This year certainly needs some sparkle and joy. And, come Saturday night, we’re finally getting both back in our lives – with the return of Strictly Come Dancing.
Coronavirus means the series this year will have fewer contestants and run for nine weeks instead of 12. But that is as far as Strictly bosses will compromise.
And head judge Shirley Ballas is as thrilled as the fans – especially about the show’s first same-sex couple, with boxer Nicola Adams expected to be partnered with Katya Jones at the big launch.
“I’m very excited about the same-sex couple. That’s long overdue,” says Shirley, 60.
“If you go to the theatre you’ll see two men dance together, if you go to the ballet, you’ll see two men dance together. It’s really not a big deal.”
She is even looking forward to seeing one-time nemesis Craig Revel Horwood.
They had a spat after she replaced Len Goodman in 2017, spurred on by him joking: “Her boobs were like La BaZooKa things hanging out.”
Unknown to Craig it triggered difficult memories as Shirley claims her ex-husband – and dance partner – Corky Ballas would regularly criticise her body.
But Craig has apologised, with Shirley saying: “That’s been ironed out. We’ve got past that now. I’ve done some jobs with him and I find him a unique character with a very caring heart.”
And if things get rocky again, Shirley can put a little distance between them.
Each judge has been given an individual podium several metres apart as part of the show’s safety measures.
Shirley has spent the best part of this year in lockdown with her 83-year-old mum Audrey and her boyfriend, actor Daniel Taylor, 47, and has used the time to write her memoirs.
But looking back at her two failed marriages and her brother’s death has been traumatic. While she has had counselling, she says recently she has been especially needing it.
In fact she has come straight from her counsellor to speak with us, and is noticeably tearful.
“It’s been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster,” says Shirley, who supports the mental health charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably).
“It’s been such a difficult journey – and continues to be a difficult journey to this day. Bits happen in your life and you deal with that particular bit at a particular time and then you put it in Pandora’s box and put that episode away.
“But when you open it up, like I have done… I feel like my life at the moment is very scattered, like everything’s out of the box and I’m trying to gather it all to bring it back to one place.”
Asked why she feels the need to address everything now, she says: “I thought, ‘When you get this job on Strictly it can be a platform for people to be inspired’. And I wanted my son [Mark] to get a better perspective of his mother.”
Shirley feels its important to be open about mental health to help others. And her live-in partner of 18 months Danny has been there to support her.
“He’s also been through this difficult journey and now, as my emotions become a little bit more triggered, I think he sees another side of me,” says Shirley, who met him in panto in 2018.
“He’s very complimentary and loves me just the way I am. Of course, there is a honeymoon period which will pass, but I’m optimistic for the future.”
But they are not at the wedding bells stage yet. Shirley says: “Danny thinks everything is going well the way it is, so is it necessary for a marriage certificate to say you’re in a great relationship? We’ve talked about it, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Shirley has gone from working-class beginnings in Wallasey in the Wirral to the ballrooms of the world.
Her and her ex Corky’s son Mark, 34, is a pro on the US version Dancing With The Stars, and Shirley has taught Tom Cruise how to look good on the dance floor.
Raised by her mum on a housing estate – her dad left when she was two – Shirley Rich started dancing at the age of seven. Audrey took on a variety of jobs to pay for the lessons.
She left home at 14, dancing competitively during her teens and married her first husband, professional dancer Sammy Stopford, at 19.
Trophies followed but they divorced five years later, when she moved to Texas to be with Corky, with whom she went on to win major contests.
They were married for 23 years before separating in 2003, but it was a tumultuous relationship. He gave a scathing interview when she landed Strictly.
“He said, ‘I enjoyed dancing with her but I hated her as a person’,” recalls Shirley.
“And he called my mother a termite – the woman who’d given up 21 years of her life to raise our child so we could travel and become these dance icons.”
The marriage destroyed her body confidence. She has had liposuction, breast implants and removals. “I have scars under my boobs which Danny says look like smiley faces.
“As for body image, it doesn’t matter how much reassurance I get, I wouldn’t get up in the morning and stand in front of the mirror.”
The death of her brother David, aged 44, in 2003, remains her biggest heartache.
In the last year of his life, he suffered with depression and anxiety.
She says: “He was my go-to person. Every day at four I’d talk to him. He didn’t judge. When I have to bring up ex-husbands and the death of my brother, it all accumulates into one emotional ball, which I’m trying to understand.”
As the tears start to fall, she sits up, composes herself and reverts to the happier thoughts about Strictly.
She adores Bruno Tonioli, although he will be appearing by video link (he is in the US) but she also has Motsi Mabuse joining her alongside Craig.
Shirley clearly loves the job, and has no thoughts of leaving. Not by choice. “I’d like to think I’d be on Strictly till the day I pop my clogs,” she says.
*Behind The Sequins by Shirley Ballas is published by BBC Books, priced £20.
Strictly Come Dancing: The Launch, BBC1, Saturday, 7.50pm.
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