She’s the Strictly star who’s smashing it on the West End stage. But behind Ashley Roberts’s success is a story of devastating loss. She opens up for the first time about her father’s suicide – and the new love who’s helping her to heal.
Next to a photo of herself as a child cuddling her father Pat, Ashley Roberts posted these heart-rending words on Instagram: ‘I’ve been in a state of shock, confusion, questioning, pain so deep in my guts it’s been hard to come up for air. Feeling like I don’t know how to move forward from here. What am I supposed to do with all this?’ Pat had died by suicide, aged 70, following ‘a long battle with physical and mental health’.
‘Nothing can really prepare you for the harsh reality of what I dealt with,’ says the former Pussycat Doll, 16 months on from those agonising days of March 2018. ‘It’s tough, it’s very challenging.’ But what saw Ashley, 37, through these darkest of times was the overwhelming love from the many British friends she’d made since semi-settling in London years ago and making a name for herself with her upbeat appearances on shows such as I’m a Celebrity, Saturday Night Takeaway and Strictly Come Dancing. After meeting Ant and Dec while in the jungle, and working with them on Takeaway, Ashley says she ‘loves’ the Geordie duo but insists there’s no substance to the rumour she and Dec had a fling: ‘We never dated. We’re just friends.’
That close bond is one of many she’s made in the UK. ‘The passing of my dad made me see how many amazing friends I have over here, who tried to scoop me up,’ says Ashley, who was brought up in Phoenix, Arizona before she began dividing her time between London and Los Angeles. ‘But I thought, “Why am I trying to fight this LA-London thing when everyone here is so supportive?”’
So she rented out her LA home and based herself permanently in London. ‘If someone had told me ten years ago that this would be my home and I’d be drinking builder’s tea and saying Brit things like “loo” and “rubbish”, I’d have been, like, “No way!”’ she laughs.
Shortly after her father’s death, she signed up to the 2018 season of Strictly, something she knew Pat – a car salesman who had drummed with The Mamas and The Papas of ‘California Dreamin’’ fame in the 1960s – would have adored. ‘My dad loved me performing – our strong connection was music and dancing,’ Ashley says. ‘He always wanted me to be back on stage and I know he would have been front row of Strictly if things were different, so I really feel like his soul was behind it.’
During the show’s run, Ashley paid a hugely moving tribute to her father by dedicating her emotion-packed contemporary dance to him. The judges gave it a near-perfect score of 39, leaving both her and head judge Shirley Ballas (whose brother also took his own life) in tears. Ashley, who was paired with professional dancer Pasha Kovalev, was eventually joint runner-up behind winner Stacey Dooley. Throwing herself into Strictly rehearsals not only provided Ashley with a distraction from her grief, it also opened career avenues she never could have imagined. First radio station Heart FM, about to relaunch its breakfast show nationally, asked her to be its showbiz correspondent, alongside presenters Jamie Theakston and Amanda Holden: ‘It’s good vibes – they’re giggly and bringing in a good energy.’
Then came a call from the casting director of Waitress, the Broadway hit musical written by seven-time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles that was transferring to the West End. Ashley was offered the role of ‘eccentric and neurotic’ singleton Dawn, one of three waitresses in a diner in the American Deep South. ‘It’s so weird – radio and musicals were never really goals for me. Growing up my idols were Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul and I was into pop – edgier stuff,’ she says. ‘But what’s been awesome about my life is that it’s taken so many twists. That’s been challenging at times but it’s exciting too.’
The result is that on the morning we meet Ashley is looking cool in ripped jeans and a T-shirt under a chic beige raincoat (‘I just never know how to dress for English summers’), but also just a tiny bit wan. ‘I’m a little spacey today,’ she confirms. ‘Normally I’m really silly but I’m feeling tired.’
Ashley’s been up since 5.30am to arrive at Heart’s Central London studios for a 6.30am start. The night before, she gave an energetic performance of Waitress at the Adelphi Theatre, having just a few hours earlier entertained the matinée audience, making it into bed around 11pm. It’s a relentless cycle with Sunday her only day off. ‘I started the radio show and learning Waitress at the same time,’ says Ashley. ‘I’d kind of thought, “Oh, I just need to learn the lines,” but what I hadn’t anticipated is on stage we really are waitresses. You need to bring a coffee to one table and a sugar to another one – there’s a lot of busy-ness. But, hey, I’m getting to do some cool things and I lasted eight years with The Pussycat Dolls, so I can manage a couple of months of this.’
Ashley’s always been a grafter. As a teenager living with her pilates-teacher mother Peggy (she and Pat divorced when Ashley was 14), she worked three jobs – one front-of-house in a restaurant (‘Never actually waitressing’) – to earn the $1,000 she needed to move to LA where she’d always dreamed of living. ‘I’d got a taste of that city when I was young and there were so many eccentric, colourful, free-spirited people there I was, like, “This is my tribe.” I feel the same way about London. I always knew Phoenix wouldn’t cut it for me.’
She arrived in LA aged 19 and by 21 was launched as one of the six members of raunchy girl band The Pussycat Dolls. They sold millions of records worldwide, but their huge global success with hits such as ‘Don’t Cha’ was overshadowed by rumours of infighting, centring on lead vocalist Nicole Scherzinger, who was apparently given preferential treatment over her band mates.
Today, Ashley doesn’t want to dwell on tricky times. ‘When you spend your 20s travelling the world, experiencing all sorts of different things, that’s a bond you’ll have for life no matter what,’ she says. She’s extremely close to fellow Doll Kimberly Wyatt, who also lives in London, while all rumoured rifts with Nicole were forgotten when she showed up at the Strictly studio to watch Ashley do the charleston. ‘It felt really supportive that she came,’ Ashley says.
When Ashley left The Dolls in 2010 (the band split later that year) she was exhausted and her confidence was at a low ebb. ‘I just wanted to feel the fire for performing that I’d once had so I took acting classes, I hiked mountains, I sat with gurus and chanted mantras,’ she says.
All these techniques proved hugely useful when it came to coping for many years with the stress of dealing with her father’s mental illness, not to mention his financial problems. He went bankrupt in 2005 – something sources at the time said ‘hit the family hard’ – and was later accused of defrauding investors. Ashley is still visibly uneasy talking about him. She also dislikes discussing her brother Jayce, 32, who has schizophrenia and has had spells in prison for offences such as theft, but now lives in an institution in Arizona, simply saying, ‘I speak to him every now and then and tell him I love him.’
Yet after speaking publicly about her father’s death, Ashley says, ‘I find it hard to deal with the fact I opened up about Dad [on Instagram], but my intention was hopefully to bring awareness. I was very lucky that I was able to gather tools to help me understand and digest where he was coming from in terms of his mental health.’
Ashley’s advice to anyone suffering from mental-health problems – or with a family member suffering – is to reach out. ‘There are organisations such as Mind and Calm [the Campaign Against Living Miserably – leading a movement against male suicide]. There are life coaches, there’s meditation, there are podcasts, there’s so much that can help you deal with this and feel like you’re not alone.’
Today, Ashley tries to celebrate Pat’s life rather than dwell on the circumstances surrounding his death. ‘I’ve made a conscious choice to remember the good times. I’ve got a picture on my wall of Dad playing the drums because that was his essence and how I want to think of him. Dad was an artist: funny, silly and creative. My goofiness and my performing side definitely come from him.’
On Strictly, Ashley became great friends with Pasha, who is currently expecting a baby with his wife and former Strictly partner, Countdown’s Rachel Riley (‘He’s going to be such a great dad; he’s such a gentleman and a kind soul’). Earlier this year, he announced he wouldn’t be returning to Strictly in the autumn. ‘Ours was his eighth season and I think, in the back of Pasha’s head, he was questioning if he wanted to continue,’ Ashley says. ‘After the final he said, “You really reminded me how much I love to dance.” That meant a lot to me.’
Other buddies Ashley acquired included fellow finalist and YouTuber Joe Sugg and Stacey Dooley (‘Such lil’ sweethearts!’), not to mention her current boyfriend, professional dancer Giovanni Pernice, 28, who partnered Faye Tozer. ‘We had chemistry doing the show and we were communicating but – I’m not just saying this – I was really focused on Strictly, so I said to Giovanni, “I can’t deny there’s something going on, but can we wait until the show’s done to find out if it’s going anywhere?”’
As soon as the final wrapped, the pair jetted off to Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean, with Giovanni missing Christmas with his Sicilian family to spend it with Ashley. ‘We had such a nice time and it progressed from there,’ she grins. Even by Strictly’s standards, last year produced a ludicrous number of couples – Joe and his professional partner Dianne Buswell, Stacey (who had a boyfriend) and her partner Kevin Clifton. What was in the water? ‘Gosh, I don’t know what was going on but Giovanni and I were both single and we had a real spark.’
Right now, the couple aren’t seeing much of each other as Giovanni’s touring with his own show Here Come The Boys, but he was there with Pasha for Ashley’s opening night in Waitress. ‘He’s more excited about me doing a musical than I am – he’s seen Aladdin eight times and Dreamgirls 12 times,’ she laughs.
Judging by their Instagram shots – having fun, always cheek to cheek – the couple are totally loved-up. So are they discussing babies? ‘I guess my biological clock should be ticking. You see these headlines warning you only have so much time and it puts stuff in your head, so I was worried about all that last year, but then I was, like, “I’m not even going to put that out into the universe; if children are meant to be, they’re meant to be,”’ Ashley says. ‘Now I’m too busy to think about it. Let’s see what next year has in store and take it bit by bit. I feel young inside and if things don’t work out timing-wise, there’s adoption, there are other avenues I can take.’
For now, Ashley is preparing for her first meeting with Giovanni’s family, who are visiting London for his show. ‘They don’t speak English so I’m just going to use sign language. I’ve told Giovanni that after Waitress I’ll get an Italian tutor,’ she laughs, relishing the challenge. ‘My life has been a full spectrum. I’ve experienced extreme highs and extreme lows. But it’s an adventure. I don’t know what’s going to happen next – I’m just enjoying the moment.’
Ashley is appearing in Waitress until 10 August at the Adelphi Theatre, London WC2 (waitressthemusical.co.uk), and is on the Heart FM Breakfast show every weekday from 6.30am