‘MY LIFE IS A ROLLER­COASTER’

She be­came a house­hold name overnight af­ter join­ing Strictly Come Danc­ing – but Shirley Bal­las is used to taking life’s chal­lenges in her stride. She opens up about per­sonal heart­break, the im­por­tance of fam­ily and look­ing for love

Good Housekeeping (UK) - - Editor’s Letter - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY DAVID VENNI WORDS JEN CROTHERS

says our cover star Shirley Bal­las

Re­plac­ing na­tional treasure Len Good­man as Strictly’s head judge last year seemed a tough gig, but Shirley Bal­las has man­aged to quick­step her way into our af­fec­tions with ease and grace. An award-win­ning ball­room dancer for five decades, Shirley’s un­ri­valled ex­per­tise and warmth shone through when she took her place along­side Dame Darcey Bus­sell, Bruno To­nioli and Craig Revel Hor­wood.

But be­hind the se­quins, Shirley has been through a lot in her 57 years. Brought up on a council es­tate in Mersey­side by her mother Au­drey, now 80, who scrimped and saved to send her to dance classes, she left home at 14 and had been mar­ried twice by the age of 25. She was dealt a dev­as­tat­ing blow when her much-loved brother, David, took his own life at the age of 44 in 2003. But, de­spite the heart­break, Shirley has sol­diered on, a pe­tite pow­er­house of a woman, and is now bring­ing a new dose of sparkle to Strictly.

The dance genes clearly run in the Bal­las fam­ily, with her son Mark, 32, a topflight pro­fes­sional on the US ver­sion of Strictly, called Danc­ing With The Stars. Shirley, who is now sin­gle, di­vides her life between Los An­ge­les and Liver­pool.

On the eve of this year’s Strictly series, she talks about sup­port­ing her beloved mum through ill­ness, look­ing for love – and what she re­ally thinks about the other judges.

How are you feel­ing about the new series of Strictly? Very ex­cited! I can’t wait to see the line-up. We’ve got new pro­fes­sion­als and I’m look­ing for­ward to help­ing peo­ple on their jour­ney.

What was it like when you went for Len’s job as head judge? My son Mark gave me the push to go for it. I didn’t think it was pos­si­ble at 57 to be hon­est, es­pe­cially when I’d never done TV or any­thing sim­i­lar be­fore. I did an in­ter­view and they seemed to like it, then when they of­fered me the job I just fell to my knees.

It’s kind of like a ca­reer third act – start­ing afresh again. It was over­whelm­ing, even the au­di­tion was over­whelm­ing. The BBC and my fel­low judges were ab­so­lutely fan­tas­tic. I felt like a five-year-old with Darcey hold­ing my hand and Bruno and Craig giv­ing me the ut­most sup­port. The tran­si­tion af­ter week two was seam­less, that’s how it felt. There was no one trying to outdo any­body and ev­ery­body had the ut­most re­spect for ev­ery­body else’s trade. Ball­room danc­ing is my in­dus­try, I’ve been in it for 50 years. I’ve judged every ma­jor com­pe­ti­tion there is, I’ve taught every cham­pion that’s been out there. I’m a dance mama – and I’m happy to work in any way I can to make the show ex­cit­ing for the pub­lic.

With you and Darcey on the panel and Tess Daly and Clau­dia Win­kle­man pre­sent­ing, it’s re­ally great sis­ter­hood on prime­time TV! It’s un­usual, don’t you think? I think it’s re­ally quite nice, two able women who are com­pletely dif­fer­ent from each other, but have this amaz­ing chem­istry. Ac­tu­ally, I think the four of us women all have amaz­ing chem­istry. Darcey and I are just like two peas in a pod.

Danc­ing was ob­vi­ously im­por­tant to you from quite a young age… I knew I wanted to dance from the age of seven or eight. I loved the mu­sic and knew that if I worked hard, re­wards would come, so I never left any­thing to chance. My mum used to say, ‘Just give it 1,000%, you roll the dice and see where it goes.’ I knew that I didn’t want to stay where I was, I wanted to get out and see the world and move to mu­sic. As a young girl, I didn’t have dreams of being a su­per­star – which can crush your mind at that age – I just had dreams of being the best I could and not hav­ing the mu­sic taken away from me.

You’ve pre­vi­ously talked about being pro­tec­tive of your danc­ing shoes. Yes, because they were so ex­pen­sive and being raised by a sin­gle mother, there re­ally wasn’t the money. We didn’t have a fridge or a wash­ing ma­chine or tele­phone or any­thing like that. When my mum bought me those shoes, they’d go in a lit­tle bag and I’d pro­tect them with my life. Wher­ever I went, they went with me. I wouldn’t leave them. If I went to the bath­room, they’d come with me.

You left home at 14 – just how tough was that for you? It wasn’t tough for me because I just wanted to dance and I got the op­por­tu­nity to have this amaz­ing boy part­ner, Nigel Tiffany, who was Bri­tish ball­room cham­pion. Mum said, ‘What about school?’ but in the end I pestered her so much and said I’d be back in two weeks, but I never went back. My ca­reer took off. So she made the right choice in let­ting me go. I did the best I could in what­ever I ap­plied my­self to, but my love was al­ways mu­sic.

Do you think that your mum rais­ing you on her own made you so close? She was al­ways the most sup­port­ive per­son. I watched her work hard and I watched her count her money out and what could go towards danc­ing and what had to go towards bills. I got that work ethic. She’s a su­per-strong lady and I’ve been close to her my whole life. We have two or three phone calls a day and we’ve lived to­gether since Mark was two. Wher­ever I go, she goes. I fo­cus my time on her right now.

Is it sat­is­fy­ing to be able to re­turn that love and sup­port she gave to you? It is. Right now she’s go­ing through some quite se­ri­ous health is­sues, but she’s a fighter.

Your brother David took his own life in 2003. That must have hit both you and your mum hard. He lived at home with my mum. They were very, very close. He was a very pro­tec­tive per­son, very pro­tec­tive of his

[con­tin­ued from pre­vi­ous page] fam­ily and very pushy with me to make sure I’d stay danc­ing and move away from the es­tate and give my­self a chance in life. He was that sort of brother – very un­selfish.

Your mum’s a very strong woman. Where else do you draw your strength from? I mostly draw it from my mum. It’s not al­ways been an easy jour­ney for her, los­ing my brother and al­ways hav­ing to work hard. Even as she’s go­ing through this thing [poor health], I’ve some­times been a bum­bling mess, but she hasn’t. Her at­ti­tude is to take ev­ery­thing in her stride, to not make a fuss. She never plays the pity card, she’s not that kind of mother. She’s more con­cerned about other peo­ple around her than her­self and I think that’s what I ad­mire the most.

You’re ob­vi­ously a strong and re­silient woman, too… But I’m also vul­ner­a­ble. Peo­ple see the ex­te­rior but they don’t see the real per­son that I am, even though I try to be my­self but, you know, I’m sin­gle and on my own and things can be a lit­tle over­whelm­ing. I re­ally feel it when peo­ple are mean.

You’re quite open about feel­ing vul­ner­a­ble. I think from a young age, when I got my first dance part­ner who taught me ev­ery­thing about the in­dus­try, he was a strong char­ac­ter, he was tough, there was no praise or any­thing like that, it was all about get­ting the job done. He taught me to have a back­bone. Some­times I found things dif­fi­cult, that con­stant surge to be great – there never seemed to be any down­time. My sec­ond hus­band was the same, so some­times, par­tic­u­larly now with my mum not being well, it makes me sit down and eval­u­ate whether I’m ac­tu­ally do­ing all the right things or whether I should take a bit more time and bal­ance things bet­ter.

Where are you in terms of your love life? Hope­less, hope­less, hope­less! I never get it right. I was en­gaged at 16 to Nigel Tiffany and he’s now my fi­nan­cial ad­viser, so we’ve been friends all these years. When I mar­ried Sammy, my first hus­band, we were both just so young. But I’ve had a hugely suc­cess­ful ca­reer and I owe a lot of what I learnt in the in­dus­try to him, because he was al­ready a top pro­fes­sional and I was a no­body, re­ally. Ev­ery­body got mar­ried back then, but it just didn’t work. We parted ways and then along came Corky [Bal­las, Shirley’s sec­ond hus­band], and we had this beau­ti­ful boy to­gether. We were to­gether for more than 20 years and I like to think we still have a cor­dial re­la­tion­ship. But I don’t think I’ve had a date in three years.

You’ve got such an in­ter­est­ing life story. It’s def­i­nitely been a com­plete roller­coaster, this life of mine. I should write a book re­ally, shouldn’t I? I just keep trying to do the best I can, help peo­ple, en­ter­tain peo­ple, give peo­ple some­thing to talk about every week – in a good way. ◆ Strictly Come Danc­ing re­turns to BBC One in Septem­ber

Shirley’s son Mark is a pro­fes­sional on Danc­ing With The Stars

Shirley be­gan danc­ing at a young age

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