Debbie McGee flew the over-50s flag on Strictly with her enviable energy and incredible flexibility – those splits! And she isn’t wasting precious time worrying about what comes next.
There are two things everyone knows about Debbie McGee, and they’re both things other people have said about her. The first is the phrase ‘the lovely Debbie McGee’, which is how her magician husband Paul Daniels always described her when she was his assistant on his hit TV show in the 1980s. And the second is from comedian Caroline Aherne who, as Mrs Merton, famously asked her the funny but barbed question: ‘What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?’
It used to make them laugh, the couple said afterwards, because Paul wasn’t a millionaire when Debbie first met him. But they got the last laugh, enjoying 28 years of happy marriage, which only ended when Paul, who was 20 years older than Debbie, died in 2016.
But Debbie is now in the spotlight in her own right: as a talented and dedicated dancer who has wowed fans of Strictly Come Dancing, and as a standard-bearer for women who don’t see why they need to lower their ambitions just because they’re in their 50s or 60s. Debbie is 59, and she’s far and away the star of the Strictly live show when I see her perform in Leeds – she and her dance partner, 27-year-old Italian Giovanni Pernice, get the biggest cheers as they swirl across the floor.
Meeting her the next morning in her hotel, Debbie is immaculately made up and wearing a black and white polka-dot blouse. She seems very comfortable in her own skin, sipping her green juice – a poster girl for staying fit into midlife, Debbie oozes confidence and fizzes with energy.
Since Paul’s death she’s worked as hard as ever; but for a fortnight last summer she took time out to follow the ancient pilgrimage route across Spain to Santiago de Compostela, the burial place of St James, for a BBC Two series, Pilgrimage. Throughout the 135km trek, alongside celebrities including former Men Behaving Badly actor Neil Morrissey, singer Heather Small and ex-Gogglebox star the Rev Kate Bottley, Debbie carried everything she needed on her back. It seems to have worked its magic. Here Debbie talks marriage, widowhood, faith and her everything-to-play-for future.
When Paul was alive, people used to say, ‘You take too much of a back seat.’ Or, ‘You spoil him too much.’ Friends knew I was talented and didn’t like me in the background. But that was my choice: it was what I wanted. Women have come a long way and we sometimes need to fight, but we also need to understand one another. If you’re in a relationship with a man you must learn about that man’s needs, and he must learn about yours. The way we lived suited us both. I wanted a happy marriage and that’s what we had. Being with Paul mattered more to me than doing anything else.
Since he died I’ve become stronger. I’ve always been independent, but I’d got used to having someone else there. We worked very well as a team. I’m a positive person: Paul was very upbeat, but I think I was more positive than him. My view is that what happens to you is going to happen so don’t fight it, go with it.
Paul always wanted me to do Strictly Come Dancing. He’d be thrilled by all the attention I’m getting now because of it. He was on the show in 2010 and he loved it, though he was voted out in the second round. I’d been keen to do it for ages but I never thought I’d be chosen because I have some dance experience, and also I thought I wasn’t a big enough name. But a year after Paul died, they called. I was over the moon.
On the Strictly tour earlier this year I was the oldest contestant by far. Next closest in age was Joe McFadden, and he’s only 42. I can’t believe the response I got – it was amazing. I had teenagers coming up to me and saying, ‘When I’m your age I want to look like you,’ and, ‘I want to have your energy.’ People said I inspired them. There were people who said that when their partner died they’d given up and were sitting at home, but now they’ve joined a gym or taken up dancing.
The first few months after Paul died, I cried every day – but I didn’t cry all day. I pulled myself together and chose my moments to cry; I still do. I thought the same thing when my dad died, 18 months before Paul, which was that I was just so lucky to have had him. Paul and I had an incredible life: we laughed all the time and we dealt with any challenges together.
I was with Paul when he died, and I’d been with my dad when he died, too. With both I had nothing I needed to say because I’d said it all. I think Paul lives on through me: he is part of me now. On Strictly, some of the dances were harder than others and I’d get nervous. Paul never used to get nervous, so I’d say to him: ‘Come on darling, give me some of that strength.’
I was raised a Catholic but Paul was an atheist. If I came up with something in its favour he would say ‘no, and this is the reason why’. But I have always had a faith. It’s nice to have someone to pray to. I realised that after the pilgrimage.
I couldn’t wear make-up on the pilgrimage because of the heat – I hated not being glamorous. The accommodation was very basic; the hardest thing was sharing rooms. I’m a very light sleeper so I was woken up a lot in the night by people going to the bathroom. And Neil Morrissey is a snorer!
It was a pretty exhausting fortnight: we walked across the north of Spain. When we were on the flat I was as fit as any of them, despite being the oldest, but going over the mountains was a struggle. I enjoyed it, though. I went at my own pace – and I loved the scenery.
Eight stone is the heaviest I’ve been. I’m very small-framed, and my parents were the same. My mum is 80 now and she goes dancing and is probably fitter than me! My dad used to run everywhere; he’d say, never think about age, just live. It’s all about attitude, and keeping busy is crucial, too. I’ve always kept fit. My big things now are pilates and yoga. Doing Strictly made me realise how important cardio is, and when I’m on tour I go to the gym nearly every day. Life is for living and I always attack the day.
Very soon after Paul died I sat down and wrote a list of the things I could do. I wasn’t worried about disappearing, but I didn’t take it for granted that I would continue working. I thought, if nothing else comes along I’ll give motivational speeches: I’ll enjoy that. But Strictly has given me an amazing opportunity to show people what I’m really about. I think I’m much bubblier than people realised. It’s given me the chance to just be myself and I’m loving that.
I think the menopause is sometimes overplayed. I never had hot flushes or any problems at all. I’ve had the same gynaecologist for 20 years and he always says to me: ‘You’re so lucky – you’re slim and fit and you’ve got the right attitude.’ My sister used to be a worrier and I’ve always said to her: ‘Worry when you have to, not about things that might not happen.’ I married an older man but I never worried about him dying. We talked about it, and Paul said he was bound to go first. But I thought: ‘Let’s just live this day and be grateful for it.’ That’s the best thing you can do.
I never wanted to have children. When we were little my sister played with dolls and I read books and danced. I was always career-minded. I was young when I met Paul but I’d already been working hard for a few years establishing myself, and I carried on working. My sister and friends talk about being broody and how children filled a gap in their lives, but I’ve never felt that way. When I married Paul he already had three sons, and although they were older I thought that having more children might cause problems for them. Paul said if I changed my mind we could talk about it, but I never did.
From the very first dance with Giovanni, we both knew we loved working together. I think that shows when we’re on the dancefloor. We have a great appreciation for one another: we respect each other’s intelligence, we tap into one another as human beings, we make each other laugh. We’re friends – we’ll stay in touch. And how brilliant is it that here I am at 59 and there’s this 27-year-old who’s enjoying dancing with me?
Would I like to meet someone else? Yes, I hope so. I don’t worry about things like that. The only thing I’ve always believed is that I can be happy, and I am. I think whatever happens can be turned into a positive situation. So I don’t worry about the future, either about work or a new relationship. If I’m meant to be working or I’m meant to meet someone, it will happen. I’m still in the house in Berkshire where Paul and I lived for many years and I love it there. I can’t see myself living anywhere else at the moment.
It’s my 60th birthday later this year but I’m not worried about that. I know people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who are having an amazing time. The important thing is to make the best of today and to be comfortable in your own skin. I work with lots of gorgeous young dancers and I look at them and think, ‘I had that life. I was that age once.’ And then in the dressing room we’re all having a good time and they all want my legs! When you’re younger you can go out and party; I can’t do that any more. But I had those years; I made the best of them. When you’re older you know who you are as a person, and that makes life easier.
Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago is on BBC Two