‘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
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