Muhammad Ali’s famous saying, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”, could have been made for boxer Nicola Adams.
In the flesh she is sweet and giggly, tiny and trim, with a huge grin. She’s an energetic presence at the north London studio where Radio Times’ photoshoot is taking place and even asks to take away with her the sparkly boxing gloves she’s donned, planning to display them at home.
But under the glitter and grace she has an inner steel that has seen her survive family violence, sexism and homophobia to become an undefeated champion.
There is barely an article written about the 37-year-old double Olympic champion that doesn’t describe her as a trailblazer, and now she’s breaking down more barriers to dance in Strictly Come Dancing’s first-ever same-sex couple. For Adams, who is now retired from boxing and who lives in Leeds with beauty blogger girlfriend Ella Baig, there was no question of compromise when she finally agreed to do the show, eight years after she had first been asked.
“I wouldn’t have done it otherwise,” she says after changing into a T-shirt and gilet as we speak on socially distanced stools. “I wish I could say it’s because I wanted to be a role model, but it didn’t even cross my mind at the start. I think it’s cool to let kids see someone who represents them, but for me it just felt more comfortable.”
Last year two of the male Strictly Come Dancing professionals – Johannes Radebe and Graziano di Prima – danced together in a routine, prompting nearly 200 complaints to the BBC.
Adams says: “I’m expecting the same sort of thing I got with women’s boxing in the beginning – there will always be some resisters, but once they know you’re here to stay, they get used to it. Women dance together all the time in nightclubs. Traditionally I guess men and women would dance together when they were courting, so the older generation have that in their heads. They see it as a sexual thing rather than a sport.
“This is 2020. We have to move with the times, otherwise women wouldn’t have any rights, our aspirations would still be to just get married and have kids. There is so much more to be done and we are just pushing through.”
When the inevitable complaints roll in, Adams says, entirely convincingly, that she won’t be bothered. “I’ve been through so much in my life,” she says. “I’ve been through my mum and dad separating, domestic violence, back injuries, having to look after my brother when I was 13 when my mum had meningitis. So someone’s going to comment on Twitter? It’s nothing, it won’t faze me at all. It’s like – try harder. If they don’t like it, they’re going to have to deal with it or switch to another channel.”
Adams took up boxing aged 12 when her mum, struggling with childcare, took her and her brother Kurtis to a local gym. Adams saw the boxing class and asked to join in.
At the time, her parents – mother Dee, then a restaurant manager, and father Innocent, a plasterer – had recently separated. Adams had witnessed physical fights: on one occasion, she stepped between her parents with a plastic sword to try to protect her mum.
Previously she has denied a link between the domestic violence suffered by her mother and her desire to box, but now on reflection she admits there must be one.
“I got into boxing by accident because my mum couldn’t find a babysitter,” she says, “so I never really saw the connection, but if it wasn’t for that [domestic violence] I would never have gone to the boxing club. It gave me the strength to think I could defend myself. I saw myself as a protector for my mum and brother.”
When she first took up the sport she had to deal with intense sexism – being told she should take up tennis or “be in the kitchen”.
Women’s professional boxing was still banned and it was a struggle to find enough girls to fight but, undeterred, she went on to win European, Commonwealth and world titles on top of Olympic golds at London 2012 and Rio 2016.
Like most sportspeople who enter Strictly, she’ll be competitive. She hasn’t lost a boxing match since 2014, and even then it was because she’d torn a rotator cuff in her shoulder.
Last Christmas she was furious when her mum beat her in a game of Monopoly; Adams’s reaction was to try to “figure out how she’d won”.
“My dance partner, whoever it is [rumoured to be Katya Jones], needs to be ready to train 24/7 because I’ll be putting in the hours,” she says with a grin. “I have the fitness to keep up with them. I’ve been thinking about what will happen if I’m in the bottom two [and survive the dance-off]. I know I’ll go back, watch the tapes, work out where I went wrong, correct those faults and come back stronger, like I did in boxing.”
The producers will be kept on their toes, too: she has already insisted on wearing trousers when she dances rather than dresses and when I suggest it’s inevitable she’ll have to dance to the Rocky theme in Movie Week, she grimaces and says: “The ultimate cliché. I think I’d want something a bit more creative.”
She’s a tough cookie, for sure. While Andy Murray filmed tearful videos when injury seemed to be forcing his retirement, Adams insists she has never felt like doing something similar, despite the fact she was forced to retire from boxing early, in November 2019, after she tore a pupil in a fight – doctors told her that one more blow to her eye could cause her to go blind.
She says: “Andy is very much about his tennis, but I have other things I want to do outside of sport. I miss the camaraderie and the banter, but it’s actually nice not to have a coach screaming in my ear. I can go on holiday and drink cocktails or eat pizza and ice-cream. I was only going to do a couple more fights anyway and maybe I would’ve thought after that, ‘OK, one more’, and started losing. I won everything there was to win and I retired undefeated, so I have no regrets.”
She has spoken before about her lack of emotion, honed from years on the boxing circuit: until recently, she never cried. But Strictly requires dancers to get in touch with that side of themselves, so how will she fare?
“When you get into the ring, if you’re hurt or angry you can’t show anything,” she says. “But I don’t think it will be difficult now to tap into that because I’ve been taking acting classes. I’ve been working on myself and I feel like I am more emotional now than I ever was before. Whenever I feel something, I really feel it now. I feel more sensitive and it’s good. As an actor I need to be able to access everything.”
View this post on Instagram
Hugh Laurie is on this week's Radio Times cover as his character, MP Peter Laurence, in David Hare's new political thriller, Roadkill. In an exclusive RT interview, we hear from David Hare himself on his career so far and what inspired him to write Roadkill. Also inside this week's issue: an interview with @nicolaadamsobe on being a trailblazer and dancing in Strictly Come Dancing's first ever same-sex couple; Love Actually's @samohtsangster is 30! We chat with him ahead of new Netflix miniseries, The Queen's Gambit; stand-up comedian @sara.pascoe speaks on baring her soul in new sitcom Out of Her Mind; RT's @susiedent on her book full of spelling mistakes; and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition goes on and we hear from sisters Jane and Louise Wilson who are co-ordinating and adapting the 2020 show to reflect the new uncertain times. All this and more in this week's Radio Times. Click the link in our bio on how to get your copy, available now… . . . #radiotimes #radiotimescover #royalacademysummerexhibition #susiedent #countdown #loveactually #thomasbrodiesangster #thequeensgambit #sarapascoe #outofhermind #strictly #strictlycomedancing #nicolaadams #boxing #hughlaurie #roadkill #mp #politics
Does she now find herself sitting in front of the TV sobbing at a drama, then?
She pauses for a second. “No,” she says, and bursts out laughing. “I’m not quite there yet.” The future seems bright for Adams as an actor. In 2017 she had a stunt role in Black Panther, the first superhero movie with a leading black cast, but had to pull out as it clashed with her first professional fight. Now there is a second movie on the way and she doesn’t rule out some involvement (she recently bagged an audition for the role of Batwoman, so it’s clear casting directors are taking her seriously).
She has been obsessed with super-heroes since she was a child and would act out scenes from Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men. Given her childhood, does she see herself as a saviour?
“I guess, kind of,” she says shyly. “I don’t know if I was born with it or I have built that kind of fire inside myself. Superheroes are very… I don’t know. I just always loved them.”
There is also a documentary with a global broadcaster, and a biopic about her life.
“When I started boxing I never thought I’d be a trailblazer so it’s unreal, a total honour,” she says. “I’ve already got girls saying they’re so happy I’m doing Strictly. Being a role model isn’t something I planned, but I take it in my stride. I guess I just roll with the punches – excuse the pun.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.