It has been a mixed year for many in terms of productivity – with some having found solace during lockdown by lying in front of the TV and waiting it out idly, while others have taken up every hobby under the sun to distract themselves from the dark times we currently live in.
Shirley Ballas falls into the latter category; aside from gearing up for Strictly Come Dancing – which triumphantly launched its first-ever socially-distanced series on Saturday – she’s kept herself busy during lockdown by gardening, cooking, recording podcasts, resting up a broken ankle and writing her very first autobiography.
“It was never something I intended to do, nor wanted to do,” she tells RadioTimes.com over Zoom, a few weeks before the Strictly 2020 launch. “I’d been asked several times to write a book, of which I declined at the beginning, and then I thought, ‘It would be really nice for my own son to have a full feeling of my life’ so he can pass onto his children and of course he knows a lot about my life, but there’s also a lot in the book that he didn’t know.”
The book – Behind the Sequins: My Life – explores Shirley’s early days as a dancing protegé, her marriages to ballroom stars Sammy Stopford and Corkey Ballas, her glowing career as a Latin champion and of course, her Strictly journey, which began back in 2017.
Shirley was teaching dance classes in Los Angeles when she picked up a call from Strictly producer Louise Rainbow, unsure of whether she’d be receiving good news or bad news. “She said, ‘You got the job’, and I fell to my knees. I was in shock because, as I said to my son [Mark Ballas] who’s been on Dancing With The Stars, there’s no way they’ll give the job to a 57-year-old woman without TV experience and he said, ‘Yes, but you’ve got he qualifications, should you get the opportunity I think that you would do a good job’.”
“When [Rainbow] said I got the job, I just thought, ‘Now, how can you use a platform to help others?’ and to be on the biggest show in TV was just unimaginable, I can’t even explain the feeling to you, it was unbelievable.”
Shirley was hired to replace long-time head judge Len Goodman, who was hanging up his scoring paddles after 12 years behind the judging panel – so the pressure was on.
“I just didn’t know how I was going to be received after such a wonderful run of Len Goodman. People don’t like change, they tend to flock towards what it’s always been,” she says.
While Shirley didn’t reach out to Goodman before making her Strictly debut, she turned to her 34-year-old son Mark – a professional ballroom dancer who appeared on the US version of Dancing with the Stars from 2007 until 2017 – who told her that she’d “never ever fill those shoes” so she shouldn’t “ever try”.
“He said, ‘But, you could put your little slippers next to them. Imagine Len’s shoes and then put these little slippers next to Len’s and just try to fill your own slippers,’ so that’s what I did,” she adds. “There’ll only be one Len Goodman. His sense of humour, his ‘sizzling sausages!’ or ‘give it some welly!’, you know, that’s Len and you couldn’t copy it so I could only be the best version of myself really for the public.”
Stepping out onto the Strictly stage for the first time in 2017 – the year Holby City’s Joe McFadden and Katya Jones won the competition – was an “absolutely terrifying” experience for Shirley, who was reminded of her ballroom competition debut aged 18 at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens with her first husband Sammy Stopford.
“I remember standing backstage, my knees were knocking, my heart was pounding and I had trickles of sweat running down my spine,” she says.
For Shirley, “the dancing”, “the talking” and “the glamming up” weren’t a problem for her – it was opening herself up to the British public and “letting [her] walls down” that she found difficult ahead of her first prime time appearance.
“It was a tough journey because I had to learn about TV, and I’ve got so many walls up that I tend to keep everybody out so it was breaking down the walls so people can see the real person. That was a challenge in itself. So all in all, it wasn’t just a walk in, put your dress on and go. I had to do a lot of mental preparation, understanding myself, could I share myself, could I share myself with the British public and that was what was more challenging.”
Now three years into the job, Shirley has settled firmly into her head judge seat, although she’s experiencing another set of firsts with Strictly’s COVID-secure series, which launched last Saturday to a viewership of 8.6 million.
It hasn’t exactly been a Waltz in the park for Strictly this year, with lockdown restrictions tightening as COVID cases rise – and as new, stricter rules are introduced as we head into the latter months of 2020, is Shirley worried that they may impact the series as it goes along?
“It has crossed my mind, it has crossed my mind, I’m not going to lie to you there,” she says. “But I have every confidence in the BBC and even just the way they work at sanitising and this and all the things they will put in place, I’m not worried at all about going to work. I just hope they don’t cancel.”
“I think they couldn’t cancel, the British public look forward to [Strictly] during the cold and winter months and we all needs a bit of glitz and glamour, baubles, bangles and beads – we need that on our screen on a Saturday evening.”
With a limited studio audience, a smaller celebrity line-up, pre-recorded professional dances and separated judging podiums, Shirley asks viewers to approach series 19 with a different mindset to previous seasons.
“I think it’s very important that the public goes into this show not comparing it to something we’ve had before. So taking it as a completely new entity as if Strictly is starting for the very first time.”
She adds: “And I think we can only expect the very very best from the BBC. They think outside the box, they will be thinking about how the public perceive it, they’ll be sticking to the guidelines and rules because that’s what they do and reassuring us all of the safety [of the show], and the safety of the dancers.”
While the lack of a large studio audience will be a big change, Shirley says she’s not worried. Why? “Because we’ve got Motsi Mabuse, and she’s enough audience for everybody,” she beams. “And she brings excitement just all on our own, she’s like a huge bright light, so i think we will be able to muster up some enthusiasm and make it exciting.”
The presence of South African pro Mabuse, who joined Strictly in 2019, is a welcome one on the judging panel for Shirley this year, especially in light of long-time judge Bruno Tonioli’s first absence in 16 years due to COVID-related travel restrictions.
“[Bruno] is the most spectacular human being you can ever come across, and everything that comes out of his mouth on my left is always sincere, genuine and from a good place. I’m going to miss his wafting arms – although with social distancing, he would have had to have exceptionally long arms.”
As for how the judging dynamic will work without Bruno this year, Shirley says it “remains to be seen” but she’s not worried about it.
“It will be nice to have Bruno back whenever he can make it and I know he will be sorely missed, but I know that three judges will belly up to the bar and they will give it all they’ve got to keep the enthusiasm alive.”
The inception of social distancing and Bruno’s absence aren’t the only unprecedented aspects of Strictly’s 2020. After 16 years, the show has finally introduced its first ever same-sex couple with boxing champion Nicola Adams and Russian pro Katya Jones.
“I am excited about the same-sex [pairing] very much, because I had a little girl partner until I was about 12, Shirley says. “We have it in my own industry, men dancing together, women dancing together, and let’s face it, for centuries and on stage, we’ve always had men group numbers, women groups numbers, you know ballet dancers who dance together.
“It’s nothing new, it’s just new for us on Strictly so I think that people need to give this a chance and just appreciate movement to music and quality of movement.”
As for the future of the Strictly Come Dancing line-up, Shirley wants a member of the Royal Family to sign up for the show. “I know that Sophie, the Countess of Wessex – she’s a huge fan and so is Camilla [the Duchess of Cornwall], I know Camilla likes to have a little totty around the floor.”
“She loves to have a little dance because I’ve been to some things and I’ve met her and I would love to think that one day, it would be possible that any member of the Royal Family would like to join the show.”
In the meantime, Shirley has a few activities on her bucket list that she’s hoping to get around to at some point, from scheduling a holiday with Mark for some quality family time, to jumping out of an airplane for charity. “I’d like to do something that’s challenging like that, something that’s way out of my comfort zone – watch this space!”