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Strictly finalist AJ Odudu says that she was the wrong sex, colour and class for TV

The spring ligament in your foot – technically the plantar calcaneon-avicular-ligament – turns out to be rather vital. ‘It’s right at the arch, and it takes 90 per cent of your weight,’ says AJ Odudu, whose spring ligament sprang a bit too far during her Strictly Come Dancing training last December.

It ripped and was left ‘hanging by a thread’, famously robbing her of her place in the final. 

It was one of the biggest upsets in Strictly’s history, and yes, it was as agonising as it sounds. When it went ‘it really went’, she says. 

‘I literally fell to my knees. I projectile vomited. The pain level was through the roof. I was thinking, “What’s going on? What is my body doing?”’ 

AJ Odudu, 34, (pictured) from Blackburn, shot to fame when she appeared on Strictly. Her parents arrived in the UK from Nigeria, and she grew up in a working class home

Before she became a TV presenter AJ worked as a personal trainer, so she’s unsurprisingly geeky about the technicalities here, chatting away about how her recovery was protracted ‘because there’s poor circulation in that area’. 

There are no medical textbook explanations about the other pain that followed, however, when she had to sit through the final in a moonboot (albeit a glitter one), watching her rival Rose Ayling-Ellis sweep to victory. 

‘It’s not that I thought I would win, because I didn’t, but I was just gutted because I knew we would have put on a great show,’ says AJ, 34, who was partnered with Kai Widdrington. ‘I remember saying, “I’m so upset, guys,” while crying my eyes out and thinking, “My foot really hurts here, but not as much as my heart does.”’ 

The recovery for her foot was tedious, involving plenty of rest then plenty of physio. Only now is she back to full strength. 

The recovery for her heart? One of her brothers played doctor here. 

‘He knows what I’m like. When I do something, I naturally want to do my best. I want to go for gold. 

Her spring ligament sprang a bit too far during her Strictly Come Dancing training last December. It ripped and was left ‘hanging by a thread’, famously robbing her of her place in the final

Her spring ligament sprang a bit too far during her Strictly Come Dancing training last December. It ripped and was left ‘hanging by a thread’, famously robbing her of her place in the final

‘But he said to me Strictly wasn’t about winning. You didn’t need to have the glitterball to win, and he was right.’ 

Maybe her ultimate prize was becoming a household name. Before Strictly, AJ had been known to certain demographic groups (two shows she hosted were reality show spinoffs, Big Brother’s Bit On The Side and Married At First Sight UK: Afters), but she wouldn’t have been known to many Strictly viewers. 

Yet overnight this athletic young woman from Blackburn was catapulted to a ‘different level’ of fame. 

‘It’s mad really. You know it happens, but when it happens to you it’s amazing. I remember being at the BAFTAs and Tom Hiddleston came over and said, “I’m such a big fan”. I said “You? I can’t believe it!” 

‘Strictly does that. It takes you to the next level. You might have done programmes aimed at youth or music audiences like I did, but Strictly is everyone, it’s families, young, old.’ 

 There is so much that’s wrong with how I’ve been treated, but you have to pick your battles

That the nation’s sympathy was with her because of her injury just added to the intensity. ‘Everyone’s been so lovely. It’s quite a thing, knowing that you are in people’s hearts.’ 

It follows that AJ now seems to be everywhere. She’s just delivered the UK’s votes for Eurovision, she was part of the team covering the Platinum Jubilee Pageant a few weeks ago, and in August she’ll present four Saturday morning episodes of The Big Breakfast with comedian Mo Gilligan on Channel 4. 

But the first job she filmed after her foot came out of the moon boot was an altogether more intrepid one in the circumstances. While her Strictly co-stars were taking the show on the annual arena tour, AJ travelled to Vietnam to film a new series of Channel 4 reality show The Bridge. 

As presenter, she oversees the efforts of two teams of eight contestants competing to build a bridge to an island in Ha Long Bay and win the £200,000 prize waiting there. 

It’s a tough challenge: the bridge must span 1,000ft of water and be completed in 12 days. Along the way, the teams face surprise dilemmas and temptations that test their loyalties and show where their allegiances lie. 

And whichever team gets there first must then vote for just one of their members to scoop the entire jack pot. It’s a physical sort of show, full of gung-ho types, of which AJ considers herself one (she runs marathons for fun). 

It involved travel, competition, challenges (‘pretty much a smorgasbord of everything I love’). 

AJ with her mother Florence, who as a cleaner at a grammar school, and used to bring home textbooks that were being thrown out for her children

AJ with her mother Florence, who as a cleaner at a grammar school, and used to bring home textbooks that were being thrown out for her children

She was still having physio at the time, though. Did the physiotherapist go too? 

‘No, we had to wrap up filming in time for me to get back to my hotel room to have my physio via Zoom. But the crew were great about making sure I could manage everything, and that I wouldn’t be standing too much in one position.’ 

Anyone worrying that her Strictly-honed physique might have suffered because of the weeks she was banned from the gym will be pleased to know that’s not the case. If anything, her six pack is more developed than it was before. 

She posted a bikini picture from Vietnam on Instagram featuring abs of steel. ‘I could still do upper body work,’ she laughs. 

‘In fact I could only do body work, so I thought, “I’ll just do some sit-ups” or, “I’ll just do some press-ups”. But that’s what I’m like. I’m full-throttle. 

In green… just like the queen! 

AJ had the honour of presenting at the Jubilee Pageant earlier this month, wowing viewers in a striking green outfit with a dangerously high hemline which just happened to match the Queen’s balcony outfit later that evening

AJ had the honour of presenting at the Jubilee Pageant earlier this month, wowing viewers in a striking green outfit with a dangerously high hemline which just happened to match the Queen’s balcony outfit later that evening

AJ had the honour of presenting at the Jubilee Pageant earlier this month, wowing viewers in a striking green outfit with a dangerously high hemline which just happened to match the Queen’s balcony outfit later that evening. 

‘From Blackburn to Buckingham Palace, who’d have thought it?’ she says. 

‘It was the most brilliantly bonkers event. One minute I was chatting to the nation’s PE teacher, Joe Wicks, the next I was waving to supermodel Naomi Campbell from the top of a double decker bus. 

‘When I was interviewing Dame Joan Collins, she made me feel all giddy when she said my name. 

‘Only at the Queen’s Pageant can you go from chatting to Sir Cliff Richard at the gates of the palace surrounded by thousands of people to waving to the actual Queen, who just so happened to be wearing a matching outfit to me! I had the best time and it was a true joy and honour to be part of it.’ 

‘What getting injured did teach me was that I had to listen to my body. At first I was frustrated. 

‘I thought, “Why has my body let me down?” But then I came to realise it hadn’t. It had done what it needed to do, and had hung in there for as long as it could. 

‘If it had happened earlier in the series, I’d have been out completely. At least I got to be there at the end, albeit on crutches.’ 

Work offers may have come pouring in since Strictly, but what about romantic ones? ‘Oh I’m still single, so if you know anyone…’ 

We joke that she’d need someone who could keep up with her energy levels. ‘I need an absolute boss,’ she confirms. 

Is she bothered about romantic relationships, about having kids? ‘I’m bothered about all the relationships in my life – romantic, platonic. 

‘A relationship is definitely something I’d like in the future but I’m not the type of person to settle. I’m from a big family so I’d like all that, but will it happen? 

‘I don’t know. When I meet the right person you’ll know about it. Or maybe you won’t.’ She laughs. 

‘Maybe I’ll be the person who rocks up saying, “I’m expecting a baby with my husband”, but no one is putting pressure on me for that. My mum has eight kids and lots of grandchildren so she’s all good.’ 

Her parents arrived in the UK from Nigeria, and AJ grew up in a working class home where the children were encouraged to ‘seize the opportunities that our parents didn’t have’. 

Her mum Florence was a cleaner at a grammar school, and used to bring home textbooks that were being thrown out for her children. AJ’s dad James was a bus conductor. People like her didn’t get jobs in telly, she says. 

‘My friend’s mum was a receptionist, and where I’m from that was a really good job.’ AJ worked in a supermarket before going to university to study English and politics, and as a cleaner. 

She admits that all the odds were against her – she was the ‘wrong’ sex, colour, class – to make it in the media, yet she has. The ultimate revenge then, given she was advised to lose her Blackburn accent early in her TV career and refused. 

She’s talked before about the racism she experienced in childhood: walking into a shop to hear the shopkeeper warn customers to ‘keep an eye on the black girl’; being told by a stranger to wash her face. Are there echoes of that today? 

Of course, she says. ‘There is so much that’s wrong with how I’ve been treated in the past and how I continue to be treated. But you have to pick your battles. 

‘Otherwise you’d be pulling people up constantly every single day. I guess I figured out how to navigate my way. 

‘I can protect my happiness, but also stand up for what I believe is unjust. That’s what I’m trying to strike the balance between.’ 

 I was crying my eyes out at the Strictly final and thinking, ‘My foot really hurts, but not as much as my heart’

It is a difficult balance. I ask about her name, and she says that the nickname AJ came about because, in Blackburn in the 1980s and 90s, her first name – Onatejiro – was deemed too ‘foreign’, too difficult. 

‘My nursery teacher couldn’t pronounce it. There weren’t too many Nigerian names there,’ she says. Subsequent attempts to shorten it left her with AJ, ‘which is quite a cool nickname’. 

It is, but in recent years it has been recognised that having to change a given name to make it ‘easier’ is a form of racism. The actress Thandiwe Newton has reverted to the original Zimbabwean spelling of her name (she went by Thandie for much of her career). 

AJ hasn’t done this, but admits it’s complicated. ‘I don’t encourage changing anyone’s name just because you find it hard to pronounce. 

‘I think it’s lazy. It shows you don’t see them, you aren’t willing to try. But in my case I have a lot of family and friends who still use my full name so I feel seen in a lot of spaces.’ 

She gets more irked when her surname is misspelt in the press or on social media. ‘I do find that upsetting – and lazy! It’s Odudu – O-D-U-DU. Not difficult. It’s spelled phonetically. Get it right!’ 

She points out her parents had to deal  with more ‘injustices’ than she did, but they set the tone for the family. ‘The attitude was, “Don’t let the negativity of others hold you back from what you want to do.”

‘When it comes to racism and injustice in society, in the workplace, wherever, none of that is right. But if we let these things hold us back, they’re the ones that win. That’s what I was taught. That’s what’s got me this far.’

  • The Bridge: Race To A Fortune, Tuesday & Wednesday, 10pm, Ch4 

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