Louis smith is tired and wants to go home. He has been at the BBC’s Television Centre since 8.30am rehearsing his Strictly routine, having fittings for his outfit and recording additional material for the show that’s waltzed its way past ITV’s The X Factor to win the ratings battle on Saturday nights. Now it’s 5pm and he’s in the bowels of TVC trying to evoke the era of Fred Astaire for the Radio Times cover.
The problem is, Louis has no idea who Fred Astaire is. “Was he an old-school dancer?” he asks while clicking through images of the fleet-footed Hollywood star. “I didn’t even know black and white pictures still existed,” he smirks before stepping in front of the camera and striking a dashing pose with his dance partner, Flavia Cacace, that perfectly evokes the glamour of Fred and Ginger.
Dancing has come naturally to the poster boy of British gymnastics, with his perfectly coiffed hair, toned body and cheeky grin. Whether he is playing out every teenage girl’s fantasy by channelling Patrick Swayze in a salsa, or rising from the dead in a Halloween-inspired tango, he never fails to sprinkle his Olympic fairy dust all over the dance floor. If anything has tipped the balance in favour of the BBC’s show, it’s surely the combined weight of his and Victoria Pendleton’s six Olympic medals.
As head judge Len Goodman so elegantly put it, “Louis has waltzed into the hearts of the nation”, while Victoria has floundered on the dance floor but is coasting through on a wave of public votes.
“I could have felt lost when the Olympics were over,” says Louis, “but I have somehow found myself on the best show on TV. And we are smashing The X Factor [Strictly has attracted more than ten million viewers to its Saturday shows; often beating The X Factor by two million]. I know I auditioned for the show a few years back, but Strictly is much more up my street. I knew I would be good at dancing and that Strictly was a show I could take seriously, whereas I just did The X Factor for a laugh.”
“I was one of those annoying kids who was good at every sport. I tried it all -football, basketball, horse riding, ice skating, rollerblading – but gymnastics was the one I enjoyed the most. I had lots of adrenaline and wanted to try daring things – jumping on the trampoline, swinging on the high bars, falling in the foam pit – it was brilliant. There was so much more to it than football, where you pass the ball to each other, dribble round some cones and then have a shot at goal.”
Louis was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactive disorder) aged seven. His mum, Elaine, raised him and his brother alone in a village on the outskirts of Peterborough after their father walked out when Louis was three. “I had a lot of energy and my mum tried everything to exhaust me,” he says. In the gym, his coach, Paul Hall, learnt to do the same. When Louis was misbehaving, he punished him by making him do rotations on the pommel horse.
Back in the photographic studio at the BBC, Louis, looking debonair in his tails and white gloves, starts swinging his cane around in the air. It swings precariously close to Flavia’s head. She shoots him a look and tells him to behave. “But we’ve got the shot! We’ve smashed it, bruv! Can’t we go home now?”
It is easy to forget that this talented young man, who at 23 not only won an individual Olympic silver this year but also has two bronze medals, has spent the past 19 years in a gym, following a regimented routine under the supervision of expert coaches, focusing his energy towards one goal. He dedicated his adolescence to being “the best at gym I could possibly be”, forgoing parties, alcohol and girls in order to succeed. And now, without that discipline and focus, it feels like he never quite grew up.
“Unlike other sportsmen,” says Flavia, “Louis doesn’t push himself he needs someone to do it for him. I thought with his background he would be focused, disciplined and happy to train for eight hours a day, but he has difficulty concentrating. During training he’ll start playing with the air-conditioning unit, check Twitter or stare out of the window. I feel a bit like his mum – but that is what he needs. That is how he succeeded in gymnastics, so that is how I am helping him in Strictly.”
Louis’ real mum has been a constant presence in his life. She drove him to and from practice every day – a round trip of two hours. She cut back on her work as a hairdresser to support him at competitions and invested her own time, effort and money to get her son to where he is today.
“When I started taking gymnastics seriously,” Louis recalls, “my mum had to sacrifice things for me to be able to continue. I knew I had to do well to repay her. I had no choice but to carry on through injuries and setbacks and make her proud.”
Watching her son perform to a home crowd at the Olympics must surely have made all of that effort worthwhile. “I don’t think my mum enjoyed watching me at all. She knew more than anyone how I was feeling. She had put just as much work into that moment as I had. But the pressure, the nerves, the expectation was crazy, and she could feel that. The world championships, the Commonwealth Games – they were terrifying, but fun. The Olympic Games were… urghh… horrible. I never want to feel like that again and I don’t think I would want to put my mother through that again.”
Strictly is, however, his way of repaying her. “The main reason I wanted to do Strictly was because it is my mum’s favourite show and it used to be my nan’s favourite as well [his grandmother Dilys, who helped raise him, passed away three years ago and Louis has a tattoo on his back in her memory]. My mum was over the moon when she found out I was doing it, and has been in the audience every week to watch me.”
And it is not just during the live shows that Elaine is supporting her son. She is also a regular in the training room. “His mum brings us lunch on most of the days we train,” says Flavia. “The first time, I had no idea she was coming. All morning, rather than concentrating on the dance, Louis kept saying, ‘I really want beans on toast.’ Next thing I know he has gone off to make a phone call and an hour later his mum turns up with a massive tray of cheese and beans on toast.”
But ask Louis if he’s a mummy s boy and it doesn’t go down well. “No,” he says sulkily. “I moved out when I was 19 because she did my head in. I love her to bits, but I need my own space. She still does my washing, but that’s because I am never there. I could do my own washing and cooking if I needed to.”
For Flavia, however, Elaine’s presence is welcome. “I was in shock when he first curled up on the floor, pulled his hoodie over his head and asked me to give him five minutes in the middle of training. With his mum there, there are two of us to drag him up.”
Louis remains indignant, however. “If I am tired, I like to rest. People think that because I went to the Olympics I am superhuman, but I have a torn cartilage in my knee that needs an operation, a fractured ulna and swollen vertebrae in my back. So every 15 minutes I’ll have a lie down for five minutes. I was carrying all of those injuries at the Olympics, but if you have trained for 19 years and you get to the day of your most important performance, even if you don’t feel 100 per cent you push through – that is what makes a champion.”