Grit, determinat­ion and a lot of glitter made Oti Mabuse a Strictly champion but now, she tells Ella Dove, there are even bigger steps to take


Red’s cover star Oti Mabuse talks love, ambition and Strictly success

On the inside of Oti Mabuse’s wrists there are two tattoos. ‘Believe’, reads one. ‘Strength through perseveran­ce’, reads the other. ‘My house is like a quote gallery,’ she says, smiling down at the looping ink on her skin. ‘The walls are covered in them, so whenever I open my eyes, I read something inspiratio­nal. I really believe in the power of pushing through challenges.’ Her dark eyes glint with a clear determinat­ion. ‘I like to remind myself that I can achieve everything I want.’ Dressed in stonewashe­d jeans and a loose-fitting white T-shirt, Mabuse is sitting beside a baby grand piano in the West London dance studio where she’s spent the past few hours posing gracefully for our cover shoot, unable to resist an impromptu sashay to the music between shots. Sitting across from me, her posture is now ramrod straight and a beaming smile plays across her lips. She makes everyone in the room feel at ease, and she is never far from laughing. Like the rest of the nation, I’ve watched Mabuse’s amazing dance skills on BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing, yet I confess that before meeting her, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Dance is, of course, a performanc­e but what is she like behind the scenes and what does it take to make it? ‘Drive!’ she exclaims, pumping a fist in the air. I comment that it’s refreshing to hear her speak so openly about her obvious ambition. ‘It’s not always easy to admit to,’ she says. ‘But I think it’s a good thing to be ambitious and to set your sights on things. When I say I’m ambitious, I don’t mean I’ll take people out to achieve what I want – I have my goals and they are mine. I work hard and I’m discipline­d. If I try something, I know I’m going to give it 120%.’ The latest example of this is her upcoming tour, I Am Here – the title is a translatio­n of Mabuse’s full name in Setswana, a language spoken in her native South Africa. ‘This is one of my biggest accomplish­ments,’ she says, beaming. ‘To be the first ever female pro from Strictly to have her own headlining tour while still being in the show. I want to make it as big as possible, as wild as possible.’ For all the confidence in her words, Mabuse speaks surprising­ly softly, giving her an air of quiet elegance that contrasts with an unselfcons­cious giggle. When I ask her a question, I’m met with several long pauses before she responds. But what I initially take as hesitance, I soon realise, is contemplat­ion. Her conversati­on is not a performanc­e. It is full of thought, eloquence, vulnerabil­ity – and a smattering of fun. ‘I want the tour to show another side of me,’ she muses. ‘To allow people to connect and learn about the journey that got me here. I want it to be as honest, authentic and real as possible.’ So, to that journey.

Mabuse was born in Pretoria, South Africa, to a lawyer father and nursery teacher mother. ‘I definitely had shy moments as a child,’ she admits now. ‘I’m the last daughter with two really confident sisters. Everyone in my country and my culture is quite loud. But I think through dancing my confidence grew because, as a dancer, you have to exude assertiven­ess.’

The dancing, Mabuse explains, started when she was four. She’d attend classes with her older sister, Motsi, also a profession­al dancer and now a Strictly judge [she replaced Darcey Bussell last year]. ‘I don’t think I discovered it – I think it discovered me,’ she says. ‘When you’re four, you don’t make decisions. I just knew I loved it.’ And yet, despite finding her passion so young,

‘It’s not always easy to admit to, but I think it’s a good thing to be ambitious’

it wasn’t until her early 20s that she realised dancing was a career path she could – and would – follow. ‘I studied civil engineerin­g at university but, when I qualified, I found myself having to travel a lot for work, going to different sites in different parts of the country, which meant I had to give up dancing. And that just felt very weird. It didn’t make sense.’

Realising she wasn’t happy, Mabuse confided in her parents. ‘One day, I got home and said: “Mum, it’s just not working out for me,”’ she recounts. ‘She was like, “Okay, then do what you need to do. But if you want it, you have to learn how to get it on your own.” So I just said, “Cool, okay, I’m going back to dancing and I’m moving to another continent.” I don’t think she was expecting me to say that!’ But, as she tells me proudly, her parents have always been supportive of her.

Mabuse went on to compete in her home country, becoming an eight-time Latin American champion, before moving to Germany in search of new challenges and, ultimately, greater success. Aged just 21 at the time, I suggest she must have been a little nervous. ‘No,’ she responds defiantly. ‘Not at all. It was a point in my life when I knew what I needed to do. I wanted to be a dance champion. I wanted the world to know that there are good dancers from South Africa. I was determined to prove myself. So I moved – and then I met Marius [Iepure].’

A smile crosses her face at the mention of her husband’s name. The pair have been together since

‘The real spark is when you see that someone supports you from the bottom of their heart’

2012, marrying after Iepure, a profession­al dancer from Romania, proposed on his birthday in 2014. She reveals that she actually owes their union to her sister Motsi. ‘When I said I wanted to become a profession­al dancer, Motsi suggested a few boys I could trial with as dance partners,’ she explains. ‘Marius was the first and only try-out I had. I cancelled all the others. I was like, “This is the one.”’

When it came to their dance compatibil­ity, there was ‘instant chemistry’, she says, but there were hiccups along the way, too. Moving to Europe from South Africa came with logistical challenges, and not long after arriving in Germany, Mabuse was forced to return home for six months to await her visa. Fortunatel­y, Iepure agreed to wait for her and they continued to talk regularly.

‘Once you’re done talking about dancing, you just get to know each other,’ she says. ‘Then he came to visit me – that’s when we started properly hitting it off. I loved his smile. I loved that he was caring, but also I loved his focus. He knew what he wanted in life. He left Romania at a young age and moved to Germany to dance. He also started from nothing and made something out of himself, which I thought was quite inspiratio­nal. Another ambitious person’ – like her, she means. ‘And he was real cute,’ she promptly adds. At this, she lowers her gaze shyly; it’s very endearing. ‘He’s gone from cute to handsome now. Actually, no, he’s still cute,’ she giggles like a schoolgirl.

The pair juggled their blossoming relationsh­ip with competing in internatio­nal competitio­ns, as well as taking part in the TV show Let’s Dance (think Strictly, but in German). Then, in 2015, Strictly came knocking and they moved to London.

Did Mabuse worry the show would test the strength of their relationsh­ip? Last year, for instance, she found herself in the headlines with rumours of a potential romance with her dance partner, Kelvin Fletcher. However, she was quick to deny it and now, at the mere mention of the infamous ‘Strictly curse’, she shakes her head defiantly. ‘We are used to that world – and to dancing with other people,’ she says. ‘It’s basically been a part of our relationsh­ip the whole time.’ It’s clear from the way she speaks about him, that her love for Iepure is unshakeabl­e. These two are a unit.

What is tricky, Mabuse admits, is finding quality time together. ‘It’s so non-stop, because you start on a Monday, Strictly is on Saturday and then on Sunday you’re choreograp­hing again, and Marius is also working, travelling [to dance] in Canada, Romania and Germany. Whatever time we do have, we use it. We both enjoy travelling and we’ve recently discovered a love of outdoor activities, so we go hiking and rock climbing. But it really is about support. I think the real spark is when you see that someone supports you from the bottom of their heart. The trust and love is what we remember and focus on.’

Mabuse has no doubt learned to deal with the pressures that Strictly puts on her relationsh­ip, but it brings other challenges, too. She’s admitted in the past to losing hair from stress, and the pace of the show takes its toll on the dancers’ bodies. ‘Everybody has some injury,’ she confesses. ‘But we

‘Everybody has their issues. Nobody ever feels 100% perfect’

all push through it. You fall, you get up! The feeling you get on the other side is indescriba­ble. You will never be able to have those high moments without the low ones.’

It’s likely that given the current pandemic, this year’s series will bring challenges of its own. ‘For the first part, all the pros will be quarantini­ng, learning our group numbers and pre-recording them. We’ll have to be flexible to make the show work,’ she says. And yet none of it fazes her because for Mabuse, Strictly is her pride and joy. She reels off her highlights from previous years: ‘In my second year, my samba with Danny Mac. That was when people really saw me as a choreograp­her, up with the likes of Kevin [Clifton] and Aljaž [Škorjanec]. Graeme Swann made me completely fall in love with dancing again. We just laughed constantly – we became genuine best friends. Oh, and winning [with Kelvin Fletcher in 2019], of course. That was amazing.’

But one of the things Mabuse loves most about the show, she says, is its diversity. ‘It didn’t matter that Jonnie [Peacock, Paralympia­n and her partner in 2017] was an amputee – we were talking about dance. Once you look at people based on their talent instead of what they look like, it’s a beautiful thing. When it comes to representa­tion, we’re seeing education and change slowly start to happen.’

Mabuse tells me that the conversati­ons around Black Lives Matter have ‘come at the right time’. Has she experience­d any racism herself? I ask. ‘In South Africa, we grew up in a very unjust society,’ she says. Motsi had to travel to school on a different bus to white children, but being 10 years younger, she ‘went to a mixed school, and had friends of all races’. ‘When I grew up it was post Mandela, so racism was still there, but we knew our rights. They were – and still are – trying to change the face of South Africa.’

‘Anyway,’ she smiles. ‘I won Strictly. I won The Greatest Dancer [the BBC One show on which Mabuse was a judge] – twice! Being the first black South African woman to do things in my industry has been an asset. I have so many opinions about this [racism], but they’re personal. I don’t feel I can represent everyone because people have different experience­s. What’s great is that now we feel empowered to share how we feel.’

During her five years in the Strictly spotlight, Mabuse has been forced to confront insecuriti­es with her own image. She’s spoken in the past about being reduced to tears during her first fitting for the show because she looked ‘completely different in terms of my chest, my stomach, my bum, my hips’, and she’s spent years wearing wigs on the show, very rarely revealing her natural short hair on camera.

But earlier this year, Mabuse posted a photo of her natural hair on Instagram – to which she had an overwhelmi­ngly positive response. ‘There were so many people saying they’d never seen my real hair, as I had never wanted to show that side of myself before,’ she explains. ‘It was really only close friends and the Strictly pros who had seen me like this. It was a thing, you know?’ It was such a thing, in fact, that she was initially hesitant about posing for our cover shoot with her natural hair. ‘You need to feel comfortabl­e opening up about what you look like, before you decide whether or not you want to share that with other people,’ she says.

I ask if she feels confident in the way she looks now. ‘Is any woman, ever?’ she laughs. ‘Honestly, let’s be real. Everybody has their issues. Nobody ever feels like they’re 100% perfect.’ I can’t help but admire her honesty.

It’s easy to see from the free way that Mabuse speaks that she’s reached a place of authentici­ty and acceptance. So, what’s next? ‘Oh my God, so much!’ she exclaims. ‘I’ve crossed some things off the list – like, I know I’m not a singer.’ She lets out hearty laugh. ‘I want to do more choreograp­hing, presenting and musicals – maybe writing a musical one day? There’s nothing I wouldn’t try.’

I believe her, too. I can almost feel the grit behind her warm and easy smile and I’m reminded of those tattoos: ‘Believe’ and ‘strength through perseveran­ce’. Two mottos that couldn’t be more apt. With courage in her head and love in her heart, Oti Mabuse is dancing her way to world domination. To paraphrase the title of her tour: she is here.

Tickets for Oti Mabuse’s 2021 UK tour, I Am Here, are now on sale at Strictly Come Dancing returns to BBC One this October

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