Bruno kicks up a storm
The curse of Strictly? It’s great! Same sex dancers? Bring it on! Who will win? I’ll tell you my favourite...
Bruno Tonioli, star judge of Strictly Come Dancing, is mahogany. Dressed head to toe in an Adidas tracksuit, he has just been to the gym, but is undoing the good work by holding a cigarette in one gesticulating hand. I’m worried he’ll set light to my hair.
His flat is like a show home, with little sign he has lived here since 1991. Apart from the Bruce Forsyth memorabilia — an invitation to his 80th birthday party — by the fireplace. I ask if he misses the former Strictly host, who died last year aged 89.
‘I loved Bruce. I used to have the biggest laughs with him. He would be very naughty.’
Are Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman filling the Saturdaynight TV legend’s shiny tap shoes?
‘You have the biggest show in the country and you have two ladies. That’s a first, and the show is bigger than ever. We are raising the bar and the girls are fantastic.’
Are they close friends? Tess and Claudia are reputed to party after each show wraps. ‘I don’t have time to go out! I never mix with the celebrities, either.’
I tell Bruno his house doesn’t seem very lived in. Because his time is divided between Strictly and Dancing With The Stars in Los Angeles, there isn’t much hope for even a pot plant. ‘Today, Friday, is my day off, though I have you, and five other meetings. I went to the gym, then cooked my own lunch and tonight I don’t go out. Then tomorrow it is all day in the studio, then Sunday morning I get on the plane, arrive to Los Angeles midafternoon, same thing: get the food, cook a meal. Record the show Monday.’
I tell him he needs someone to clean and cook for when he arrives home, spent. ‘If you find a partner that cleans and cooks then tell me now. Please!’
So, no boyfriend? He broke up with his long-term partner some years ago. ‘I am married to my work,’ he says, laughing.
He could get a dog with a passport? ‘I had a cat who died aged 19, and it was horrible. But with my schedule, you can’t have a pet, it’s unfair to them. Getting on a plane? It’s not good for them!’
As a dancer, has he ever had an eating disorder? ‘I’ve never dieted. I’m Italian so I eat everything. I go to the gym, do my stretches, and then I come home and I practise Iyengar yoga on my own. I have done it for many years. It is very strict, I recommend yoga to everyone. So in all I did two hours exercise today so I can eat everything.’
Hmm. It all sounds a bit too easy, doesn’t it. He says he made lunch just before I arrived, but there are no cooking smells. There is no mess.
His waist is barely a hand’s span. He says he is relaxed, it’s his day off, but he’s like a coiled spring. He never watches himself on TV. ‘It’s because I remember working behind the cameras and you are watching as a critic, like a director: you can say, “Oh God, look at that, the lighting is wrong.” But as a judge, I don’t have any power to change what has already come out. It’s a control thing.’
Bruno’s career took off in the Eighties, after the birth of MTV. He worked with the likes of George Michael, Duran Duran, David Bowie and Elton John (appearing in the camp video for I’m Still Standing as a traffic policemen dressed in leg warmers and a leotard). He then went on to appear in films including Little Voice and Absolute Beginners but when I ask for more juicy details of the stars, all he will say is that everyone was ‘lovely; I’m still friends with most of these people’.
He looks fantastic for someone who turns 63 today with a thick head of black hair. His eyebrows do the paso doble each week, so would he ever meddle with that face?
‘I stopped worrying about
‘I’m Italian, I eat everything. I go to the gym and practise Iyengar yoga on my own’
‘My parents knew I wasn’t your standard football playing macho...’
ageing long ago, it’s just a fact of life. I’m so expressive, so no, I can’t mess with my face, though I always look a bit podgy, I think.’
He grew up in the suburbs of Ferrara, northern Italy, the only child in a working-class family. He was looked after by his grandmother while his parents were out working: his father, Werther, who died aged 70, suffering from Alzheimer’s, was a bus driver; his mother, Fulvia, who died aged 63 from heart disease, an upholsterer and seamstress. As a toddler, his uncle would put him on a table, turn on the music and Bruno would start dancing. He never trained professionally, but learned by watching Hollywood musicals in his local cinema.
His parents never acknowledged openly that he was gay. ‘If you think of the card I was handed at birth… I mean, my parents wanted me to be an accountant, so you can imagine the fights.’
Was it like Billy Elliot? ‘It was worse because I never had anybody supporting me, I didn’t have Julie Walters. My parents knew I wasn’t your standard, football-playing macho...’
Was he bullied at school? ‘They were doing the usual, “Oh, look at him, queer”, that stuff, but I think at the time it was, let’s say, provincial, and it probably still happens. So I said, “OK, I’m not stupid, I’m a great dancer.” I became very popular in the clubs — all the girls wanted to dance with me. Instead of taking it I started giving it back: repartee, not in a nasty way but with a sense of humour. I became the most popular boy in the school. I used to run the student union, they used to give me roles in the end-ofyear play, I turned it around by not attacking back but by being funny.’
He has an official letter, dated 1976, from when he first obtained a visa to work in London. ‘When I arrived I didn’t speak English, and learned it by reading the papers. I only knew how to say yes or no, so you can imagine the trouble I was in. I used to rent a room in somebody else’s apartment and do a show every night.’
As well as appearing in Godspell and on stage with the late, great dancer Lindsay Kemp (‘another one, gone,’ he says with sadness), he supplemented his earnings by teaching at a dance centre which paid for classes at Pineapple Dance Studios. What’s his take on Brexit? Is he worried he will be repatriated? ‘I’m not British. I’m not allowed to vote. Hopefully they will allow me to stay.’
Did he ever experience the casting couch? ‘I’ve never been subjected to that kind of abuse. I’ve never had people taking advantage because I’ve always been very strong about who I am and what I want. But as a choreographer, I worked with directors who have been a bit harsh, but I had the strength to say, “Sorry, this is not fine.’
Where does that strength come from? ‘I am a peasant!’ he shouts. ‘It’s my earthy... I have certain things I cannot overlook. It’s a very Latin thing. If I have an issue, I will say, “Right, let’s get this clear” and it’s done. I’m not the scheming, behind-the-scenes type. I’m straightforward and if there is something that I feel is wrong I will be straight on, face to face.’
Who’d have thought, the campest man in showbiz is really made of steel? Like his beige apartment, which is in fact his sanctuary, appearances can be deceptive.
And his feelings for his fellow judges? Is Craig Revel Horwood as cantankerous off screen as on? ‘He is more laid-back than me off screen. I think the evil queen comes across in the show, but actually we get on very well.’ Does he ever think he takes the put-downs too far? He did, after all, compare Ann Widdecombe to ‘a Dalek in drag’ and say of John Sergeant: ‘He looked like Mother Courage dragging the corpse of his child.’ ‘An image comes into my mind and I think, that’s what it looks like. It’s not pre-planned, it just comes out. At the end of the day, it’s never personal.’
I bring up this year’s Strictly scandals. Actor Danny John-Jules, who is black, was voted off, despite being a terrific dancer, which led to accusations the show wanted rid of him, after he was accused of a ‘foul-mouthed tirade’ directed at his dancing partner, Amy Downden, during rehearsals. Unlikely, given the connect-the-dots, highly PC BBC these days and the fact there have been four non-white champions in the past. For the first time in our talk, Bruno looks a little tired; I guess he is pale beneath the airbrush tan. He is far too professional to actually yawn, but his eyebrows come down a notch.
So, I bring up the second scandal. Comedian Sean(n) Walsh was pictured kissing professional dancer Katya Jones, who is married, on the night of his live-in girlfriend’s birthday; she subsequently went on social media to criticise Walsh’s controlling behaviour, and his pretension at adding a consonant to his name. Bruno rolls his huge, dark eyes. ‘I love it that people are so involved, but it could happen in any situation where people work close together. It could happen in a factory, it could happen in an office. Chemistry is a huge part of how you’re going to perform. It doesn’t have to be for real: Fred and Ginger hated each other, but the chemistry was off the charts.’ It’s when I ask whether there’s a Strictly curse that his more Latin side comes to the fore, and he forgets toeing the BBC line, and sits forward on the sofa, as animated as he is on TV. ‘I think it’s been created: sometimes it could be a blessing? I mean, people together and passion is a wonderful, wonderful thing!’
Did the judges talk about it? ‘We haven’t time to gossip. We turn up and it’s such an intense day when we get there. If the foundations are strong, usually houses stand still. Relationships are the same.’
I ask whether he earns more than the female judges. ‘I think people should be paid what they deserve, and I think it should be equal.’
Is Strictly a little too safe? We’ve had bigger contestants, older contestants, disabled contestants, but why still no couples of the same sex? ‘It’s not for me to decide. We don’t know who the contestants will be, we don’t know who they dance with up until the time they are announced.’
Maybe next year? Again the steely Bruno that lurks beneath the fluff and the glitter and the camp humour emerges, and he fixes me with a defiant stare. ‘For me, it would be absolutely fine.’
Family: Bruno as a baby with his parents in Italy
Clockwise from left: Tonioli with Strictly judges Darcey Bussell, Craig Revel Horwood and Shirley Ballas; Tonioli with Mick Jagger on the set of a Rolling Stones’ video in 1986; on Dancing with the Stars