Growing up in working-class Blackburn, AJ ODUDU was told that a TV career was an unattainable dream. Now a Strictly favourite, she reveals what made her ‘keep knocking’ when every door was closed.
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How on earth is AJ Odudu still going? ‘I was up until four this morning,’ says the television presenter who has been one of the breakout stars of this year’s Strictly Come Dancing, with her loud laugh, long legs, no-nonsense Northern attitude and an ability to move to music that is simply extraordinary for someone with no previous dance training at all.
‘I am always wired after the show because of the adrenaline; it takes me so long to decompress,’ says the 33-year-old late on a Sunday afternoon, after a Saturday that would defeat most of us. Strictly dress rehearsals at Elstree Studios were followed by the competition itself –a marathon of mental and physical exertion.
As ever, her mother Florence was in the audience, looking glorious in traditional Nigerian dress and clapping hard for a daughter she is clearly very proud of. It’s mutual.
‘Me and my mum go home afterwards and we have pizza and a glass of fizz and watch the show together in the early hours of the morning,’ says AJ, who lives in a three-bedroom Victorian house in Southeast London. ‘It takes until we’ve watched the end of the show for me to feel like I can relax.’
Somehow, despite all this, she appears full of energy. ‘When you’ve got a job to do, you dig your heels in and get it done.’
That’s the way she was taught by her mum. The story of a cleaner’s daughter from Blackburn who captured the hearts of millions on the nation’s favourite dance show is really quite remarkable. But first, on behalf of all those fans who have seen the sizzling chemistry between AJ and her professional dance partner Kai Widdrington, I have to ask: is there romance in the air?
‘I’ve always been quite open about the fact that I’m single,’ she says, which is both careful and revealing, ‘but because I’ve suffered so much heartache in previous relationships– and have been cheated on – when it comes to romance I’m definitely not the sort of person to just jump into something.’
The so-called curse of Strictly doesn’t apply here. We’ve seen marriages break up in the past, when celebrities and professionals have fallen for each other on this show, but AJ and Kai would be getting together as two single people, wouldn’t they? ‘Yeah. What is wrong with that? Nothing, is the answer.’
So there we are. If the closeness they clearly feel after spending so many hours every day pressed up against each other is indeed leading to deeper feelings, there is nothing in her mind to stop it going further. ‘But while I love that people have this newfound interest in my life, I’m still very much focused on being the best that I can be as a dancer. I spend at least ten hours a day trying to remember the routine, dance in heels and all that jazz. Then there’s the anxiety of performing in front of millions. So I still want people to admire what my feet and arms are doing on the dancefloor, rather than what’s happening off it.’
AJ was ecstatic when the Strictly call came earlier this year. ‘I said, “Clear the diary, cancel all plans, I’ll be there!” It’s a show I’ve loved watching for years. My mum loves it, too. That was always an easy Christmas present for her: tickets to the Strictly tour. This year she gets to watch it up close and personal. She’s having the best time, and her joy is my joy, so it’s brilliant.’
Was she fit enough already? ‘I’m one of those annoying people who runs for fun. I’ve run the London Marathon. I’ve always found strength in being able to move my body the way I want to. So rather naively, I went into Strictly thinking: “I’ll be fit enough for this.” But learning the jive in week one, I was shocked to the core.’
AJ is no stranger to a challenge. She ended up in therapy after the mental trauma caused by a 13-hour interrogation on Ant Middleton’s brutal boot-camp series SAS: Who Dares Wins? in 2019 where she was blindfolded with a bag over her head, placed in stress positions and played nightmare-inducing sounds. She claims Strictly is every bit as hard, physically. ‘I had blisters on day one. It’s one thing being fit, but “dance fit” is something else. You feel it in places you didn’t think possible – it’s mind-blowing. But I need every single hour of training because I’ve never danced before.’
Some people have a hard time believing that, because she is so good. The former Strictly professional James Jordan has said publicly that it’s impossible to do what she has without training – it’s as if someone who had never played golf before came out and hit an astounding four under par. So what is the truth? How much dance experience has she really had? ‘Literally zero. I am flattered that people think I’ve had dance training. I wish I had – It would make the process a lot easier. My experience has been stomping around the Northern nightclubs. The dancefloors of Preston and dancehalls in Blackburn back in the day: Heaven& Hell, Liquid & Envy, Jumpin’ Jak’s, all of that.’
Any success AJ is now enjoying ultimately stems from her mother Florence–a strong woman who raised strong women. Florence grew up in poverty in the south of Nigeria and came to England in the 1970s for an arranged marriage with a student called James Odudu, who later worked as a bus conductor. ‘This was a man she’d never met before. She barely spoke English. She wasn’t educated. Blackburn was a working-class white town. She felt very lonely and decided to build her own family, so proceeded to have eight children.’ (AJ has five brothers and two sisters.)
Life was hard. ‘It was a real struggle. She was a seamstress, a dinner lady and a cleaner at the same time.’ Florence worked at a private school in Blackburn and asked for the books they threw out at the end of each term, to give to her kids. ‘Mum didn’t know how to read, but she was very strict and we’d have spelling tests with my big sister and read from the books.’
There were very few other African families around so when AJ was racially abused at school she told her mother – who was having none of it. ‘Her attitude was just to be glad we were getting educated – and for free.’ Where Florence was raised, only boys were educated; it was deemed a ‘waste’ to do so for girls. ‘Mum would say: “You’ve got to overlook [the racism] or it’s going to hold you back. You’ve got to knuckle down and remember this isn’t going to be the making of you. You are not what they say you are.” She was very strict.’
AJ – whose given name is Onatejiro– grew up with very little money. ‘We didn’t have a shower at home – we had bucket baths. I hated water being on my face –I jumped into the massive pond in Corporation Park in Blackburn when I was six and nearly drowned. I’ve been scared of water ever since– so Mum would shampoo my hair while I was sat on the toilet, then my big brothers would turn me upside down and dunk my head into the bucket to rinse it off.’ But home was a safe, warm sanctuary. ‘It didn’t matter what had happened at school, I would come home and it was always really fun.’
And it was during those happy times she first dreamed of this career. ‘Saturdays were our days to watch TV as a family: Live& Kicking on BBC One in the morning. These programmes excited me. I said to Mum: “I really want to be inside the telly.” And she said: “You can.”’
That was totally against the attitude of those around her in Blackburn at the time. ‘When you said at school that you wanted to work in telly when everyone’s parents are cleaners and dinner ladies it’s a ridiculous thing to think. This was a working-class town, we didn’t know anyone who worked in TV or even journalism. Everyone’s aspiration at the time was to work in Debenhams. I knew that wasn’t for me.’
AJ left to study English and politics at Keele University in Staffordshire, then got a job as a reporter at BBC Lancashire. When she eventually made it to the capital and was trying to get a break in broadcasting she ran into another obstacle: her Lancashire accent.
‘A TV executive, who’d already hired me, out of nowhere told me I had to lose my accent. They said: “Oh, we can book you some accent cancelling. You can do that in elocution lessons.”’ AJ was angry. ‘I found it really offensive. You sound how you sound.’
After presenting the spin-off show Big Brother’s Bit On The Side, AJ was dropped by Channel 4. ‘After my contract didn’t get re-signed I was out of TV for a couple of years. I was really down.’
But rather than wallowing, AJ did what she always has – and what her mum raised her to do – she dug in and worked harder.
‘I qualified as a personal trainer instead. I concentrated on things that were going to make me happy and get my mojo back. I set up a YouTube channel, became a fitness blogger. It was fun.’
AJ slowly worked her way back into television, hosting the junior version of The Voice, but over the past couple of years her popularity has really surged with appearances on The Chase, Richard Osman’s House of Games, The Wheel, an all-black revival of The Big Breakfast with Mo Gilligan and Would I Lie to You?
Suddenly, it seems people really want what she has to offer. ‘Your individuality is the best thing you have. Mum has always shown me that, through her sense of style, her strong Nigerian accent and her big personality. You’ve got to back yourself to the point of madness. When everyone’s saying the way you are is not right for the place you want to be, you have to stand your ground and say: “This is the package you’re getting, deal with it.”’
There’s another side to this though, which emerges as we talk about Emma and AJ Get To Work, a show she has done for the W channel with fellow presenter Emma Willis, travelling around the country to meet people rebuilding businesses after Covid. ‘We genuinely wanted to help. So when we went to see a family who run the Mumbles pier we cleaned the arcade, we jet-washed the pier, we worked in a chippie, we put on a party, I dressed in a teddy bear’s outfit,’ she says. ‘It was really beautiful to see the strength in all of these people, to see why they kept going after they’d lost so much. And it’s a joyous series, because it shows how much we all need each other.’
Some of it touched a nerve. ‘I know what it’s like to feel you’re at rock bottom, when there’s nothing else to do but keep journeying through this dark tunnel, hoping to see the light.’
The encounter that touched her most deeply was with a black couple making candles in Aberdeen. ‘Their business really picked up after the Black Lives Matter protests last year, as people were trying to support black traders. They felt guilty that they were somehow receiving a little bit of a boost in the wake of something so dark,’ she says. ‘They’d been knocking on doors for their entire lives, they had always been made to feel like outsiders and now when they were getting success that they had worked so hard for, they were also made to feel guilty.’
She looks on the verge of tears now, seeing a parallel with her own situation. ‘That really got me. When you feel overlooked your entire life, then you get an opportunity and you question why you are getting it. You want your work to be recognised for what it truly is and you can’t help but think: “It’s convenient timing.”’
How does she mean? ‘You know, is this happening in the wake of protests that have happened around the world?
Is she saying that, after 12 years trying to get a big break in television, she is wary of the reasons it may be happening now? ‘Yeah. Everyone has been like: “Where have you been?” And I’m, like: “I’ve been here, banging at the door and you’ve finally opened it.”
‘In a world where people have often said I can’t do what I want to do, or be who I want to be – like be on telly as a black woman with such a strong Northern accent – Mum and my family have always told me that I can. That is what gives me power.’
Returning to the show that has put her in front of so many new admirers – what are her Strictly chances? ‘Anything is possible. I’m so happy that people have taken the time to watch and support me with kind messages and votes. I’ll definitely try. I’ll always try.’
Strictly Come Dancing continues on Saturday and Sunday nights on BBC One and BBC iPlayer. Emma and AJ Get To Work is on W, Mondays at 8pm
Additional imagery: Instagram/AJ Odudu
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