Strictly Speaking: with Shirley Ballas

As head judge on Strictly Come Dancing, Shirley Ballas is the epitome of glamour. Yet the TV icon – who is appearing in panto at Darlington’s Hippodrome – is far from a diva. She’s open, honest and more than a little bit loved up. In fact, she’s positively glowing…

WORDS: JULIE BURNISTON
IMAGES: CHRIS BOOTH

Picture the angel on top of the Christmas tree – petite, beautiful and dazzling. This sums up Shirley Ballas.

She’s sitting opposite me in the bar at the Darlington Hippodrome, dressed in her Mother Nature panto outfit, swinging a silver wand in one hand and balancing a cup of black coffee in the other. She may be tiny, but she’s a bundle of energy.

I compliment her outfit as I manage to avoid being hit with the magic stick. “I like this one,” she says, ruffling her skirts and giving away a trace of her native Wallasey accent. “But I’m getting two more made – one in blue to match the sky when I fly up and another in purple to match Danny’s Flesh Creep outfit.”

Ahh, Danny, that would be Daniel Taylor, Ms Ballas’s co-star and main squeeze. Their paths crossed in panto a year ago, but just recently the Liverpool actor, 47, has put a spring in Shirley’s step as her life partner.

“We’ve been here together for three days and every part of my body is tingling,” she giggles. “I feel like a teenager. He’s too good to be true really. It’s a proper panto love story! Indeed it is!

“I’d been single for six years and I decided that I would never be with any one any more,” Shirley, 59, explains. “I’d given up on love.

“When I went into panto it was just fate because I had a choice of venues and I picked Liverpool Empire because my mother had cancer and I wanted to be close to her and allow her to see me as much as she could, and then of course I met this man, this amazing man…”

Until Danny came along, Christmas was always tinged with sadness for Shirley and her family. “As a child Christmas was very special to me, but then my brother David died one December – he committed suicide in the Christmas month, so for 15 years we didn’t celebrate it, my mother and I.

“It was Danny who coaxed us to put a small tree up, baubles and this and that, and in fact last year turned out to be the best Christmas ever; one, doing panto and being in Liverpool, and two, meeting Danny. He was so warm and sympathetic towards our situation.”

It had been Craig Revel Horwood, her fellow Strictly judge, who’d encouraged Shirley to tread the boards.

“I’d never sang or acted in my life before, but Craig said it would suit my personality, so I got in touch with Qdos and the rest is history.

“It’s funny but I’m sitting here in this beautiful building and it suddenly dawns on me that my son, Mark, actually played Buddy Holly in this very theatre, so he knows Darlington really well and he’ll be here on opening night watching me – how cool is that?!”

Not that the North-East is completely unfamiliar to Shirley.

“It may be my first time in panto here but I’ve done dance demonstrations many, many times up and down the country and around the North-East with Sammy (Stopford, her first husband) and Corky (Ballas, her second).

“It’s great. I love it. Me and Danny stay in a fabulous hotel here in Darlington and they are just so accommodating. So kind and so much fun and just really nice genuine people.

“Danny was in Blood Brothers and he’s been here many times so he drove me round and showed me the sights. There seems to be an awful lot of places to eat!” she laughs, raising her eyebrows.

“And, before you ask – no, I have not tried a parmo yet. Danny says it’s got five million calories in it, but no doubt yes, I will be trying one.”

Shirley, in fact, lived for two years in Yorkshire as a teenager.

“Well, I was born in Wallasey but I’m a bit of a nomad,” she says.

As well as Yorkshire, she made London, Manchester, Houston, Texas and Los Angeles her home through the years, before finally moving back to the UK and finding stardom with Strictly Come Dancing.

“I am wherever I hang my hat,” she shrugs. “I’m not attached to materialistic things at all. It didn’t faze me one bit selling my home in LA. The hardest thing was when my son Mark decided to live in America to follow a career on Broadway and in Hollywood. He was 22 at the time and I just went with him because I wasn’t married and thought I might be able to help.

“When I left to come back here – well, all I can say is thank goodness for FaceTime!”

Mark now lives in California and has found his own fame Stateside as an actor, musician, choreographer, songwriter and dancer on Dancing With The Stars.

“He’s done so well, he’s a real all-rounder, but he flew over to watch me in panto last year and he was terrified! He said of all the things he’s ever done in his life he was more scared watching me come out on stage than anything else.

“His wife told me he was actually underneath his chair at one point. As I did my first line, he popped up and said: ‘Oh, she’s not half bad!’ By the end of the show he picked me up and swung me round – he was so proud of me. It gave me such confidence because he’s so honest. He’s on me every week on Strictly. He will FaceTime me and check my hair and make-up,” she laughs.

“Landing such a high-profile job as head judge on Strictly should have been the icing on Shirley’s career cake, but along with the fame and accolades came some distressing online bullying. “When I was new to TV I was reading some of the things people said about me. Things like: ‘You are so ugly’, ‘You’ve got a chest like a Seville orange’ or ‘Crawl back under your rock, you need to be fired.’

“You know, it’s really cruel and personal, but because my brother suffered with mental health illness and he died, I always have that thought when someone writes something bad. I ask myself: ‘What place are they in?’ I try to be the bigger person and write something personal back to them – something kind and supportive.

“I know Mark would prefer I didn’t read these things at all, but I understand trolling now and take it with a pinch of salt. If they’re still being awful after two or three chances, I block them. Simple.”

Nasty comments aside, Shirley is in a really happy place right now and is looking forward to the festive season, being on Strictly and performing as Mother Nature in Jack And The Beanstalk for the people and children of Teesside.

“I’m so happy to be employed in a job I love,” she admits.

“I’m used to being busy and there is enough time to rest when you’re dead, right?

“I have to be organised though, as I won’t have much time between doing Strictly and the panto, but I’ve already done all my Christmas shopping – I took my mum to the Wedgwood factory in Stoke and we had a fantastic day. I bought all my gifts for the people at Strictly. I just have to get my cards bought now so I can write them out and get them out early.”

But what about the lady herself? What would Shirley Ballas like Father Christmas to bring her this year? Could she be finding an engagement ring under the tree?

“Would I like there to be wedding bells? Here in Darlington during panto? Now wouldn’t that be spectacular?’ she laughs.

Shirley is appearing as Mother Nature in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Hippodrome, Darlington, from Friday December 6 to Sunday January 5.
darlingtonhippodrome.co.uk