Say you’re a celebrity strutting your stuff on Strictly Come Dancing. Even if you have two left feet you might imagine your own mother would be confident of your chances of winning. Well, yes and no, according to Jay McGuiness, who did indeed lift the famous glitterball just before Christmas.
‘My mum bet on Anita Rani to win,’ reveals the singer who captured our hearts with that Pulp Fiction-inspired jive. ‘Actually, she bet on Anita and me, so she did OK.’ His laugh suggests he was the after-thought, though.
Our newest (and most unlikely) heart-throb still has the air of a bemused schoolboy as he talks about his Strictly success, saying he couldn’t believe it when he was named the winner.
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Jay, right, is off on tour with Strictly, pictured here with the show judges Craig Revel Horwood and Bruno Tonioli, left, and Len Goodman sat behind him on the right
‘It was one of those pinch-me moments,’ says the 25-year-old known as a singer with boy band The Wanted. ‘I honestly didn’t expect to hear it.’
The glee with which he clutched the glitterball seems to have taken him by surprise too. Why? ‘Because I’m not a showbizzy person. But I’ve loved this. It’s been so unexpected, the whole thing.’
Jay’s progress on the show – from rather nervous boy band member to fully fledged sex symbol – was unexpected. The haircut was part of it, obviously. When he first emerged, blinking, under the Strictly lights, his hair was long and frizzy. It was hair only a mother could love, frankly. It had to be slicked back for his jive; then his professional partner Aliona Vilani insisted he should cut it. He duly agreed, and Twitter went into meltdown – with the reaction overwhelmingly positive (although one wag did suggest he looked like a ‘confused labradoodle’ rather than an Adonis).
‘The whole thing was a life-changer,’ he admits. ‘I didn’t expect it to take over in the way that it did. I’ve just been blown away by the whole experience and I didn’t expect to be.’
We hit it off from the start. It was very emotional – Jay McGuiness
Is it only the dancing experience that’s left him smitten though?
Jaws may have dropped at his emerging skills, but tongues were most definitely wagging as his relationship with Aliona developed on the dance floor – the suggestion being that such passion couldn’t possibly be just a dance floor thing. Jay’s intimacy with Aliona, not just on the Strictly stage but during TV interviews and in photographs of the pair together coming out of rehearsals, also raised eyebrows. Aliona’s a married woman – and she tied the knot as recently as 2014 – but weren’t their lingering looks and open mutual adoration the sign of something more?
He doesn’t seem at all irritated to be asked, but simply shrugs. ‘People can read into it what they want, but there’s honestly nothing there,’ he says. ‘We are close, but it’s a friendship, like a brother and sister thing. We just hit it off from the start.’
But few brothers and sisters are that tactile… He talks about how things are different in the dance world. ‘I mean it’s odd at the start. On the first day, when we were doing the group dance, all the guys were on one side and the girls on the other – it was like being at a school disco. But that soon goes. And it was Ali’s job to make it all comfortable.’
The tenderness between them was highlighted in a picture taken in the street after they’d been out celebrating their win. What was going on there?
‘I think I was just saying thank you for everything. It was an emotional thing, the whole journey.’
Jay and Aliona embrace after the end-of-series party. Their intimacy raised eyebrows but Jay said ‘I was just saying thank you for everything. It was an emotional thing, the whole journey’
The journey isn’t over either. Quite what career opportunities will open up for him now remain to be seen, but while Aliona has bowed out of the next series of Strictly, the two will dance together again in the stage version that goes on tour around the UK from Friday until 14 February.
Joining Jay and Aliona from the most recent series will be Anita and her partner Gleb Savchenko, Helen George and Aljaz Skorjanec, Ainsley Harriott and Natalie Lowe, and Georgia May Foote with Giovanni Pernice, along with two pairings from the 2014 series – Frankie Bridge with Kevin Clifton, and Jake Wood with Janette Manrara. Will the sizzle still be there for Jay and Aliona?
‘You’ll have to wait and see,’ he laughs, suggesting that continued rumours about their relationship can only be a good thing – at least for ticket sales.
But Jay’s relationship with Ali wasn’t the only controversial element of the last series. Georgia May Foote was reportedly spotted kissing partner Giovanni Pernice during a New Year’s trip to Paris after splitting with her boyfriend.
Anton can’t do Latin. He hasn’t got the hip action – Craig Revel Horwood
And then there were the hoo-has on the show too. Today Jay is joined by the three male judges who’ll be hoisting their paddles on the tour jamboree and astonishingly it’s Anita – who went out in the semi-final – who’s the subject du jour, with Jay, Len Goodman, Craig Revel Horwood and Bruno Tonioli all talking of her exit as one of the big surprises of the series.
The consensus is that the Countryfile presenter, who wowed with her ambitious routines despite having no dance experience, should have been in the final.
‘Her final freestyle – I was looking forward to that,’ says Len. ‘I was shocked when she went out.’
But, er, Len, you cast the vote that put her out, favouring Katie Derham and Anton Du Beke. He wrings his hands, suggesting the format of the show – which he clearly believes needs rethinking – gave him no choice.
The judges all agreed Jay was a worthy winner but now have regrets Anita Rani wasn’t in the final
‘I have problems with the dance-off,’ he says. ‘I hate being in that position because I have no choice but to cast my vote based on that particular dance. Anton and Katie hadn’t done a good job of their waltz first time round, but in the dance-off they pulled it off.’ He sighs. ‘The dance-off is a problem. It may be that the BBC changes the way it’s done.’ So would he support scrapping it? ‘Yes, I dread it.’
Craig – who doesn’t agree that changes are needed, arguing the dance-off provides drama – is also an Anita fan. ‘She was amazing. She took to it like a duck to water. At rehearsals she was intelligent, methodical. She worked like a Trojan. And she was fearless.’
He did vote for Anita to stay and says that the routine she and Gleb performed ‘outweighed anything Anton and Katie could ever do’. So Anita was a better dancer than Katie?
‘She’s a better dancer than Anton!’ he says. ‘She’s certainly a lot braver.’ Ouch. So he’s not an Anton fan? ‘I’m a huge fan of his ballroom but he hasn’t got the hip action. He can’t do Latin. I’m sorry, but he can’t.’
I’ve been in this business 50-odd years. Do people think I’d let some TV producer tell me what to do? – Len
Talking to the judges when they’re off-air is an enlightening experience. All three are on sparky form, not afraid to address some of the issues thrown up in the last series. Len’s put out by criticism that the show is ‘fixed’ in some way.
‘Any suggestion that the judges are fiddling is ludicrous,’ he fumes. ‘I’ve been in this business 50-odd years. Do people think I’d let some TV producer tell me what to do or let anyone interfere with my integrity? People think it’s all a bit of a lark; I treat it as I would a proper dance competition.
‘People say, “You favour Anton because you play golf with him.” Eh? What’s that got to do with the price of fish? In my job I’d often be judging my own pupils. If I’d been the sort to let personal dealings get in the way, I wouldn’t have got very far.’ You can see why viewers have said Len was particularly grumpy during the last series. He makes no apology. ‘Old people get grumpy. My wife always says I show my annoyance on my face, but I don’t mind that. It’s better than being a smiling assassin, isn’t it?’
It was Bruno’s mouth that got him into trouble in the last series, with the show’s bosses having to apologise to viewers because his language had been a little too colourful. ‘Sometimes I get a bit carried away, and they give me the yellow card,’ he admits. ‘But off-stage it’s much worse. My language isn’t just blue, it’s deep blue.’
Aliona Vilani and Jay McGuiness dancing during the final. Will the sizzle still be there on tour?
Believe it or not, but off-camera Bruno is the calmest of the three. He admits the on-screen persona is an act. ‘I’ve created a monster,’ he jokes, as Len ribs him about his inability to stay seated in the show. (‘I’ve got a theory that Bruno’s vocal cords are connected to his bum. He can’t talk without getting off his backside,’ Len laughs).
The most caustic judge, in real life as well as on screen, is undoubtedly Craig, who takes no prisoners. His honesty is unusual in showbiz circles; ditto his punctuality. I make a joke about him being on time for an interview that’s early on a Saturday morning. He tells it as it is. ‘It’s the dance background, darling. As a dancer you have to shut up and do it. You’re not meant to speak. Do what you’re told. Got to be on time. If you turn up three minutes late for a dance class, you get thrown out. If you speak, you get thrown out. You learn from that.’
But the world of the celeb is different, no? Has he learned that from the stars who pitch up on Strictly bemoaning the workload?
Len said Anita and Gleb should have been in the final, even though he was the one who voted them off in the semi final after their dance off with Anton and Katie Derham, left
‘They have their own definition of what work is,’ he says wryly. ‘They don’t have that “turn up and shut up” mentality. For some it’s more about turning up and drinking a lot of coffee.’ Ouch. ‘But the ones who are successful are the ones who work hard.’
Craig doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He doesn’t have much time for Len bemoaning the Strictly format (‘Len needs to calm down’), and he gives Darcey Bussell, the fourth of the TV judges, a stern appraisal. ‘Darcey likes fences,’ he says when asked about her role in the line-up. Eh? ‘She sits on them a lot.’
Even his praise of Claudia Winkleman, who became a series co-host in 2014, comes with an edge, although it’s her fellow presenter Tess Daly who falls foul of some back-handed compliments.
‘I love what Claudia has done to the show. She’s brought that cheekiness. And she’s changed Tess for the better. Tess has loosened up. She’s got a sense of humour now. She’s not picking up the pieces but going with the flow.’
Still, you’ve got to love Craig. He’s as dismissive about his own role on the show, pointing out it’s only a sideline for him, and his day job – as a choreographer on West End shows – is the biggie. ‘For me, it’s a Saturday job. It’s not my livelihood. I turn up and hold paddles. It’s not brain surgery.’
Craig said presenter Tess Daly has ‘loosened up’ now she is working with Claudia Winkleman, left
Craig’s role on the tour is more extensive though. He’s responsible for choreographing the whole shebang (‘Whereas the others just turn up,’ he laughs), which involves three group dances in each show, plus two dances from each celebrity and partner. The audience then votes by text and those votes are combined with the judges’ scores to decide on a winner each night.
Craig has interesting things to say about how his work on the tour has become easier. Go back a few years, and a live show involving celebrities had to be very carefully staged. Now the standard of the dancing is so high that near-professional routines are possible (with some leeway, obviously, before Jeremy Vine fans get too alarmed).
‘It used to be that the celebs couldn’t manage very much. There were steps you just wouldn’t attempt to put in there. When Ann Widdecombe was part of the tour it was hilarious but it posed real problems. I ended up putting my money where my mouth was and dancing with her myself. Now it’s very different. Many of the celebs can manage professional routines. The difference is amazing.’
All of which brings us back to Jay, the man of the moment, whose skill is at a level where stage musical roles are being talked of. Will he be able to take them on without Aliona, though? That one remains to be seen. n
The Strictly Come Dancing Live UK tour runs from Friday until 14 February, strictlycomedancinglive.com.