby player Ben Cohen.

Cohen broke up with his wife the following year, and later started up a relationship with Rihanoff (he denied speculation that he’d ended the marriage to be with her, though). The pair are now parents to a young daughter, Milena, and are planning their wedding.

Voting confusion

It’s entirely possible to be a devoted Strictly fan and have precisely zero idea how the voting process actually works. But in 2008, the system went belly-up during the semi-final, when it became clear that fans wouldn’t actually be able to save Holby City star Tom Chambers from the dance-off, however many times they voted. How come? Former S Club singer Rachel Stevens and presenter Lisa Snowdon had received exactly the same score from the judging panel - which was so high that even if every single person watching voted in his favour, Chambers would end up in the dance-off. A few hours later, the BBC announced that all three contestants would be going through to the final, with all the votes carried over into the next week. Ofcom received almost 300 complaints about the debacle, but did not sanction the BBC over the mix-up, as it had “resulted from an oversight”.

Strictly love triangle

Flavia Cacace and Vincent Simone were hit by the ‘Strictly’ curse
Flavia Cacace and Vincent Simone were hit by the ‘Strictly’ curse (Getty Images)

The Strictly curse can get even messier when there are not one but two dancers involved. Pros Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace had been together personally and professionally for years, but in 2007, Cacace was paired up with actor Matt Di Angelo. After the Strictly season ended, she called time on her relationship with Simone and started a relationship with the EastEnders star. They stayed together for a couple of years, and after their break-up, Cacace got together with actor Jimi Mistry (another of her Strictly partners). She’s now married to Mistry – and still works regularly with Simone. “Dancing is the reason that we were brought together,” she told the Evening Standard. “It’s the one thing that kept us together, and it’s the one thing we’re still doing now.”

James Jordan’s fiery departure

Professional dancer James Jordan left Strictly in 2014, after seven years on the show – but he didn’t go quietly. When the programme’s official Twitter account shared a goodbye message, wishing him luck and saying that the show would miss him and his fellow departing dancer Artem Chigvintsev, he re-posted it, adding the question: “So why sack me?” A BBC spokesperson said that Jordan had been “offered a reduced role on the show”, which meant he wouldn’t take part in the main competition but would still appear in special episodes. “It wasn’t to be partnered with a celebrity, but it was to be involved in specials such as Children in Need, that sort of thing,” they said. “But he declined that.” His wife Ola departed Strictly a year later, not long after she made controversial claims about the judges’ scoring (which BBC bosses denied). “In my opinion they know how many votes people scored in previous weeks and then they try to influence their position on the leaderboard,” she alleged. “If the show is not fair, it takes the fun out of it.”

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