Shirley, 59, ‘hates the word cancer. The moment you hear that ‘C’ word…’ She shakes her head. One of her mother’s sisters died from cancer a few years ago, while another aunt, who was recently diagnosed with the cruel disease, underwent surgery last week
A few weeks ago Shirley Ballas sat in her mother’s front room with a stiff drink and a notepad.
Her 82‑year-old mum Audrey, who was diagnosed with colon cancer last year, wanted to dictate her wishes for her funeral.
Mother and daughter are, Shirley says, ‘beyond close — we’re a sock and a shoe’.
So much so, she can’t imagine life without the woman who worked all hours in a factory to fund Shirley’s dream of becoming a dancer.
‘In her own way, she tried to prepare me,’ says the Strictly Come Dancing head judge.
‘We’d had a couple of drinks and that’s when she brought it up. She wanted to talk about her funeral. That was hard.
‘She said: ‘I don’t want one of these morbid ones. I want everybody coming and having a party — a knees-up. I want my Johnny Cash music playing.’
‘Through tears and everything, I tried to write these wishes down.’
Shirley was in her hotel room at the British Dance Championships in Blackpool in May last year when her mother phoned with the devastating news that doctors had discovered a lump in her colon.
The relentlessly upbeat Audrey ‘was trying to make out it wasn’t a big deal’.
When she had her operation in July, her hair was coiffed and her face perfectly made up.
Shirley has a photograph of her dear old mum looking full of the joys of spring in her hospital gown.
‘Look at her face,’ she says. ‘The last thing she said to me was: ‘OK girl, I’m ready. Bring it on.’ ‘
Shirley adds: ‘They got the tumour out, but one of her lymph nodes has cancer in it.
‘She won’t have chemotherapy; it was her choice. I took her back twice, and twice she made the same decision. She said: ‘Stop nagging me. Stop bossing me about.’ I know my mum so well. There’s no use pushing that envelope.’
Shirley was with her second husband, professional dancer Corky Ballas, the father of her now 33-year-old son Mark, when she decided to increase her bust size from a 32B to a whopping 34DD 18 years ago
Shirley, 59, ‘hates the word cancer. The moment you hear that ‘C’ word…’ She shakes her head.
One of her mother’s sisters died from cancer a few years ago, while another aunt, who was recently diagnosed with the cruel disease, underwent surgery last week.
‘I’ve had cancer cells removed from my womb several times,’ says Shirley. ‘I had a smear test at the beginning of the year but was beginning to feel a little bit uncomfortable in June, so I went back for a second test.’
The results revealed abnormal cells.
Shirley looks so very happy, which is wondrous to see. For it has been a particularly tough week for her. Following radio DJ Dev Griffin’s controversial exit from Strictly last week, she has been receiving death threats
‘The doctor sent me, the very next day, to the Lister Hospital. The consultant said they didn’t need to do anything right away but I needed to come back before Christmas. It’s on my mind 100 per cent constantly. I go about my business, keep busy, but it’s always there.’
We’re in Shirley’s immaculate, South‑East London home discussing the word she hates because in a week and a half she will go into hospital to have her breast implants removed following a recent mammogram.
Shirley confesses she’s been feeling off-colour for quite a while, so much so that this week she needed intravenous vitamin therapy — used to administer vitamins and minerals directly into the bloodstream via a drip — to boost her for tonight’s live Strictly show. She’s still in her pyjamas when we meet.
‘I’ve been constantly sick,’ she explains. ‘I had flu a lot and was catching cold after cold. But you still go to work, don’t you?
Then, recently, I had a mammogram, and a youngish assistant said: ‘You do realise we can’t always see behind the back of the breast implant.’ So I’ve decided to have them out.
‘I’m having the capsule of scar tissue that forms around the implants taken out, too, so the operation will be about four hours. That’s the part that holds any . . .’ She doesn’t finish the sentence.
‘The capsule will go to the lab where they’ll do whatever they do to check.
‘I just want to take the safest precautions for myself, for my peace of mind.’ She falls silent for a moment. Taps manicured nails on the kitchen island worktop.
‘If I could go back to my younger self, I would never have had them done. As my niece Mary [who works in the NHS] says: ‘Why would you voluntarily put something foreign into your body when you’re healthy?’
‘I did it because I felt somebody else was not completely comfortable with the way I looked.’
Shirley was with her second husband, professional dancer Corky Ballas, the father of her now 33-year-old son Mark, when she decided to increase her bust size from a 32B to a whopping 34DD 18 years ago.
She was 41, and had just discovered Corky, to whom she was married for a turbulent 23 years, was having an affair.
Shirley is pictured above in 1988. This is the first time she has given such an open, revealing interview
‘We were at the tail-end of our relationship. Things were starting to unravel,’ she says.
‘I’d found out about one of them [his affairs] with the nanny. She used to take care of Mark when he was little.
‘I’d been blind to it. You’re young. You are working so hard and travelling all over the world. I think a lot of other people knew a lot more than me and didn’t tell me.
‘It was only when he’d been seeing another girl in the States for three-and-a-half years and they got found out that he had to tell me. I thought: ‘To save this, I need to make myself more attractive.’
‘For years Corky was what I call a jokester. He’d tease me with things like, ‘You’ve got breasts like two currants on a breadboard’ or ‘You’ve got a sunken chest like a pirate’s something or other.’ He didn’t like my teeth until I got braces at 25.
‘It’s like a little pickaxe that goes, chip, chip, chip, until, in the end, you think you are ugly.
‘He said the affairs were just about sex. ‘It’s nothing to do with you. I love you,’ he told me. But I never got a grip around that. That’s when I got these.’
She cups her huge, surgically-enhanced breasts. ‘I thought I’d have this fantastic bust and everyone would look at me and think I was amazing.’
‘After the operation I did feel fantastic: I’d put a bra on and I had a cleavage.
But her delight was short-lived. ‘Because if you’re not happy with yourself — if you’re heart is not happy — you won’t be happy with anything you do to your body.
‘It isn’t until you’re at peace with yourself that everything about you is beautiful. So what if you’ve got a smaller bust? I think it’s only since I’ve been with Danny that I’ve realised that.’
‘Danny’ is the rather dashing actor Danny Taylor who, at 46, is 13 years her junior. They met last Christmas when they both appeared in the pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk in Liverpool and Shirley was instantly smitten.
Danny, who has a son, Sonny, from a 15-year relationship that ended last year, comes from a caravan park in Merseyside and Shirley from a neighbouring down-at-heel housing estate.
She says they share a history, which seems to mean a lot to Shirley, whose heady success took her from a childhood where money ran out on a Friday and there was no fridge or telephone, to a sparkly world of personal assistants and first-class travel.
When Danny first fell in love with her, he asked her: ‘Who’s the real Shirley?’ She didn’t really know, but now she does.
‘With one husband [Shirley married her dance partner Sammy Stopford at 18, before falling in love with Corky five years later], I’d go to bed without so much as a chipped nail and with my make-up on,’ she says.
‘I remember Danny getting a wet-wipe, taking my make-up off and going: ‘There she is — that’s the girl from the housing estate I’ve fallen in love with.’
‘I really feel I’ve met somebody who cares about me. I go to bed with a smile on my face. I wake up with a smile on my face. Every day is precious.’
Shirley lights up like the Strictly glitterball when she talks about her boyfriend, whom, she says, she’d marry in a flash.
‘When I told him I wanted to remove my breast implants, we sat down and spoke about it. I’m 150 per cent self-conscious that I’m older than him.
He said: ‘Most 30-year-olds would die for a figure like yours but . . .’ ‘ She puts her elbows on the kitchen island top and leans forwards to confide.
‘Dah-ling, it wasn’t so much sucking your tummy in as going to bed in your pyjamas, your hat, your coat, your wellies and your socks. All the lights off. Snuggle up in there and take it off, one bit at a time. But he’s 100 per cent with me on this.’ Again, she gestures to those massive breasts.
Shirley looks so very happy, which is wondrous to see. For it has been a particularly tough week for her.
Following radio DJ Dev Griffin’s controversial exit from Strictly last week, she has been receiving death threats.
The despicable trolling has been so very cruel that professional dancer Dianne Buswell, who partnered Griffin, took to Twitter to plead with them to stop.
‘Look, this is a dance competition,’ Shirley says. ‘I knew people at home get invested, but they have to appreciate I have 50-odd years of experience and have to send somebody home. Why was he in the bottom two? Because people didn’t vote for him.’
Much as Shirley tries to shrug it off, you know she is hugely sensitive to criticism. This is the first time she has given such an open, revealing interview.
When she first joined Strictly as head judge two years ago following the departure of Len Goodman, she was a defensive, nervy thing who, as she says, ‘had four walls around me hard as a hobnail boot because of everything. I think it’s living on that estate, having no male role model [her father left when she was two]. My brother David, who took his life at 44, was the strongest person in my life, then he died. He’s on my mind 24/7.’
Today his ashes are in a black urn in her home. Shirley dug up his ashes and took them with her when she upped sticks for the United States 13 years ago.
He travelled home with her when she returned to England earlier this year. Today, she confides she feels ‘100 per cent responsible’ for his death.
‘My son Mark was singing at St Paul’s, so I called Mum and asked her to come down. She’d been staying with Dave for eight weeks or so. He was in this black hole he couldn’t get out of, but we didn’t understand mental health then as we do today.
‘He didn’t want to come, and Mum didn’t think she should leave him. I said: ‘It’s one day, Mum. It’s one day. You’ve been up there with him for two months. Come for one day and see your grandson.’ That was the day he did it. So you tell me if you’d feel guilty?’
Anguish is writ large across her face. She pauses to collect herself as tears threaten.
‘There was a lot of bullying that happened on the estate,’ she says. ‘I had crooked teeth, which people would remind me of, and my hair was thin.
‘One girl would rib me constantly. She’d say: ‘Why are you doing that [dancing]? You can’t dance. You’ll never amount to anything.’
Following radio DJ Dev Griffin’s controversial exit from Strictly last week, she has been receiving death threats. The despicable trolling has been so very cruel that professional dancer Dianne Buswell, who partnered Griffin, took to Twitter to plead with them to stop. ‘Look, this is a dance competition,’ Shirley says
‘One day she waited for me on the field to knock the living daylights out of me. I would stay in class as long as I could. Then, well, I tried my hardest to defend myself, but . . .’
‘I stored it [the bullying] in a rucksack on my back. My whole life I’ve never felt, as a female, I was up to scratch.
‘When I first went on Strictly I had a little phase at the beginning, you know, when I was sat next to this really beautiful lady, [former judge] Darcey Bussell — this ballerina, this Snow White beauty — that I stopped eating until I looked at myself and realised I looked so gaunt.
‘Over the years there have been things said you wouldn’t say to a dog, let alone a person. But I just keep moving on, keep trundling on, keep swimming upstream.’
Last year, when fellow Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood allegedly made comments about her ‘fake boobs’ during a promotion tour for his autobiography, she called a meeting.
‘I told him I didn’t need anybody making me feel bad about myself because I could do that myself. He apologised profusely and sent me beautiful flowers.
‘With Craig, he has this very great sense of humour, a bit like my ex-husband Sammy, but they don’t realise your past or what you store. When they say something, it can be a trigger.
With this in mind, Shirley is hugely supportive of new judge Motsi Mabuse, 38, whom she’s known for more than 20 years.
‘We’re on the same page. I judged her a lot and can still remember seeing her at Blackpool,’ says Shirley. ‘She’d wear these bright coloured dresses and come out with all this rhythm in her hips. She was magnificent.’
Not everyone in her profession is so supportive, however. ‘One of the things you have to try to deal with in this industry is the backstabbing,’ says Shirley. ‘Have people backstabbed me? One hundred per cent.
‘Have I been over-critical in the past when I’ve been in a miserable place in marriages or this or that, or said things that could be a little bit hurtful? Perhaps. But have I stabbed somebody in the back? Never.
‘One story that sticks out for me is a certain dancer [she won’t say whom] who said to my best friend [the dancer] Karen Hilton: ‘That Shirley is so full of herself she thinks she’s got the paparazzi following her all the time. All she needs is a Mercedes Benz and a tunnel.’ She was referring to Princess Diana’s death.
‘When I confronted her, I was told I didn’t have a sense of humour. Where’s the humour in that?’ Shirley looks genuinely bewildered.
Of such attacks, she says: ‘You just stick on a Band-aid to stop the pain and carry on until you’re full of Band-aids — stick it on, stick it on.
‘Then, all of a sudden, you meet somebody . . .’ and the tears dissolve into a wide smile.
‘I hadn’t had a cuddle, hadn’t had a kiss, hadn’t had anything for such a long time — five or six years — when I fell in love with Danny. I was very alone, even in my marriages. My life never seemed to be that of laughter.
‘Now I’m able to share private, intimate time with someone I love. We laugh all the time. I’d marry him tomorrow, but he says to stop worrying about what’s later on or tomorrow, just enjoy the moment. Yesterday’s gone, tomorrow’s promised to nobody and we only have now.’