She’s Strictly’s straight-talking head judge, but behind the glamour and glitterballs lies a family tragedy that made Shirley Ballas dread the festive season. In the first of our stories about Christmas reinvented, she tells Julia Llewellyn Smith why it’s time to start celebrating again. . .
Shirley wears dress, Amanda Wakeley
After a joyous but exhausting four months judging Strictly Come Dancing, Shirley Ballas can’t wait for Christmas at her 81-year-old mother Audrey’s home on the estate in Wallasey, Merseyside, where Shirley grew up.
‘We’ve booked a restaurant in Liverpool for Christmas lunch with Auntie Barbara and Uncle Norman [her dad’s sister and her husband] and my niece Mary so Mum doesn’t have to do any work, but then we’ll go back to hers for a nice Christmas pudding,’ Shirley says. ‘She’s put up cards and bought lots of new tree decorations – figures and baubles and tinsel. We’re really going to get into the Christmas spirit.’
It sounds like a delightful, cosy, typical family Christmas, but for Shirley and Audrey, who raised her as a struggling single mother, it represents a huge milestone – the first Christmas they have felt able to celebrate since the suicide, 15 years ago, of Shirley’s brother David, aged 44.
Two years Shirley’s senior, David died in early December, and ever since Shirley and Audrey have associated the festive season not with comfort and joy but with unimaginable grief. ‘There was no way we could enjoy Christmas without David,’ Shirley, 58, says now, her expressive dark eyes filled with pain. ‘I couldn’t believe he wasn’t there, eating his treble helpings of Christmas dinner with ten glasses of milk. David wasn’t a drinker but he loved milk and chocolate – he was a chocoholic!
‘After David died, Mum threw away all the decorations. I was living in the US and we always got together as a family – sometimes his daughter Mary would go to her mother’s, sometimes she’d come to me, usually quietly watching films on television and wishing it would be over. It was all a little bit solemn.’
In contrast, Shirley remembers fun-packed family Christmases as a child when Audrey, who worked various menial jobs to support her family, would pack a huge pillowcase (‘always starched, Mum’s a complete perfectionist’) rather than a stocking for her children to open under the tree. Crackers would be pulled (‘they had to be from Marks & Spencer’) and David would always secretly open the tin of Quality Street. ‘He’d unwrap all the chocolates, then rewrap the ones he didn’t like and put them back. Mum would be seriously cross and blame me but I don’t even like chocolate!’
There’s just so much guilt – that maybe he could have been saved; that I didn’t know enough about mental health
Years later David, who was suffering from depression, was being cared for by Audrey at his home in the North of England, when Shirley persuaded her mother to travel to London for one night to see her son Mark, now 32, sing at St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘That was the night David chose to take his life,’ Shirley says. ‘There’s just so much guilt – guilt that maybe if I hadn’t asked Mum he could have been saved; that I didn’t understand enough about mental health at that stage to grasp the extent of how sick he was; that I didn’t spend enough time with him. It doesn’t matter how much counselling you have or how much people say, “There was nothing you could have done”, I know I should have gone up to see him more.’
After David’s death, Shirley took in his ten-year-old daughter Mary, raising her as her own. ‘Her mother died of alcoholism a few years after her father so she really had it tough. At first she kept picking the wrong men but now she’s got the most wonderful partner. She’s a forensic scientist for the NHS – I couldn’t be prouder of her.’
Determined to help other families, Shirley and Mark – a singer-songwriter and professional dancer who’s twice won Dancing with the Stars, the US version of Strictly – set up The Ballas Foundation to raise awareness of issues surrounding suicide. ‘David’s passing made me realise materialistic things mean nothing,’ says Shirley. ‘At the end of the day there are no rankings between people and we can share our good fortune with everyone.’
JUMPER, Cove Cashmere. SKIRT, Anna Mason. EARRINGS, Vicki Sarge. BRACELET, James Ganh Fine Jewellery. Shoes, Jimmy Choo
But it’s only now, a year into replacing Len Goodman as Strictly’s head judge, that Shirley and Audrey finally feel ready to move on. ‘Last year I was the new girl but this year I feel a full part of Strictly and it’s impossible not to be inspired by such a sparkly merry-go-round of a show. The fans have sent me so many beautiful, supportive messages about my brother [she has spoken about him on programmes such as Loose Women], it’s all helped me reinvent Christmas, so for the first time in years, the house will feel celebratory like it used to. There will be a place at the table for David, a photo of him and Mary by the tree, and I’ll buy a massive box of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk for him. It’s taken a long time, but I’ve finally understood that life goes on and that we must make the most of every second.’
Known in ballroom circles as the Queen of Latin, Shirley has scores of international titles under her (tiny) belt. I’d expected her to be a flamboyant, fiery character. But the petite woman sitting beside me in a London café is a decidedly softer, more vulnerable figure than the glossy diva I’ve seen on screen berating professional dancers for sloppy footwork and celebrities for laziness. Immaculately presented (she’s avoided plastic surgery but has regular Botox and Vampire facelifts when plasma from her blood is injected in her face to rejuvenate the skin), she’s quietly spoken and initially shy, admitting that she finds it hard to trust outsiders and has few friends outside her management team. ‘I’m not a social butterfly,’ she says. ‘If you go out, I’ll be the one at the door holding your coat while you’re having a good time.’
Twice divorced, from two former dance partners – Brit Sammy Stopford and American Corky Ballas (Mark’s father) – Shirley says landing the Strictly gig aged 57 ‘really boosted my confidence. People might not realise I needed that boost but, as an older woman in my industry, getting that job meant so much.’
Suit, WTR. Earrings, Vicki Sarge
Her second season on the show was fuelled with scandal after comedian Seann Walsh was photographed kissing his professional partner Katya Jones, leading to Seann being publicly dumped by his girlfriend and awkward scenes for Katya, who is married to another Strictly professional, Neil Jones. Did Shirley worry the fallout was overshadowing the actual dancing? ‘All those people gossiping are throwing stones from glass houses,’ she shrugs. ‘Seann and Katya made a mistake – who hasn’t? But that incident certainly captivated the nation. Strictly is all about the dancing and glamour; it’s something the whole family – grandparents, kids, the dog – can watch together on Saturday night, but there’s definitely an element of intrigue to it, too – the Strictly curse, can you see the chemistry between the couples? – it’s all part of the magic.’
In the new year, Shirley will join the Strictly tour for the first time, but for now she’s tackling her first stage role playing Mother Nature, the show’s narrator, in the pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk at the Liverpool Empire. ‘The prospect was daunting,’ she says. ‘When I visited Mark on Broadway [he’s currently starring in Kinky Boots] he got me to stand on the stage and look out at the empty auditorium to have an idea of what it would be like and it was terrifying. But he said, “You didn’t think you could do Strictly either; of course you can do this.” Mother Nature seems an apt role for such an obviously maternal character. ‘It’s right up my street,’ she grins.
I’d love a husband. I’m still that funny, loving, caring person I was when I was 20
Shirley and Mark are touchingly close, with her phoning him every day. ‘He probably thinks: “Oh, she’s calling again; it’s every five minutes,” but he knows I am always there in sad times, offering an ear to listen. In turn, he and his wife, singer-songwriter B C Jean, who wrote the anthem ‘If I were a Boy’ for Beyoncé, are equally supportive: both flew in from New York to attend the Strictly final and the panto’s first night, before enjoying an early Christmas dinner of roast beef at Audrey’s. ‘Mum cooked it. I can’t even boil an egg, darling,’ Shirley quips (‘Mark’s spending Christmas itself with his dad in America, but I’m not welcome there,’ she adds in a stage whisper).
At the end of the dinner, the family toasted David, who, with Audrey, helped raise Mark while Shirley was travelling the world, competing. ‘When I was growing up, David was the one who made sure I never hung around street corners on our estate; he told me I was going to make something of my life,’ she says. ‘Without him there would be no me. He was my brother, but he was also my best friend and my father figure; he gave me away at both my weddings.’
BLOUSE, Boutique Moschino, and TROUSERS, Polo Ralph Lauren, both from Fenwick. RING, Swarovski
Shirley’s real father, George, who Shirley believes worked in security on cruise liners, walked out on Audrey when Shirley was only two years old; since then – despite him ‘living only two minutes away from Mum’ – they’ve rarely spoken. ‘I don’t have a relationship with him,’ Shirley says. ‘I never felt he really loved me. David felt the same way; when I did the eulogy at his funeral I just couldn’t bring myself to mention Dad, although he was there.
‘I’ve tried and tried and tried to make it [her relationship with her father] work,’ she continues. ‘Last year I invited him to [the annual Strictly show in] Blackpool to make him proud of me because that’s all I’ve ever wanted, but he didn’t come.’ Earlier this year, she made another attempt at reconciliation after her half-brother from George’s second marriage, also called Mark, died suddenly of a heart condition aged 49. ‘Mark and I probably met a few times as children, though not as adults, but we were in regular touch on social media: he was a lovely guy.’
She was consoled by Audrey, whom Shirley says ‘is the apple of my eye. She can do no wrong.’ Over the summer, Shirley stayed in the UK, nursing Audrey after she was admitted to hospital having been diagnosed with cancer (Shirley is reluctant to divulge details). Normally the pair spend plenty of time together at Shirley’s home in Los Angeles, which she shares with what she calls ‘my gay gaggle’ – her long-term hairdresser and fellow Scouser Alan, his husband Nathan and her lhasa apso rescue puppy Charlie. Mark and B C are just down the road. And Mark’s fellow Dancing with the Stars professionals, siblings Derek and Julianne Hough, are also nearby. They lived with her for ten years in London while they were studying dance, so she regards them as her children.
With her mother Audrey last month
‘I would have liked more children of my own,’ she says. ‘I’d love to be a grandmother, but Mark has his career to think about right now. Still, if he broke the news that they were expecting – that would be the greatest gift of all!’ The only other gift she yearns for is, she says with a raucous cackle, ‘a husband!’ Shirley’s been single for three years since splitting with dancer Yegor Novikov who was 26 years her junior. ‘Since then, I tried to join this upmarket dating service in Los Angeles but when I told them I wanted someone older than me, they said: “No darling, those guys want someone who is 20 years younger than them.” It’s difficult; as an older woman the body will always start to wrinkle. You think, if only men could look at you and see inside you as a human, but instead I feel invisible.’
It took a stint hosting Matchmaker Mountain, a new segment for ITV’s This Morning, which will launch in January – where she helps 50-plus singletons find romance – for Shirley to resolve to start looking again. ‘That has renewed my faith in love!’ she exclaims. ‘I’ve never laughed so much in my life as when we were filming. It made me realise that if this is what life can be like then I want more of it, and it reminded me I am still that funny, loving, caring person I was when I was 20.’
I tell Shirley that I can’t wait to see what 2019 has in store for her. ‘Thank you,’ she says softly. ‘I’m diving into new, uncharted waters. Of course, I will never feel the same without David, but he would have wanted me to enjoy life to the full. I think he will be looking down on us this Christmas, smiling.’
Shirley’s Advice for beating loneliness at Christmas
- Gently encourage people who are suffering emotional pain to seek therapy. We had it after David died. Don’t trap all your feelings inside.
- I send everybody Christmas cards with a personalised message, so they really know I’m thinking about them. A handwritten card means so much more than an e-message.
- Even a small gift lets people know you’re thinking about them. On Strictly I get wine for the cameramen and tins of Quality Street for the band – all the people who’ve helped me throughout the season.
- While you are enjoying yourself at Christmas, spare a thought for the lonely soul next door and ask them in for a coffee or for lunch.
- Encourage people who are feeling under par to visit the doctor, go out and meet people, take a dance class… Even if they’re using a walker they can still join in – they needn’t suffer alone.
- Shirley is starring in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Liverpool Empire; Matchmaker Mountain will air on ITV’s This Morning throughout January
- Styling: Holly Ounstead. Hair: Robert Frampton. Make-up: Cheryl Phelps-Gardiner. Production: Sian Parry