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Debbie McGee On Strictly: ‘I Had Messages From Joan Collins And Judi Dench'

·7 min read
(Photo: HuffPost)
(Photo: HuffPost)

Debbie McGee’s splits became such a thing of legend during her time on Strictly Come Dancing that she’s been continually asked to do them in pantomime after finishing runner up on the show in 2017.

“It’s what I get the biggest cheer for, so you have to do it, don’t you?” she giggles.

The then-58-year-old was set the challenge of doing the splits in her first week of training for the BBC show by her partner Giovanni Pernice, not content with the fact that they were already making Strictly history.

Debbie recalls: “The first week, we did the Paso Doble, which had never been done in the first week before, and I can remember the very first day of rehearsals, he said, ‘Darling, if you practice, do you think you can get in the splits?’ So I said I’d have a go.

“I was stretching for 20 minutes before I started training every day, and by the time we did the first dance, I was getting the splits.”

After vowing viewers – and indeed the judges – with her first performance (she and Giovanni scored an impressive 30 out of 40 for their dance floor debut), Debbie’s splits became her signature move during subsequent show-stopping routines.

Debbie McGee showcased her splits on a number of occasions during her Strictly stint (Photo: BBC)
Debbie McGee showcased her splits on a number of occasions during her Strictly stint (Photo: BBC)

“What people still say to me is, ‘Can you still do the splits?’ and yeah, I can!” Debbie insists. “I have to warm up – it doesn’t just happen these days – but because I do pilates and yoga, I stay reasonably flexible.”

In the latest instalment of our Back To The Ballroom series, the veteran entertainer lifts the lid on her “electric” partnership with Giovanni and reveals why she decided to keeeeeep dancingggg long after the series finished...

If you were to say Strictly, I immediately smile...

There wasn’t anything bad about it whatsoever, it was a really happy, wonderful, motivating time for me.

During the series, people like Joan Collins sent me messages…

And people I’d never expect like Judi Dench. Gosh, the messages I had from people who were my idols and people I worked with, who would send me messages saying, ‘You smashed it this week.’ I was thinking, ‘Oh they’re watching!’

One of the things of love that came out of Strictly is that I still get stopped now, particularly by women over the age of 50 that say I made them realise there’s a lot of life in them yet. A lot of them have joined gyms or dance classes and said I was their inspiration.

I made a lifelong friend in Giovanni, there is a special relationship there...

Debbie and Giovanni's routines were often filled with heat (Photo: BBC)
Debbie and Giovanni's routines were often filled with heat (Photo: BBC)

There wasn’t a relationship like that, but there was – and still is – that electricity between us. We’ve stayed in contact all the time since and whenever I see him, we go into the Waltz hold and I smile because it just feels natural that I should be in the Waltz hold with him.

If I’d had to dance with anyone else, it would have been…

Gorka [Marquez]. He’s the right height and we get on really well. He’s the kind of silent sweetie of the series, he really is. Behind the scenes, he’s so loving and warm. He’s just lovely and he’s such a good dancer. But Giovanni is the person I wanted absolutely from day one.

I also got to dance with Kevin [Clifton] in the Christmas show, which was lovely. The make-up girls all thought I’d get paired up with Kevin for the series.

What’s so wonderful is that I was around when Gorka and Gemma met...

Gemma Atkinson and Gorka Marquez got together after meeting on Strictly in 2017 and now have a daughter together (Photo: Karwai Tang via Getty Images)
Gemma Atkinson and Gorka Marquez got together after meeting on Strictly in 2017 and now have a daughter together (Photo: Karwai Tang via Getty Images)

I adored Gemma [Atkinson] – I spent lots of Thursday nights with her at the hotel and having dinner, so I got to know her well. She’s such a natural person.

I suppose out of anybody, you wouldn’t put those two together because of the height, but they are just made for each other.

They really didn’t get together until the end of the series. It was on the tour that they got together. I think there must have been a chemistry from the beginning.

My lowest moment in the competition was actually in the final week...

I was so exhausted and I was rehearsing for my pantomime as well and I just wasn’t very well. I literally had two days off rehearsals because I was feeling sick and awful. I actually think it was exhaustion. I’d lost half a stone that week, which I couldn’t afford to lose really.

But as the day went on on the Friday, I felt better. Then of course I danced the final and everything was fine.

One thing fans would be surprised to know about Strictly is...

On the Friday, as soon as you get a break, everybody books in to the physio to get a massage. Everybody was just inventing injuries so they could just go and get a massage [laughs].

You also only get one run through on Saturday afternoon in your costume. If there’s a problem, which in my Salsa week there was, they change it and you’ve then never worn the one you go out in. They took a whole layer of my dress out.

They work through the night to get all those costumes finished and it’s just an incredible team, especially when you think that all of those pieces have been created in a week.

My favourite ever Strictly couple is...

Kara Tointon and Artem Chigvintsev [who were crowned winners in 2010]. I really watched that whole series to follow them.

But my favourite Strictly routine is…

Alexandra Burke’s Jive. At that speed, with that power, it was amazing. People talk about Jay McGuiness’ Jive, which is excellent, but Alexandra’s Jive to me had so much energy, and it was the music too. Loads of Ashley Roberts’ dances to me were really good as well.

Alexandra and I laughed about reports we didn’t get on…

We really got on really well, so we were just like, ‘Where on earth has that come from?’ She’s lovely and in fact I’ve just been to see her in Joseph. She’s incredible and the power and talent behind that woman is phenomenal. When we were on the Strictly tour, a few times a week, she had a personal trainer at the hotel at 8am when we were all exhausted!

We really did have a really special year where we all got on. No-one was criticising you and there was no bad feeling, they were really trying to give you confidence and build you up.

The most random place I’ve showcased my Strictly moves is...

In the supermarket, people stop me all the time. Actually, I’ve just come back from Waitrose and there was this man with a walking stick and he said, “Oh I loved you on Strictly, you ought to do a programme, Debbie’s Dancing. Let’s dance up the aisles, shall we?” He had a walking stick so couldn’t walk very fast, but we did a little Tango.

Debbie competed on the show in 2017 (Photo: Dave J Hogan via Getty Images)
Debbie competed on the show in 2017 (Photo: Dave J Hogan via Getty Images)

I’ve been having private ballroom and Latin lessons this year…

I love it so much and I was getting bored of walking to keep fit, so I had some dance lessons and I look forward to them every week.

What you learn on Strictly is kind of glossing over the top to make it look like the dance – you learn a bit of technique, but really it’s not the technique.

For somebody to just take it up, it’s really hard. You really have to use your brain. It’s good for mental ability as well as physical. I’m having an hour’s private lesson once a week, but I was doing six to eight hours a day with Giovanni. To catch up with that would take forever.

My dream Strictly celeb is…

Kirstie Allsopp, because I’m a big fan of hers. She’s one of those people I adore because she’s comfortable in her own skin and knows who she is. She has her trademark dresses and says it as it is, so I would love to see her.

Kirstie Allsopp  (Photo: Jeff Spicer via Getty Images)
Kirstie Allsopp (Photo: Jeff Spicer via Getty Images)

My advice for this year’s contestants is…

Make sure you eat properly. In the early weeks, I probably didn’t eat enough for the calories I was burning.

I would also say don’t compare yourself to anybody else, just get on with it and be the best that you can be. If you’re on fifth or something on the night, you watch on and see them do amazing dances and think, ‘Oh I’m never going to be as good as that.’ So don’t compare yourself to anyone else.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.

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