Abusive relationships, family tragedy and crippling insecurity – Strictly’s head judge Shirley Ballas has had more than her fair share of heartache. She tells Cole Moreton how she finally found her confidence at 60.
Shirley Ballas looks happy. ‘This is probably the most freedom I’ve felt in any photo shoot,’ says the dancer, coach and Strictly Come Dancing star, beaming. ‘It’s on the sensual side, showing lots of leg, things hanging off the shoulders. I’ve been running around in a little bra and panties thinking: “Yeah! I’m free!”’
She may look absolutely in control as the head judge on Strictly, dishing out scores and expert advice to the dancers, but Shirley has worked hard to feel this liberated. She has overcome poverty, tragedy, destructive self-doubt and body-image issues, not to mention decades of being put down by abusive partners, bullying coaches and rivals.
‘I’ve always faced a lot of bullying and sarcasm in my life, so I built a wall to protect myself,’ she says, tracing it all the way back to her childhood on a council estate on the Wirral, where other girls mocked her ambitions to dance. ‘When they were swearing, talking about boys and bullying other girls, I would have people lined up in the playground, teaching them the cha cha cha. From a very young age I was the judge and they were the competitors. I knew that if I didn’t do that, I would just be bullied more. That’s how I came to be like I am.’
Little Shirley became a Latin champion, a highly successful dance teacher in the States and a coach on their version of Strictly, Dancing With The Stars. But she was still a surprise choice to take over from the much-loved Len Goodman in 2017 and some viewers found her far too stern at first. Even her own mum said so. ‘She said: “I turned on my TV and shuddered. I was so scared. And I’m your mother.”’
That’s a quote from her frank new autobiography Behind The Sequins. Shirley says she was raised to be direct, and the nerves made it worse, but a helpful member of the Strictly production team advised her to soften up fast. ‘She said: “You’ll never keep this job if you can’t drop that defence. People won’t warm to you. You really have to try to be a bit more vulnerable.”’
So Shirley learned to offer more of her own natural Scouse warmth, wit and empathy to the dancing couples, as well as that steely expertise. She dared to be more herself. ‘I hope the book will be part of a healing process.’
Dressed in a loose white T-shirt, with her long black hair let down, Shirley looks more relaxed than usual. And she’s ready to reveal even more of herself in a remarkably intimate interview, becoming both tearful and joyful at times. ‘What am I searching for? Security? A love in my life that will give me what my father didn’t give me? I’m still searching.’
Her dad left when she was two. Her mother Audrey struggled for money but still gave up everything for her daughter’s dance classes, dresses and train fares to competitions. ‘My mother says: “I invested all my money in her and I backed the right horse!”’
Shirley was married to her professional dance partner Sammy Stopford at the age of 19. They won the British Open Professional Latin Championship together three years later, but broke up soon afterwards. Her next partner – in life and on the dancefloor – was a Texan millionaire called Corky Ballas. ‘I thought: “This is a man who really loves me.” Little did I know. He had multiple girlfriends, even when I moved to America. I gave up my life for that man.’
They were married for 22 years, despite Corky being controlling and verbally abusive. ‘He’d say: “You’re too fat. What’s that mole on your chin? Your nose is crooked, you need a nose job. Your breasts are too small.” I had breast implants done to try to save my marriage. It was the sorriest day of my life.’
She stayed in Los Angeles after the divorce in 2007, coaching dancers and raising her son Mark. He’s a professional on Dancing With The Stars and she appeared on the show too, which led to the unexpected call from Strictly.
What was it like to be thrust into the spotlight in an industry that already judges women far more harshly for their looks than men? ‘I think because I’m 60 not 22, people are actually quite surprised. They think: “Oh, she takes care of her skin. She works out. She looks reasonable in long dresses.” One woman editor did say I had bingo wings, but me and my mum thought that was funny. Generally, the past three years have been much easier than the rest of my life.’
One exception was the hurt she felt when her new fellow judge Craig Revel Horwood made fun of her by telling a live event how she flashed her ‘fake boobs’ at producers during the audition. ‘I thought it was disgraceful. I asked for a meeting. I told him a bit about my history then I ended with: “I don’t need people like you to make me feel bad about myself, I’m more than capable of doing that myself.” He sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers with an apology, which I thought was sensitive and sweet. He’s treated me with the utmost respect since.’
Craig also got in trouble for joking that it helped to sleep with your partner – a reference to the relationship between series winner Stacey Dooley and her partner Kevin Clifton – but didn’t he have a point? Shirley won her biggest titles with men who were her partners in bed as well as on the dancefloor, so does that closeness help you win? ‘No,’ she says firmly. ‘The two things are totally separate. You can have partnerships without sex. You can have chemistry without sex, 100 per cent.’
She does understand how those famous Strictly romances start, though. ‘As a dancer you spend so much time with that person. If we were doing lockdown together for three months, there might be an infatuation. That’s what happens when you’re around people. We’re moving to music. Our bodies work in a certain way. Sometimes it can be difficult to keep your feelings constrained.’
Her mind hops to the new series. ‘We’re going to have a same-sex dance couple on Strictly. Nicola Adams [the Olympic boxing champion] has got her own life partner. Whoever she gets as the pro dancer will have their own life partner, too.’ The inference is that they will remain faithful. ‘But you bet there will still be chemistry. You’ll see.’ There may be complaints, too, if the reaction to last year’s all-male dance is anything to go by. ‘It doesn’t matter. They complain about my shoes, my scores, my comments. People will always complain, but it’s few and far between.’ She’s even had death threats on social media, but is remarkably generous about it. ‘We had a few scary ones but I really do feel for those people. I do respond. Maybe they’re feeling in a sad, lonely place. One out of three will turn and say: “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”’
There’s Shirley the coach, all over again. Strictly will be good for the nation’s morale this winter, she says. ‘When it’s cold and drab, and if we go into lockdown again, we need to bring some glitz and glamour, some baubles, bangles and beads to lift people’s spirits. The BBC has covered every base to make that happen.’
How will Strictly work under Covid conditions? ‘The BBC are absolutely rule followers. Jane, my make-up lady, will be wearing a visor. Alex, the dresser, will have the same. There will be lots of washing facilities. You’ll just be with your bubble.’
Will the dancing look the same? ‘That’s a little bit of a surprise. I’m not really sure myself. I’ve given them some ideas about spacial awareness, but I think that if everybody has been tested and had their temperature taken, and everybody has been bubbling together, it doesn’t matter if they get close.’ She will be especially protective of her mother Audrey, who was diagnosed with cancer two years ago at the age of 81 and has chosen not to have chemotherapy. ‘I’m just grateful to God that my mother is still here at 83. I always felt that life wasn’t really worth living if I didn’t have her. I have a son in California who is very successful and married to the most amazing woman and we chat, but it’s not like he needs me on a daily basis. I was starting to think, when my mother got the cancer: “I want to go with you.” Then I met Danny and it all changed.’
We’ll talk about her new man in a moment, but I’m stunned to realise what Shirley has just said: that even at the height of her success with Strictly, she thought life would not be worth living if her mother died. That’s all the more poignant because her brother David took his own life in 2003 at the age of just 44 and the new book suggests she feels responsible in some way for his death.
‘One hundred per cent responsible, not just in some way,’ she corrects. ‘I didn’t have the right emotional tools and I didn’t ask the right questions. And I didn’t go to see him because I didn’t realise how depressed he was. I should have stopped everything I was doing. When he died it was such a terrible shock.’
The emotions are still raw. Shirley moved back from LA permanently last year so she could be nearer to her mum as she went through cancer. That also prompted the removal of those breast implants, after a nurse said it was impossible to see any cancer lurking behind them. ‘I feel better. Maybe it’s a psychological thing, but I feel I don’t have this foreign body in my chest any more. I couldn’t lie on them, either. They’d gone really hard.’
The operation left scars, but the loving reaction of her new partner moved her deeply. Shirley met Danny Taylor while playing the Fairy Godmother to his villainous Fleshcreep in Jack and the Beanstalk in Liverpool in 2018.
‘I had scars all up here,’ she says, running her hands over her chest, ‘but he said they were like two little smiley faces. I didn’t look at it like that. I’m going to get upset now, excuse me.’ Her voice breaks and she flicks at tears. ‘I saw a scarred body. He looked at it like two little faces, smiling at him. So he has a positive take. He says: “I love everything about you – every single thing.”’ Such unconditional love was hard to take in. ‘At first I couldn’t undress in front of him at all.’
That began to change as trust grew. She smiles, still close to tears, remembering a tender moment before they made love for one of the first times. ‘With Corky I had always gone to bed in full make-up. Danny unzipped my dress then he peeled my eyelashes off one at a time. To this day I lift my face to him so he can do that and I can relive that first time. Danny had one of those wipey things and he took all my make-up off my face and he goes: “There she is. That’s the girl I’m falling in love with.”’
The look on her face as she says this is gorgeous. Along with therapy, success and her own impressive inner strength, that moment was part of the process that has helped her feel so much more confident in her own skin now, able to leap freely around the studio with next to nothing on. Her book says: ‘Danny didn’t realise it, but with that one simple gesture he began to undo years of damage that I had stored inside me.’
She did wonder about the age difference though, being 13 years older. ‘I did think about that when I fell in love with him. What if he wants more children? I can’t do that. And I thought: “What are people going to think? You’re in the spotlight now, you’re going to get judged.” And I was judged, a lot. They called him my toyboy and it really pissed me off.’
The tenderness he shows is new to her. ‘He’s a hands-on boyfriend and I’ve never experienced that before. It’s a little unnerving actually, because I think to myself – and I haven’t shared this with anybody before: “Will it end? Will the bubble pop?” But I really feel he’s doing it because he’s sincere and genuine.’
Is he The One? ‘I think he is,’ Shirley says very quickly. Later, when asked to name one thing that would make her happy, she doesn’t hesitate: ‘Marrying Danny.’ So would she like to take this opportunity to propose to him in print? ‘Well, he may have already done that. You don’t know.’ Oh really? Is it time for her fellow Strictly judges to start buying wedding hats? Shirley laughs, perhaps as happy as she has ever been. ‘You’ll have to watch this space!’
The key to a happy relationship? Lots of communication and lots of sex!
Your best and worst qualities? I’m loyal to a fault. But I can be impatient.
What do you see in the mirror? Every fault – I tend to see the flaws.
Last meal on earth? Jacket potato with beans and cheese.
Starstruck moment? Teaching Tom Cruise. My knees quivered.
Biggest lesson you’ve learnt about money? Never let anybody take care of your finances.
Most embarrassing moment? When my dress ripped at the All England Championships. I wasn’t wearing knickers.
‘My Strictly audition did not go well!’
An exclusive extract from Shirley’s gripping autobiography
My son Mark and I were driving in LA when he mentioned a piece of gossip he’d heard. ‘Apparently, Len is thinking of giving it up in Great Britain. You should go for the job.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ I replied. ‘No one’s going to take a 57-year-old woman with barely any TV experience for a job of that magnitude.’
Don’t get me wrong, I was a massive fan of Strictly and had been involved at a distance for years, training many dancers that appeared on both the British version and its international spin-offs. It was the ‘TV’ bit of ‘TV dance judge’ that stopped me. But then I received an email asking, ‘Would you like to have an interview for the role of a judge on Strictly?’ Sometimes the best things in life just find you. I was shocked and chose not to share it with anybody. It was clear that a lot of people were also after this job.
On the day of the audition I had a bad back. A lady in the make-up department suggested I put an ice pack on my lumbar region – and by the time she’d finished, it had melted and I had a big wet patch on my jeans. I even had to take off my pants as they were wet through. Imagine that – no underwear for my audition! Fortunately, I wore a black dress so you couldn’t tell.
This was my first ever meeting with Craig Revel Horwood. He seemed larger than life, very at ease with himself, unlike me. I found that audition to be quite overwhelming and didn’t feel it had gone well. I think I was more self conscious about my working-class roots than I’d let on. I was scheduled to fly home to LA the next day, but that evening, the show’s executive producer Louise Rainbow called. ‘If you can change your flight,’ she said, ‘you’re welcome to have another go.’
I headed back, this time wearing just a casual jumper and jeans. The audition went 100 per cent better than the day before. I then put everything to do with Strictly out of my mind and went back to the US. I was teaching a month later when Louise called. She said, ‘We would like to offer you the job.’
I actually fell to my knees. I had no idea how much I’d wanted it until that moment. I heard her asking, ‘Are you OK, Shirley?’ And just like that, I got one of the biggest jobs on British television.
Behind the Sequins by Shirley Ballas is published by BBC Books, price £20. Order a copy for £10 until 18 October at whsmith.co.uk by entering code YOUSHIRLEY at checkout. Bookk number: 9781785945113. For terms and conditions visit whsmith.co.uk/terms.
Picture director: Ester Malloy. Styling: Alexandria Reid. Make-up: Charlie Duffy at Carol Hayes Management using Bare Minerals. Hair: Sven Bayerbach at Carol Hayes Management using Hair Rituel by Sisley.