STRICTLY Come Dancing head judge Shirley Ballas on why she is ready to tie the knot for the third time, how Covid left her bedbound and her plans to stay looking her beautiful best for the show.
Most people think TV is a young person’s game, but Shirley Ballas smashes that assumption to smithereens, and then some.
“I might be one of your older cover stars, but this shoot today is going to be sexy.
“I want sexy knickers and I’ll rock it with a little short jacket and a bit of bosom showing.
“If you’ve got it, flaunt it. I will be high kicking around the studio.
“I may be 61 [tomorrow], but let’s see if you can keep up with me!”
There’s no question Shirley is defying the age on her birth certificate.
It’s hard to believe that outside the dancing world, she was an unknown until 2017 when, aged 57, she landed one of the most coveted roles on prime-time TV, replacing head judge Len Goodman on Strictly Come Dancing, and took our Saturday nights by storm.
Shirley, nicknamed “the queen of Latin”, is the embodiment of “you’re not too old, it’s not too late.”
In the last four years, she’s won over the Strictly audience with her firm-but-fair approach and helped the BBC ratings rocket to more than 13 million viewers during last year’s series.
And it’s not just her professional life that she’s sorted in her later years – her love life has never been better either, after the twice-divorced star fell for actor Daniel Taylor, 48, two years ago, while they were working together in panto.
When we speak on Zoom, Shirley is immaculately put together – hair blow-dried to perfection and her flawless skin showing barely any signs of make-up except for a dash of red lipstick.
But unlike some celebrities who put their appearance down to “drinking water and good genes”, Shirley declares with refreshing honesty that she works hard to look this good.
“Oh, I’m competitive, darling. I want to look the best, so I’ve been working on getting into my dresses for Strictly to make sure everything fits.
“I’ve gone vegan and I’ve been on the Peloton, weight training and walking the dog for an hour every day.
“I’m also working on my skin, taking better care of it.
“No facelifts, no fillers, no funny lips.
“I’ve had some non-invasive laser lifting and sunspots removed. Would I have a facelift down the line? Maybe, because why not?
“I want to go out there on a Saturday night looking the best I possibly can for the viewers.
“I know they enjoy the show no matter what, but I want to make an effort so they know I don’t just sit on my laurels and take the job for granted, because I really don’t.”
Her prep for Saturday nights judging on the panel sounds brutal, but nothing can top the battle she went through with the menopause.
“It started bang on 50 and I had the toughest time ever,” she says.
“I was irritable and an awful person to live with – and then there were the night sweats.
“Menopause is a bitch. It’s awful.
“Now I’m sort of through it with diet and exercise, as well as bioidentical hormones [made from plants and chemically identical to hormones your body produces]. I could not survive without them.
“I’ll go next week to get my supply for the run-up to Strictly.”
She’s also had a diet overhaul with the help of Dr Sunni Patel, who runs the website DishDashDeets, which provides plant-based recipes and gut health advice.
“He has lots of gut-healthy recipes and has shown me how to cook. My fridge is full of food and everything is so tasty.
I’ve always suffered with weight issues, but this is the first time in my entire life that I’m not starving myself.”
Shirley has always prided herself on being fit, strong and healthy, so she was completely floored when she tested positive for Covid in March.
The virus left her bedbound as well as unable to exercise.
But alongside the physical repercussions of the disease, Shirley, who tragically lost her brother David to suicide in 2003 aged 44, is also worried about the mental toll the pandemic will have on us all.
“Covid was difficult. I was poorly and it was scary as I was on my own [in London] as Danny was back in Liverpool where he’s from.
“I was in bed for nearly two weeks. I didn’t have anyone taking care of me.
“I was nervous I would have to go to hospital, because my breathing was laboured, but thankfully it never got that bad.
“But recovering from it – just getting up and down the stairs – was difficult. I had to start back on the Peloton bike for just five minutes and even that was exhausting.
“Danny, who tested positive in March as well, is still struggling with long Covid.
“He had a lump in his bits, his lungs weren’t working well and he had problems with his legs. Covid has affected people in so many different ways. Lockdown was hard, too.
“I wouldn’t have got through lockdown without counselling. I had counselling on how to help people who were direct messaging me, as well as myself.
“Not that I’m a professional, but I needed help to be strong for the people around me. Counselling is still an extremely important part of my life every week.”
Shirley’s face lights up at the mere mention of Daniel.
The pair met at pantomime rehearsals for Jack And The Beanstalk in 2018 in Darlington and have been inseparable ever since
Despite their 13-year age difference, it doesn’t bother the star that he’s always referred to as her “toyboy”.
“First of all, I look younger than him. It might be there in numbers, but I give Danny a run for his money!
We do talk about marriage. Come on Daniel! Where is the ring?
“We don’t look at age, we just get on really well together.
“Do we ever have ups and downs? Absolutely.
“We spent time together in lockdown and that was like 10 years’ work but it made us stronger. If you came through lockdown, you can come through anything.”
And what about making it official?
“We do talk about marriage. Come on, Daniel, where is the ring?
“If I married him, I think I would be Shirley Ballas-Taylor – it sounds a bit like Elizabeth Taylor and I could collect husbands like she does.
“After all, you can always get a divorce! [Laughs] She had eight marriages didn’t she? No, I’ll just stick with my Danny, but I do think it has a nice ring to it.”
But before Shirley thinks about planning another wedding, she’s got three months of Strictly to get through first.
“I get quite emotional, actually, even thinking that Strictly is coming back on.
“I’m so excited that they are managing to have the full 13 episodes [last year’s series was reduced to nine weeks due to the pandemic]. And what a cast!
“I am predicting this year could bring Emma Thompson’s toughest role yet – she’s used to working alongside her charming actor husband Greg Wise, but he’ll be gliding across the floor on Strictly and she won’t have any control over how he does.
“I’ve actually crossed paths with quite a few of the line-up.
“I’ve done Cooking With The Stars with AJ [Odudu] and I know [comedian] Robert Webb, [McFly’s] Tom Fletcher and [chef/influencer] Tilly Ramsay.
“I climbed Kilimanjaro with [broadcaster] Dan Walker [for Comic Relief in 2019]. He was a superstar on the mountain.
“The first night, I cried because I couldn’t put my tent up and he said: ‘Come on, Shirley, show me your cha cha cha,’ and then he came shimmying towards me – so I know he’s got rhythm.
“He’s got the perfect neckline for ballroom. In fact, most of the men have got the body type for Latin or ballroom.
I’ve never seen so many great-looking people, so it’s going to be fabulous.”
But don’t worry, the consummate professional shakes her head in shock at the very suggestion that the celebrities she knows might get an easy ride.
“Honey, I was the toughest judge ever when I taught my son [former Dancing With The Stars pro] Mark.
“No [easy scoring]. I’m all about the dancing. I’m just excited. We’ve been in lockdown for so long, so I think these celebrities are very excited to get on the show.”
Last year, underdog Bill Bailey was the shock winner after being initially dismissed as the “joke act”, so while Shirley isn’t allowed to predict front runners, she says the audience shouldn’t rule out anyone picking up the Glitterball trophy this year.
“It’s not just dancing – it comes down to hard work and how they get along with their professional partner.
“They have to connect with those watching, because we judges can give low marks but they will still go through if the audience loves them. We’ve got all sorts of choices for a winner here.
“Look at [swimmer] Adam Peaty – what a journey he’s had already, from training through lockdown, going to Tokyo and then bringing two gold medals back, and now Strictly.”
This year sees one of the most diverse line-ups yet, including the first all-male partnership, as well as EastEnders star Rose Ayling-Ellis, the first deaf contestant in Strictly history.
“There was a deaf contestant on Dancing With The Stars, Nyle DiMarco, who won the show.
“It’s amazing how deaf people use other instincts to ‘hear’,” Shirley says.
“They use the vibration of the floor, they can lip read, they can sense.
“I don’t have any sign language, but Rose can read lips very well.
“I have a rather large mouth and I do speak quite well – I don’t think Rose is going to have a problem. I’m expecting great things from her.
“I’m not worried about her timings and she’ll have a strong partner to help her stay in time.
“And she’s going to show us that, under any circumstances, you can still achieve your dreams.”
Last year, boxer Nicola Adams was part of the first all-female partnership alongside professional Katya Jones, and despite an overwhelmingly positive reaction, the corporation was forced to release a statement about the pairing after they received over 100 complaints before the show even started.
This year, former Great British Bake Off star John Whaite will compete in the first all-male pairing.
“It’s a great step forward in representation and inclusion.
“To me, there isn’t any difference – I will be judging the musicality, the footwork, the visual connection they have with each other.
“We have to open our minds. We’re conditioned to think of men and women [dancing together] but that doesn’t mean the male outfits won’t be exciting – why couldn’t he have a rhinestone shirt?
“Or perhaps he won’t wear any shirt at all! I’m sure they’ll change it up.”
Another key change this year is happening on the judging panel, as original professional Anton Du Beke hangs up his dancing shoes after 17 years to replace Bruno Tonioli as a judge.
Anton, 55, has already had a test run as judge when Motsi Mabuse, 40, was forced to self-isolate last year.
“I don’t think Anton needs any tips from me. He’s been on the show since the start and he’s been loyal.
“He’s given heart and soul and never complains – no matter which partner he has, he gives 1,000%.
“Without doubt, he will bring that, week in, week out,” Shirley says.
“So I don’t think I will need to give him advice, but if any of the panel stray from the rules when it comes to scoring technique, I might give a playful little slap here and there!”
Shirley is so dedicated to the cause that she’s even delaying surgery on a benign growth in her shoulder until after Christmas so she doesn’t have to miss any studio time.
She famously had a breast reduction in October 2019 and appeared on screen just four days later.
“The hospital contacted me this morning because they want me to go in for surgery. But my question is: how long is the recovery?
“I had my boobs out on a Tuesday and I went back to work on a Saturday, but somebody told me that [this procedure] is immensely painful so I need to do more research before I commit to it.”
Having already experienced how debilitating Covid can be, it’s no surprise that Shirley is being extra cautious with socialising ahead of the new series kicking off on Saturday.
Her personal sacrifice is huge. She’s considering skipping the National Television Awards next week, where Strictly is nominated for Best Talent Show, and she’s also missed out on visiting her beloved son Mark, 35, in LA, who she hasn’t seen in nearly two years.
“Sarah James, Strictly’s executive producer, said to me: ‘If you think the restrictions were tough last year, they’re going to be tougher this year. We want the 13 weeks to go ahead.’
This show is a big deal, so I will forgo seeing my boy.
“There’s a sacrifice to be made if we want to get through it for the people at home. I’m being extremely vigilant with wearing my mask and washing my hands.
“So if I’m invited out to big events, I think twice. Like the NTAs – do I really need to be there
“I was going to go to America to see my son, but I didn’t want to make that journey and take the risk in case I caught anything and couldn’t do the launch show.
“It’s my responsibility. This show is a big deal, so I will forgo seeing my boy.”
The mention of Mark changes the tone of our chat as Shirley’s eyes fill with tears.
“I’m sorry. I’m getting emotional thinking about him.
“Not holding him or being in the same room has been the hardest thing. But it felt selfish to go.
“The choices I make aren’t just important for myself but for the audience. The show must go on.”
- Strictly starts Saturday, BBC1. Behind The Sequins: My Life by Shirley Ballas (£7.99, BBC Books) is out September 16.
In the make-up chair with Shirley
Any make-up bag essentials?
Heliocare Ultrais SPF90 and I wear it whether I have make-up on or not.
What’s your skincare hero?
Liz Earle products. I apply the Cleanse & Polish Hot Cloth Cleanser in the shower and then the Instant Boost Skin Tonic afterwards. And I use the Superskin Alt-Retinol Paste twice a week.
What do you splurge on?
And what’s your budget buy?
Garnier face masks – I use so many.
What’s your top beauty tip?
Take off your make-up correctly before bed, using a proper cleanser and toner. You need to double cleanse. And make sure the water isn’t too hot.
Who’s your beauty icon?
Alison Young, who wrote The Beauty Insider. She created a haven of beautiful candles in my bathroom.
Describe your beauty evolution
Although I’m not really a make-up person, I appreciate it. I’ve learned to find products that suit my skin type.