Each new series of Strictly revives conflicting emotions for Natasha Kaplinsky. Back in 2004, partnered by professional dancer Brendan Cole, the former newscaster and presenter danced the very first dance on the very first show and went on to pick up the very first winners’ glitterball.
And the wonder of it all is that she very nearly didn’t take part.
‘My immediate reaction was, “No thank you!”’ says Natasha, 49, who was co-hosting BBC Breakfast each weekday morning at the time. ‘I was getting up at 3.20am to be on-air from 6am and also I worried that taking part in an untested dance show might be a risk for my career.’
But the BBC were keen for their glamorous star to be involved in their new show. ‘I’d come off-air from Breakfast and find the head of wardrobe in my dressing room with a selection of costumes in an attempt to change my mind.
‘To me they looked like tiny little curtains with a small pelmet of fringing. Secretly a bit of me wanted to take part, but it still seemed too much of a gamble.’
Natasha Kaplinsky, 49, who became the first winner of Strictly Come Dancing in 2004, admits that she was worried about how the show would impact her career. Pictured: Natasha with her dance partner Brendan in 2004
It was a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo as a patron of the children’s charity Merlin that changed her mind.
‘While I was there I decided to give the fee offered by Strictly to the charity – and suddenly taking part felt like a much better idea.’
She’ll never forget her first lesson with Brendan. ‘We were in a studio in north London. The music was playing as Brendan came up close to me to start dancing. Then he put one of his legs between mine and I reared back.
‘I insisted we were only going to dance with at least two metres between us and on no account were we going to touch. So it was quite a steep learning curve. But it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with dance.’
All her confidence in rehearsals went out of the window, however, when she first had to perform.
‘I’ve never experienced nerves like I did that first Saturday – before or since. I remember standing at the top of the stairs waiting to begin and the pit of my stomach lurched.
‘How on earth was I going to remember the steps? I wasn’t even sure I’d make it down the stairs! We were performing a cha-cha-cha – and there I was in a tiny fuchsia dress, about to humiliate myself in front of the nation.’
Natasha admits that she had to make herself go to the after-party when she won Strictly, despite feeling awkward. Pictured: Natasha and Brendan
Nonetheless, Natasha and Brendan proved a hit with both judges and viewers, and seven weeks later she was crowned the first Strictly champion. How was that? ‘I’ve never been very comfortable with being the centre of attention,’ she says.
‘After it was announced we’d won I phoned my best friend in France with the news. I told him there was an after-party but I wasn’t going. I told him I felt too awkward, which was downright ridiculous. In the end I made myself go.’
Adulation apart, there was one downside to her time on the show. Rumours swirled that she and Brendan – who had just broken up with his girlfriend, the pro dancer Camilla Dallerup – were getting too close.
‘There was no romance with Brendan, just a huge level of respect for the way he taught me,’ she says.
‘Our “affair” was said to be taking place alongside three or four other men the red tops claimed I was involved with – including Tony Benn! The reality was, I’d fall into bed alone at 8pm every evening, exhausted.’
She’d been told by the BBC that Strictly would involve a couple of dance lessons each week, but the reality was rather different.
Natasha said she has to pinch herself that she was the first winner of the first series of a programme that has gone on to dominate light entertainment globally. Pictured: Natasha, with professional partner Brendan Cole
‘If you know you’re going to be performing in front of millions of viewers there aren’t enough hours in the day to try to perfect that week’s routine. I’d get up at 3.20 and I can clearly remember putting my feet on the floor and the feeling that every bone in them was broken.
‘I remember crying out, “I can’t do this again!” But you dig deep, you find hidden reserves.’
Shortly after Strictly finished Natasha met private equity fundraiser Justin Bower and was engaged within five weeks. Their son Arlo is 12, and their daughter Angelica, 11. ‘I’ll be glued to it this year and it’s such a pleasure watching it as a mother,’ she says.
‘I pinch myself that I was the first winner of the first series of a programme that has gone on to dominate light entertainment globally. Nothing can take that away.’
Does she still have her replica glitterball? ‘Oh yes, although it’s suffered a few accidents and is rather bashed up. Any child who comes to the house wants their picture taken with it.
‘At the moment it’s on a bookshelf, but I’m about to dust it off and give it pride of place as the new series begins. With hindsight, the whole experience was magical.’
I FULFILLED MY FRED ASTAIRE DREAM
Tom Chambers clinched the 2008 Strictly title with a fleet-footed show dance inspired by his hero Fred Astaire, alongside his pro partner Camilla Dallerup. That victory not only transformed the Holby actor’s career – it enabled him to fulfil his dream.
‘I owe my entire theatrical career to Strictly,’ says Tom, 44, who’s currently starring in a touring production of Dial M For Murder. ‘I got to do White Christmas and Fred Astaire’s role in Top Hat in the West End, which got me an Olivier nomination. It’s been magical.’
Tom Chambers, who starred in Strictly in 2008, feels he owes his entire theatrical career to the show. Pictured: Tom’s winning moment
To the viewers he oozed confidence, but he was actually a quivering wreck. ‘You go into fight or flight mode,’ he says.
‘The show dance is the only one I remember. It’s like I’ve got amnesia because it’s such a white-knuckle ride. I’ve had to watch my other dances on YouTube.’
His favourite memories are the talks he had with the late Sir Bruce Forsyth as they waited to descend the staircase at the start of each show. ‘If you were first you got to stand with Bruce and chat to him,’ recalls Tom.
‘It was fantastic. He’d tell me about golfing and being in the bar with Sean Connery. Once I asked, “Bruce, how do you do it? We’re exhausted but you have to come out and be entertaining all the time.” He said, “Tom, if I rest, I rust.”’
Tom revealed he only remembers the show dance, because taking part in Strictly put him in fight or flight mode. Pictured: Tom and Camilla in the sixth series