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Shirley Ballas - strictly speaking

19 November 2019

Shirley Ballas can’t stop smiling – and it’s no wonder. For her Christmas was always a time of great sadness, but this year things couldn’t be more different...

Shirley Ballas

Not only is Strictly Come Dancing’s head judge back to stay in the UK after 13 years in Los Angeles, and newly settled into her spacious house in southeast London, but after being single for many years, she is in a relationship with her panto co-star actor Daniel Taylor. They met last Christmas when she made her panto debut as the good fairy Mother Nature in Jack and the Beanstalk, and he played the villain Fleshcreep.

I met Shirley on a day off that she was spending with her 82-year-old mum Audrey in Wallasey, Liverpool, where she grew up. She still manages to look glamorous even in jeans, a white T-shirt and trainers, with minimal make-up. But there is something different about the strict and slightly chippy head judge on the country’s favourite entertainment show. Has she mellowed?

‘I’ve definitely changed since I met Danny. There were lots of walls up before, and brick by brick he took them down, and people can see the real you. And they either love you or they don’t. But that’s the person you are.

‘My life has done a U-turn since I met Danny. I said to him the other day, “It sounds stupid, but I feel like a teenager”. I never had a teenage life, I was always dancing,’ says the queen of Latin, who has been performing competitively since she was 15, got engaged at 16 to her dance partner and married the next one at 18.

‘I never socialised or went to teen clubs. It feels like I’m living my life the other way round. I’m learning to be sociable now. My feet don’t touch the floor. He is so much fun, and loving and caring and kind. Somebody to talk to every day and share my stuff with. Someone who has an understanding and cares. It just works.’

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The first time she set eyes on him was when she encountered him in panto rehearsal. ‘I had never worked on stage before. And doing panto was the most terrifying experience of my life: I had more private lessons on that script than I’ve ever had in dancing.

‘Danny was in costume as Fleshcreep in this purple oversized outfit and huge hat, with black teeth and fingernails, a beard, black boots and a big stick. And there was me in my good fairy dress with a wand, trying not to trip over the curtains, to make all this goodness happen for Jack. Daniel was so powerful and scary that I came off stage so upset and said, “I can’t compete with this”. The director said, “You don’t have to. You’re the good fairy. Just go with it”.’

So she did. And it wasn’t long before she found herself being hugely attracted to Fleshcreep. It happened the night Shirley’s 33-year-old son Mark – a Broadway star and professional dancer on the US show Dancing with the Stars – arrived to watch his mum in panto.

‘After one show we all went out, and Danny had a black jacket on and a blue shirt with a blue tie pulled down. The black teeth had gone and he had this jet-black hair with piercing blue eyes, and that is the first time I looked and thought... ooh that’s nice!’

She vividly remembers their first scene together on stage in front of an audience. ‘That was the moment I fell in love with Danny, the person who was kind to everybody behind the scenes. Well, it was the moment for me. Not for him. Danny was coming out of a long-term relationship and he wasn’t in that place. We only got together properly in March.

‘I’d been single for six years because I was so disillusioned by it all. I took a break,’ says Shirley, who was married for the second time in the 1980s to dancer Corky Ballas, Mark’s father. But presenting Matchmaker Mountain – a dating show for older women on ITV’s This Morning – gave her hope.

She adds: ‘It got my adrenaline flowing a bit. I thought, okay, you may be older, darling, but you’re not dead!’

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And the truth is, she has never felt more alive. There is only one thing bugging her: the constant references to the couple’s age gap. She is 59, he is 47.

‘It makes me cross when he is described as a toy boy. He is a 47-year-old grown man who can make his own choices. He is not 18. You can have a man who is 25 years older than his girlfriend and no one says anything.’

But she admits that the age difference did cause initial concern. ‘When I first got together with Danny it was an issue for me, and we sat for many hours talking about it. I don’t want to go into a relationship that can’t go anywhere. I don’t want his son (aged eight) to get to know someone who is here today and gone tomorrow. But he said, “I don’t see the age. I see the person and the age issue is irrelevant to me”.’

This new man in her life has also given her a reason to be excited about Christmas, following the suicide of her beloved brother David in 2003.

‘My brother died during the Christmas period and my mother and I didn’t celebrate Christmas for about 15 years. It’s all such a fog, I can’t even tell you how we spent those days. We just got through them. It was a pressure we put on ourselves. And I don’t think we should have done that. It’s a grieving process. You never forget your loved ones,’ says Shirley who will be raising funds this year for CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably, which is leading a movement against suicide.

David had been her rock after her father left home when she was two. And this year, as always, she will toast David and recall the happy memories they shared. She is also in constant touch with his daughter, Mary, who was ten when her father died, and after the death of her mother, was raised by Shirley and Audrey. Now 25, Mary is often in the audience of Strictly.

This Christmas, Shirley and Danny will be on stage again in Jack and the Beanstalk at Darlington Hippodrome. ‘Everything is new to me because this time last year I wasn’t with Danny. Now we’ll be together every day on stage. Danny really loves Christmas. It feels as though I’m going on holiday, even though I will be working.’

She will spend Christmas Day at her mum’s house with Mark, who is flying in from the States, and her dog Charlie. ‘And I’ll see Danny during the day and we’ll watch the Christmas Strictly together. He’d never seen the show before he met me and didn’t have a clue who I was. He thought his leading lady was going to be Shirley Bassey! And I couldn’t remember his name, so I put him in my phone as Fleshcreep, which still comes up when he calls me.

‘Now he loves Strictly, and wants to learn to dance. I’ve already had a dance with him and, oh yes, he’s quite the mover, darling.’

Her Christmas shopping is all done. The cards written. And she’s learned her lines and dance steps for her role as the good fairy Mother Nature as she once again prepares to wave her wand.

‘I go to bed with a smile on my face. I wake up with a smile on my face. My life really is like a pantomime fairy-tale. I am having the time of my life.’

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at Darlington Hippodrome from 6 Dec to 5 Jan 2020.

Catch Shirley as head judge on Strictly Come Dancing on Saturday and Sunday evenings on BBC One

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.