Bruno Tonioli on Bruce Forsyth, equal pay and the Strictly curse

‘The curse of Strictly could be a blessing. People and passion is a wonderful thing’: The snake-hipped, acid-tongued star of Strictly, Bruno Tonioli, tells Liz Jones what he REALLY thinks about the show’s scandals

I’m on the corner of a busy road in Maida Vale, north London, trying to work out behind which front door I will find Bruno Tonioli, the most extrovert man in Britain and star judge of Strictly Come Dancing, the glitziest TV show in the world. Not one door is pink. I spy not a single disco ball inside. At last, a sober black door opens and I’m led down a flight of beige stairs to a basement flat, where the most mahogany man in Britain is waiting. Dressed head to toe in an Adidas tracksuit, he has just been to the gym, but is undoing the good work by holding a cigarette in one expressive, gesticulating hand. I’m worried he’ll set light to my hair.

The flat is like a show home, with little sign he has lived here since 1991. Apart from the Bruce Forsyth memorabilia – an invitation to his 80th birthday party – by the fireplace. I ask if he misses the former Strictly host, who died last year aged 89.

Bruno Tonioli’s career took off in the Eighties, after the birth of MTV. He worked with the likes of George Michael, Duran Duran, David Bowie and Elton John

‘I loved Bruce. I used to have the biggest laughs with him. He would be very naughty.’

Are Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman filling the Saturday-night TV legend’s shiny tap shoes? ‘You have the biggest show in the country and you have two ladies. That’s a first, and the show is bigger than ever. We are raising the bar and the girls are fantastic.’

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Are they close friends? Tess and Claudia are reputed to party after each show wraps. ‘I don’t have time to go out! I never mix with the celebrities, either.’

I tell Bruno his house doesn’t seem very lived in. Because his time is divided between Strictly and Dancing With The Stars in Los Angeles, there isn’t much hope for even a pot plant. ‘Today, Friday, is my day off, though I have you, and five other meetings. I went to the gym, then cooked my own lunch and tonight I don’t go out. Then tomorrow it is all day in the studio, then Sunday morning I get on the plane, arrive to Los Angeles mid-afternoon, same thing: get the food, cook a meal. Record the show Monday.’

Does he at least fly first class? ‘Of course! And I have a glass of champagne. I can’t deprive myself of everything. I have to have a little bit of relaxation.’

Bruno looks fantastic for someone who just turned 63. ‘I stopped worrying about ageing long ago, it’s just a fact of life’

And how does he find so much energy in the live shows: always leaping to his feet, octopus limbs flying? ‘The show has a beating heart. It gives me the energy because every time you turn up you can sense everybody is doing it for love. It’s not a fake reaction.’

Last week’s show was filmed in Blackpool instead of Elstree, north London.

‘I landed on Thursday, got to Blackpool Friday, the show was on Saturday. I got into the car at 11.30pm, drove four-and-a-half hours back here and got in about 4am. But I do it because that show is so special. I call Blackpool the temple of ballrooms.’ So enamoured is he with the northern town that he’s fronted a new DVD – Bruno’s Bellissimo Blackpool – in which he reminisces about past Strictly shows set in the famous Tower Ballroom.

I tell him he needs someone to clean and cook for when he arrives home, spent. ‘If you find a partner that cleans and cooks then tell me now. Please!’

Bruno Tonioli with fellow Strictly judges Darcey Bussell, Craig Revel Horwood and Shirley Ballas

So, no boyfriend? He broke up with his long-term partner some years ago. ‘I am married to my work,’ he says, laughing.

He could get a dog with a passport? ‘I had a cat who died aged 19, and it was horrible. But with my schedule, you can’t have a pet, it’s unfair to them. Getting on a plane? It’s not good for them!’

As a dancer, has he ever had an eating disorder? ‘I’ve never dieted. I’m Italian so I eat everything. I go to the gym, do my stretches, and then I come home and I practise Iyengar yoga on my own. I have done it for many years. It is very strict and I recommend yoga to everyone. So in all I did two hours exercise today so I can eat everything.’

Hmm. It all sounds a bit too easy, doesn’t it. He says he made lunch just before I arrived, but there are no cooking smells. There is no mess. His waist is barely a hand’s span. He says he is relaxed, it’s his day off, but he’s like a coiled spring. He never watches himself on TV. ‘It’s because I remember working behind the cameras and you are watching as a critic, like a director: you can say, “Oh God, look at that, the lighting is wrong.” But as a judge, I don’t have any power to change what has already come out. It’s a control thing.’

Bruno’s career took off in the Eighties, after the birth of MTV. He worked with the likes of George Michael, Duran Duran, David Bowie and Elton John (appearing in the camp video for I’m Still Standing as a traffic policemen dressed in leg warmers and a leotard). He then went on to appear in films including Little Voice and Absolute Beginners but when I ask for more juicy details of the stars, all he will say is that everyone was ‘lovely; I’m still friends with most of these people’.

Tonioli (left) with Mick Jagger on the set of the Rolling Stones’ video for One Hit (To The Body) in 1986

He looks fantastic for someone who turns 63 today with a thick head of black hair. His eyebrows do the paso doble each week, so would he ever meddle with that face?

‘I stopped worrying about ageing long ago, it’s just a fact of life. I’m so expressive, so no, I can’t mess with my face, though I always look a bit podgy, I think.’

He grew up in the suburbs of Ferrara, northern Italy, the only child in a working-class family. He was looked after by his grandmother while his parents were out working: his father, Werther, who died aged 70, suffering from Alzheimer’s, was a bus driver; his mother, Fulvia, who died aged 63 from heart disease, an upholsterer and seamstress. As a toddler, his uncle would put him on a table, turn on the music and Bruno would start dancing. He never trained professionally, but learned by watching Hollywood musicals in his local cinema, where you could see two films for 50p.

His parents never acknowledged openly that he was gay. ‘If you think of the card I was handed at birth… I mean, my parents wanted me to be an accountant, so you can imagine the fights.’

Was it like Billy Elliot? ‘It was worse because I never had anybody supporting me, I didn’t have Julie Walters. My parents knew I wasn’t your standard, football-playing macho…’

Was he bullied at school? ‘They were doing the usual, “Oh, look at him, queer”, that stuff, but I think at the time it was, let’s say, provincial, and it probably still happens. So I said, “OK, I’m not stupid, I’m a great dancer.” I became very popular in the clubs – all the girls wanted to dance with me. Instead of taking it I started giving it back: repartee, not in a nasty way but with a sense of humour. I became the most popular boy in the school. I used to run the student union, they used to give me roles in the end-of-year play, I turned it around by not attacking back but by being funny.’

He has an official letter, dated 1976, from when he first obtained a visa to work in London. ‘When I arrived I didn’t speak English, and learned it by reading the papers. I only knew how to say yes or no, so you can imagine the trouble I was in. I used to rent a room in somebody else’s apartment and do a show every night.’

Bruno as a baby with his parents in Italy. He grew up in the suburbs of Ferrara, northern Italy, the only child in a working-class family

Bruno with then London Mayor Boris Johnson and Strictly dancer Erin Boag in 2008

As well as appearing in Godspell and on stage with the late, great dancer Lindsay Kemp (‘another one, gone,’ he says with sadness), he supplemented his earnings by teaching, at the Dance Centre on Euston Road, which paid for classes at Pineapple Dance Studios in Covent Garden. What’s his take on Brexit? Is he worried he will be repatriated? ‘I’m not British. I’m not allowed to vote. Hopefully they will allow me to stay.’

Did he ever experience the casting couch? ‘I’ve never been subjected to that kind of abuse. I’ve never had people taking advantage because I’ve always been very strong about who I am and what I want. But as a choreographer, I worked with directors who have been a bit harsh, but I had the strength to say, “Sorry, this is not fine.’

Where does that strength come from? ‘I am a peasant!’ he shouts. ‘It’s my earthy… I have certain things I cannot overlook. It’s a very Latin thing. If I have an issue, I will say, “Right, let’s get this clear” and it’s done. I’m not the scheming, behind-the-scenes type. I’m straightforward and if there is something that I feel is wrong I will be straight on, face to face.’

Who’d have thought, the campest man in showbiz is really made of steel? Like his beige apartment, which is in fact his sanctuary, appearances can be deceptive.

And his feelings for his fellow judges? Is Craig Revel Horwood as cantankerous off screen as on? ‘He is more laid-back than me off screen. I think the evil queen comes across in the show, but actually we get on very well.’

I think he’s being a little disingenuous, given their on-screen bickering (Craig to Ashley: ‘That was a bit straight-legged’. Bruno: ‘You know nothing about straight, darling! Don’t talk about straight!’). They are like an old married couple who can’t get divorced because of a huge joint mortgage. Who is his favourite contestant on this year’s show? ‘I like Joe Sugg. He never danced and he just keeps improving, and people respond to that.’

Does he ever think he takes the put-downs too far? He did, after all, compare Ann Widdecombe to ‘a Dalek in drag’ and say of John Sergeant: ‘He looked like Mother Courage dragging the corpse of his child.’

‘An image comes into my mind and I think, that’s what it looks like. It’s not pre-planned, it just comes out. At the end of the day, it’s never personal.’

I bring up this year’s Strictly scandals. Actor Danny John-Jules, who is black, was voted off, despite being a terrific dancer, which led to accusations the show wanted rid of him, after he was accused of a ‘foul-mouthed tirade’ directed at his dancing partner, Amy Downden, during rehearsals. Unlikely, given the connect-the-dots, highly PC BBC these days and the fact there have been four non-white champions in the past. For the first time in our talk, Bruno looks a little tired; I guess he is pale beneath the airbrush tan. He is far too professional to actually yawn, but his eyebrows come down a notch.

So, I bring up the second scandal. Comedian Seann Walsh was pictured kissing professional dancer Katya Jones, who is married, on the night of his live-in girlfriend’s birthday; she subsequently went on social media to criticise Walsh’s controlling behaviour, and his pretension at adding a consonant to his name. Bruno rolls his huge, dark eyes. ‘I love it that people are so involved, but it could happen in any situation where people work close together. It could happen in a factory, it could happen in an office. Chemistry is a huge part of how you’re going to perform. It doesn’t have to be for real: Fred and Ginger hated each other, but the chemistry was off the charts.’

Did the judges talk about it? ‘We haven’t time to gossip. We turn up and it’s such an intense day when we get there. If the foundations are strong, usually houses stand still. Relationships are the same.’

Bruno on the Strictly curse: ‘Sometimes it could be a blessing? I mean, people together and passion is a wonderful, wonderful thing!’

It’s when I ask whether there’s a Strictly curse that his more Latin side comes to the fore, and he forgets toeing the BBC line, and sits forward on the sofa, as animated as he is on TV. ‘I think it’s been created: sometimes it could be a blessing? I mean, people together and passion is a wonderful, wonderful thing!’

I ask whether the allegations of the show’s results being fixed have any grounds in reality. In week five, a couple of weeks after the Seann scandal erupted, the comedian was kept in the show after a dance-off, while DJ Vick Hope was sent home. She accused the judges of being told how to vote by producers to boost ratings; Strictly posted season-high viewing figures the week after the scandal broke, with 9.9 million people tuning in to see Walsh and Jones survive the dance-off.

‘The producers have no idea how we are going to score. We are always looking for mistakes.’ So, nothing is scripted? ‘Nothing. It’s not a fake reaction. I can really see emotion: my God they did a good job. Even if they are bad, they are good in a way. Every dance has a characteristic you look forward to. Dancing is like painting: you use colours to paint a picture.’

I ask whether he earns more than the female judges. ‘I think people should be paid what they deserve, and I think it should be equal. Claudia deserves every penny she gets. I have agents, I don’t even read the contracts, I’m terrible, I’m the worst.’ And the professional dancers, who earn much less than the ‘celebrities’? ‘Our dancers are probably the best paid in the industry and they all do fantastic tours and it’s a great place to be.’

Despite the off-screen shenanigans, is Strictly a little too safe? We’ve had bigger contestants, older contestants, disabled contestants, but why still no couples of the same sex? ‘It’s not for me to decide. We don’t know who the contestants will be, we don’t know who they dance with up until the time they are announced.’

Maybe next year? Again the steely Bruno that lurks beneath the fluff and the glitter and the camp humour emerges, and he fixes me with a defiant stare. ‘For me, it would be absolutely fine.’ 

‘Strictly Come Dancing – Bruno’s Bellissimo Blackpool DVD’, is out now, priced £19.99


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