A day always starts well when you’ve got an excuse to don some sparkle. I had to restrain myself on that front but, settling for a top with just a hint of glitter – it would have been rude not to – I made my way to Elstree studios to meet the #classof2017, those Strictly celebs whose first steps we get to watch in group action tonight.
Let me set the scene – a room festooned with fairy lights and glitter balls, gold-coloured chairs ready at the tables where hoards of journalists put the celebs under their first serious inquisition. It’s Strictly speed-dating: six minutes per celeb pair, with a hooter at the ready when it’s time for them to move on!
Before the celebs arrived, I chatted to TV Times journo and Strictly correspondent Emma Bullimore (if you’re a fan of BBC2’s It Takes Two on week nights with Zoe Ball, you’ll have seen her grace the sofa and give her verdict on dances). If, after tonight, you need another Strictly fix before the live shows start, set aside an hour on Saturday 16 September from 8pm. Emma’s documentary – Puttin’ on the Glitz – The Strictly Story – on BBC Radio 5 Live, promises to be an entertaining listen, with many a sequin-studded- secret revealed!
As the huddle of celebs were paraded into the room, Loose Women/This Morning presenter, Ruth Langsford caught my eye. Without a camera in sight, she entered with jazz-handed aplomb! I think she could be one to watch…
Alexandra Burke couldn’t attend, as her mother had passed away just a week earlier, but here’s what the other fabulous 14 had to say on Strictly fitness, fears and fleckerls (that’s a step, celebs!)
Debbie McGee & Susan Calman
‘I’ve never danced. I’ve avoided dancing. I’m not good at dancing. I hate dancing,’ revealed comedian Susan Calman, ‘but the first day’s dancing with the pros was the most magical thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was such a rush of joy.’ That’s my girl. Describing practising with Pasha, she demonstrated, almost without even realising she was doing it, how he asked her to turn her head – boy, did she nail that neckline. Another tick by Susan ‘s name came when Debbie revealed she was picking up the steps well. ‘I’ve got a good memory,’ added Susan. Vital, vital, vital. I can’t claim the same. Even after eight years’ learning to dance, on a bad day, I still question what foot I should start with in a waltz!
‘Latin is going to be the most horrific thing I’ve ever done in my life because that requires sexy legs. No one has ever said to me I’ve got sexy legs. But ballroom – yes! And I’m going to get fit.’
Debbie McGee is this year’s oldest contestant. She’s a mere 58. ‘I don’t think I’ll be paired with AJ or Gorka because I’ll look like their mother,’ she joked. ‘But I don’t care who I get. As soon as any of them take hold of you, they just make you feel like you’re going to be able to do it.’ Debbie’s desire? ‘I just want to have a really good time. I’d like to lose some of my inhibitions – I’m very British! If you get to know me, I let everything go, but normally I’m very well-behaved. On this programme you have to forget all that and just go for it!
Brian Conley & Gemma Atkinson
Like so many celebs before her, Gemma admitted that even after just a few training sessions, she’s realised one thing: ‘It’s a completely different level of fitness. It’s all about your posture and your core. The pros put us to shame.’
‘I’ve tried to eat healthily because I want to have more energy. But at the same time, because I’m training so much, I’m hungry and I want a pizza!’
Brian admitted to being ‘blown away’ by the technique. ‘There’s a hell of a lot to it and it’s so out of my comfort zone. We’re like aliens being beamed down.’
‘I haven’t got a six pack, I’ve just got a beer barrel’
‘The first day, I went home, had a bath and I have never slept that well in my life. I was absolutely exhausted. My back hurt and my elbows,’ he continued.
Aching elbows can only mean one thing. He must be well on the way to holding his arms correctly in ballroom hold. Trust me, it’s painful! I fear his level of research on the Latin dances may leave a little to be desired, though. ‘I’ve watched Dirty Dancing four times!’
Mollie King & Aston Merrygold
With their performance experience, some might say these two have an unfair advantage but Mollie quickly pointed out, ‘With The Saturdays, most of our dances were posing, pointing and shaking it’. She rightly said she’s ‘not sure how far that will get me with this.’ And Aston’s right on the mark, too, when a fellow journo asks if he’ll be pulling out the backflips. ‘In ballroom? How many backflips have you seen in ballroom?’ he laughs. ‘I can’t pull out my tricks!’ He does however claim his six-pack is ‘in and around there somewhere’. Cue low-cut shirts.
Jonnie Peacock & Davood Ghadami
Fitness shouldn’t be an issue with this pair. Jonnie for obvious reasons and Davood because he looks like he lives in a gym. Those guns! He revealed he does Crossfit three to four times a week. ‘On the cardiovascular front I think I’m ready, it’s the rhythm and technique I need to work on.’
Jonnie told me he’s been in touch with Sharna Burgess, a pro on America’s Dancing with the Stars who, in 2015, was partnered with Noah Galloway, a war veteran with a prosthetic leg. ‘She looked at some of my movements to see if there would be any problems,’ said Jonnie. ‘We very quickly realised the leg wasn’t the issue, it was me.’
‘At school, I once had a half hour dance lesson in Year 8. I ended up dancing with the teacher. I don’t know if she saw somebody that needed help or somebody who had potential.’
When it comes to teachers, Davood thinks he needs someone ‘not too strict’ as he thinks he’ll need coaxing. But I definitely need someone who’s going to tell me if it looks bad, rather than finding out in front of 12 million people! If I was at a wedding, I’d be at the bar – and I don’t even drink. I never off my own back say, ‘You know what, let’s start this.’
Charlotte Hawkins & Chizzy Akudolu
Former Holby actress Chizzy has realised already that’s she not breathing properly when she dances – ‘I’m getting out of breath really quickly’. I can certainly relate to that Chizzy – as someone with cystic fibrosis and just 35% lung function, my breath is tested with every dance step I take.
Charlotte said dancing has made her feel alive, despite her early starts for GMB. ‘It gives you more energy being that active.’ But, so far, her frustrations lie in not being able to remember the steps.
‘I’m not very body confident at the moment but as my legs get slimmer I’d like my dresses to get shorter’
Simon Rimmer & Joe McFadden
‘There’s something lovely about being outside your comfort zone,’ said TV chef Simon, co-presenter of Sunday Brunch. But he said he’s genuinely scared he ‘won’t be able to do it.’ As for his fitness, he’s right up there: ‘I box, I do Pilates, I go to the gym, I’m fit and healthy. I’m 54 so there are a few creaky bits – my knees don’t work properly, I’ve got a bad back. I think I’ll be visiting the physio more than Joe will!’
Joe’s a yoga fan and has been doing some boxing training, but added, ‘that’s another thing I’m looking forward to – getting really fit.’
Ruth Langsford & Reverend Richard Coles
I have a confession to make. I rarely have a favourite before the show has even started but, this year, the Rev’s tweets alone have already been worthy of a glitterball all their own. I warm to his quick-wit immediately – but post-interview desperately hope that just because he is funny he isn’t immediately made the ‘comedy character’ of this year’s line up.
Describing his prior dance experience as ‘disastrous, borderline catastrophic’ he tells the tale of the last time he danced in public. ‘I was on a podium on a nightclub in Ibiza and I fell off the podium. But I fell off beautifully.’
‘I feel dynamically sexy at all times, but if anything I’m even hotter dancing.’
REV RICHARD COLES
Like most of the celebs, Ruth is looking forward to learning the Latin dances the most, naming salsa and jive top of her list.
Both celebs are doubting their fitness levels. The Rev, who is partial to a bit of cycling, claims he has halved his pork pie intake (swapping for pasties instead!) and that his trousers are already falling down – ‘I feel like a boxer at a weigh-in’ – while Ruth reveals she’s started skipping.
‘I used to love skipping at school. I’ve started again but, at first, I did about six before I tripped over. Now I’m up to 100 skips without stopping.’