Reigning Strictly champions Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice are discussing their favourite Dolly Parton tracks.
We’re used to them being extraordinarily in sync, but there’s a difference of opinion here. Giovanni says the song 9 To 5 is his surefire winner. Rose isn’t having it.
‘I like Jolene. Or Dumb Blonde,’ she counters. The EastEnders actress is only 27, but admits her musical tastes are ‘quite old-school’ and, Dolly aside, lean towards soul.
‘I like Otis Redding, Dusty Springfield, Marvin Gaye, Al Green. I like to blast the music so loud in my car that people outside look at me like I’m a weirdo.’
Bang goes the idea that being deaf is a barrier to musical appreciation. But how can she love it, or prefer one type over another, if she’s been profoundly deaf since birth?
Reigning champions Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice (pictured) are set to lead the annual Strictly tour
She isn’t comfortable with the idea she’s developed compensatory sensory skills (‘I’m not a superhero!’) but explains it in terms of ‘just having a different experience’.
Nor is at as easy as saying she feels the vibrations, though that is an element. With technological advances, she can ‘pick out’ some sound. She can tell, for instance, if someone is singing (though she couldn’t identify the words).
It’s complicated to explain to a hearing person, but the lesson from listening to her explain all this is a powerful one: be careful where you use the word ‘can’t’.
For many, Rose was a role model even before she stepped onto the Strictly dancefloor as its first-ever deaf contestant.
Her role in EastEnders had already catapulted her into the world of primetime TV – an unusual place for a deaf actress to be. She points out that when she was growing up in Kent, attending a mainstream school (albeit one with a specialist deaf unit), she did not see a single hearing-impaired actor on TV.
‘There were a lot of deaf people trying to get into the industry, who had broken down certain barriers and doors – allowing me to actually get onto Strictly. But when I was growing up they weren’t visible because they weren’t mainstream. I grew up in a hearing environment and didn’t learn about them until much later.’
No deaf child will ever have to say that again though, thanks to Rose. On Strictly she captivated viewers with her poise and progress, winning our hearts on her way to lifting the glitterball and doing more for deaf awareness and inclusivity than anyone in living memory.
Rose told Giovanni (pictured) that he is at an advantage while learning British Sign Language because he’s Italian and they use their hands a lot
When she urged people to learn British Sign Language, the BSL website reported a 2,844 per cent rise in enquiries. Giovanni isn’t the only one currently learning, it appears. How is his progress? ‘Great,’ he says.
‘Rose says I’m at an advantage because I’m Italian and we use our hands a lot, but it’s not just about that. It’s a whole new language.’
It’s not an official, legally recognised language though, which the pair hope to help change.
Since their Strictly win they’ve supported the Private Member’s Bill proposed by MP Rosie Cooper (whose first language is BSL thanks to having two deaf parents) which would give BSL a legal footing, ensuring that when making, for example, doctor’s appointments, deaf patients would have the right to a BSL interpreter.
LOSE WEIGHT? I PUT ON A STONE!
Most Strictly stars skip off the show marvelling at how they lost 2st. John Whaite went the other way. He admits he put a stone on during Strictly.
All muscle though, surely? ‘No, just fat,’ he laughs. ‘I went in with abs. I’d been determined that I’d be the buff one who’d look amazing, but the abs are no longer there.’
He’s not upset by this at all, though. Rather he thinks that his Strictly regime – and his growing confidence as the weeks passed – shook him out of a quite unhealthy obsession with food and, perhaps, fitness.
‘What Johannes taught me was that I had to eat. I think I’d been a bit scared of eating too much before. I have a history of bulimia and body dysmorphia and I think I’d been using the gym as part of it too.
‘What Strictly made me realise was that my abs don’t matter. What mattered was learning to dance.’
Ironically, the young woman who has done so much to give the deaf community a voice was lost for words when she won Strictly.
The evidence is there – her glitterball is on the shelf at home, whereas Giovanni has left his (yes, they get one each) with his parents in Sicily ‘because I always told them I would win it one day’ – but the memories of the night are hazy.
‘You often dream about that situation and think of the things you’re going to say, but when it actually happened my mind went blank and I was speechless,’ she says.
It was a case of ‘job done’ though. She had gone on Strictly partly to have fun, but also to open eyes. ‘The reaction since has been incredible,’ she says.
‘So many deaf children have been in touch. I’ve been reading their stories on social media and it’s great to see them being more confident. I wanted to show there’s nothing wrong with being deaf.
‘Yes, it comes with challenges, but no one should be embarrassed. It’s changed attitudes, because people can see deafness as being a positive. People feel sorry for deaf people, but there’s nothing to feel sorry for.’
She giggles about receiving messages from deaf kids who’ve been proudly showing off their hearing aids in schools. ‘It’s becoming cool,’ she says.
How has life been for the pair since? Rose admits that everything has seemed flatter without the Strictly sparkle. ‘It’s funny, Strictly is so full-on, but when it stops it becomes… boring. If they’d asked me to do another ten weeks, I’d have said yes.’
Happily, she’s hurling herself back into Giovanni’s arms. The pair are leading the troops out for the annual Strictly tour.
Alongside John Whaite and Johannes Radebe, Sara Davies and Aljaž Skorjanec, Tilly Ramsay and Nikita Kuzmin, Maisie Smith, the 2020 finalist who’s filling in for the injured AJ Odudu and will dance a quickstep and samba with Kai Widdrington, Max George (also a 2020 competitor) and Katya Jones, and Rhys Stephenson and Nancy Xu, they’ll be re-creating their best-loved dances in front of live audiences.
Shirley Ballas, Craig Revel Horwood and Bruno Tonioli will be judging, and the host is Janette Manrara, but there will be a significant amendment to the usual Strictly travelling jamboree this year.
Giovanni and Rose (pictured) will re-create their best-loved dances in front of live audiences throughout the tour, with signing on huge screens signed by a British Sign Language interpreter
Every show will be signed by a British Sign Language interpreter so members of the deaf community do not feel excluded. Most big venues do offer this as an option – but only on request.
This tour will offer signing on huge screens, says Rose, ‘to everyone in any seat, which is amazing and incredibly rare for deaf people’.
Rose and Giovanni will be performing their own favourite Latin dance the Argentine Tango, and taking part in a big group number. They will also re-create perhaps the most significant dance in Strictly’s history, their Couple’s Choice option where the music stopped for a whole 16 seconds and they danced in silence.
It was a powerful moment. Whose idea was it, though? ‘Oh, Gio’s,’ says Rose. ‘I just wanted to convey her world,’ says Giovanni, ‘give people a taste of what it was like for her every week.’
He considered a full silent dance, but ruled it out. ‘It was more powerful that it was a short section in a joyful dance. It was a celebration.’
Being deaf has made me who I am – Rose Ayling-Ellis
Their teamwork was a joy to behold. They chat about the process of teaching Rose to dance, ‘which was as much about me learning as it was about Rose learning’, says Giovanni.
He admits he had no idea how to approach the task, and assumed that counting would be key, but it actually turned out to be more about Rose following Giovanni’s lead.
‘I realised I didn’t really need to count,’ she says. ‘It was more about following him. From then it was more about eye contact, so he’d build on that. He’s very clever.’
What about that chemistry between them though? ‘It’s about respect,’ says Giovanni. ‘From there you build a friendship, and you have fun.’
Rose said people have low expectation of deaf people and her mother Donna felt alone, when she found out that she was deaf. Pictured: Rose and Giovanni
Rose says that in life she, like many deaf people, has had to work 120 per cent harder than others to get through.
‘People have such low expectations of deaf people.’ Until she was born, her mother Donna, who worked at a vet’s and raised Rose alone, had never met a deaf person. ‘When she found out I was deaf she felt so alone.’
She describes her schooling as ‘difficult, as it is for a lot of deaf people’. There were constant issues over access to interpreters.
She was a deputy head girl though, and later earned a first-class degree in fashion design. She is fondly remembered by school staff, who call her ‘our little firework’.
When she was younger her mum did much of the ‘fighting’ for her, but she learned along the way to stand up for her own rights.
‘To ask for interpreters or deaf awareness training isn’t being pushy, I needed these things to have the same access as anyone else.’ Never has she wished she wasn’t deaf, though. ‘It’s made me who I am.’
She got involved in acting when her mother suggested she enrol in a workshop run by a deaf charity.
Rose said her mother is proud of her and had the time of her life watching her on Strictly. Pictured: Giovanni and Rose
‘I was shy at school so I’d never got involved in performing, but at home I’d entertain the family. I think that was a way to express my feelings visually,’ she says.
That confidence has been boosted again with her Strictly win. Both Rose and her mum were in tears. ‘My mum is so proud of me and she had the time of her life watching me on Strictly. She made me who I am.’
It’s been reported Rose could earn up to £1 million this year, but she says she isn’t thinking beyond the tour and going back to work at EastEnders. She cites her experience there as an example of what can be achieved, given the right training.
Just as all the cast and crew on Strictly had deaf awareness training, as they are on the tour, so too did her EastEnders colleagues. She says Danny Dyer makes a point of walking backwards when they’re on set together so she can lip-read. ‘It makes a huge difference.’
One more question. Longer term, will she k-eeeep dancing? ‘I hope so. I have to work out how, but I love it so much I don’t want to stop.’
We expected the worst, but it’s been the best
Strictly runner-up John Whaite, 32, and his professional partner Johannes Radebe, 34, (pictured) were the first male couple to dance together competitively in Strictly’s history
When does a TV show become more than a TV show? Strictly runner-up John Whaite poses the question, admitting that his Strictly experience left him an emotional wreck. The day after December’s final, his real-life partner Paul drove him home.
Granted he was feeling a bit fragile anyway (he’d gone clubbing with the injured AJ Odudu immediately after the final ‘and was still in the club at 9am’), but on the journey, John, 32, couldn’t stop crying.
‘I was sobbing, proper ugly crying too. Paul kept having to stop at service stations to buy tissues.’ Why? It wasn’t disappointment at having missed out on the glitterball, but more a sense of being wrung out.
John and his professional partner Johannes Radebe, 34, who are also on the Strictly Tour, had been the first male couple to dance together competitively in Strictly’s history, and can admit now that they’d been nervous about how they would be received, and whether Britain was ready to embrace a couple who were both gay on Saturday night telly.
There was a same-sex couple the previous year, Nicola Adams and Katya Jones, but only Nicola is gay. ‘We had expected the worst,’ John nods. Johannes wasn’t even 100 per cent sure they should be asking for this validation so publicly.
‘People won’t admit they were uncertain about how it would work, but I was,’ says Johannes.
The answer they got took them both by surprise. Although there were a few homophobic comments and some trolling online (John admits he took himself off Twitter ‘in anticipation’), the overwhelming response was positive. Yes, Britain was ready.
‘Which is incredible,’ says John. ‘I’m emotional now, even talking about it. It wasn’t just about me feeling validated, accepted, but an entire community.
John said it feels like sometimes TV transcends entertainment, it’s responsible for huge shifts in politics and society. Pictured: Johannes and John
‘All the young queer people who had been watching, the older gay generation, the parents who want their kids to grow up in a world where they have a choice. In the same way that the deaf community felt heard and seen, so did those people. It was huge.
‘I mean we take it for granted that a TV show is entertainment, but sometimes it’s responsible for huge shifts in politics, in society. It transcends entertainment, somehow. At least that’s how it feels.’
It feels like we need a packet of tissues here too now. Johannes is welling up as well. He says he did actually have a wobble on the dancefloor, just before their final dance.
John had to ask him if he was OK, but again he was just overwhelmed. His reasons were a little more personal too. He can speak more freely about this now, but Johannes’s mother had never been able to fully accept his sexuality, or even be open about it, until this year’s Strictly was underway.
As John was weeping his way up the motorway, Johannes was flying to his native South Africa for a reunion with his mother to have an in-person conversation he had been afraid to have for his whole adult life.
Johannes said his mother thought his dancing with John (pictured) was beautiful and she had never wanted to talk more about Strictly
‘Until last year’s Strictly we’d never dealt with my issues,’ he says, still tentative about the vocabulary to use.
‘Not issues, exactly. I mean with my sexuality. I had never sat down and talked to my mother properly. When I said, ‘I’m dancing with a man’, she was… uncertain.’ This is difficult territory.
Johannes says he has always had an extremely loving relationship with his mum, but ‘a couple of years ago something broke with it. Not only was she dealing with the fact that her son was gay, but she was also dealing with the rest of the family.
‘I come from a big Zulu family with lots of uncles who would ask me every time I went home, ‘Where are your wife and kids?’
Although his mum was silent on the matter, it could no longer be brushed under the carpet when he was strutting out on the dancefloor with a man in such a high-profile way. He gets choked again talking about his mum’s reaction, so anxiously anticipated.
Instead of being disgusted or disappointed seeing him dance with John, she was fascinated. ‘When she saw us dancing, she told me she thought it was beautiful. It was amazing, actually.
‘She has never wanted to talk more about Strictly. After every show she would ring me, analysing everything. I kept thinking, ‘Oh my goodness. Is this my mother?’ That was all I needed, her… I don’t want to call it approval because I don’t need my mother’s approval to live my life, but it was important.’
Johannes is planning to bring two of his uncles from South Africa to his solo tour, but admits they may not like seeing him on stage in a tutu and heels. Pictured left to right: Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice, Johannes Radebe and John Whaite
He nods towards John. ‘Now she was watching me, on TV, gazing into a man’s eyes and there was nothing my uncles could do about it. It took this partnership for us to be able to talk about it.
‘She has told me since how proud she is of me. She did say that before, but not in this context. We’ve come a long way.’
John’s achievement is all the more impressive because, unlike Rose who is an actress and thus used to movement and interpretation, he’s a baker.
That didn’t stop him performing some stunning numbers though, and on the tour John and Johannes will be revisiting some of them as well as a few new ones. But there’s an element of terror.
‘I have to dance with a woman in the group dance,’ John reveals. Yes, he’s petrified. ‘There are big differences physically. I’m used to dancing with Johannes who’s 15st. I’m worried about being too… brutal with her.’
Later in the spring Johannes has his own solo tour, which will be a celebration of dance and music, from African fusion to fiery Latin.
He says that he’s planning to bring two of his uncles over from South Africa to see it, and he wonders how they’ll accept him ‘coming on stage in a tutu and heels. They still may not like it, but this is my life. We will have to agree to disagree.’
Strictly Come Dancing Live tours the UK until 13 February. For venues and tickets visit strictlycome dancinglive.com.
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