We don't need another judge! Partying with Kate Moss, Cowell’s attempts
to poach him and a bombshell about Alesha’s departure… Bruno Tonioli
Dancer-turned-choreographer: Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno Tonioli at home in his stylish flat west London
Bruno Tonioli opens the door to his three-bedroom west London town house wearing a grey tracksuit with a large gold chain around his neck, a very different image from the slick judge we’re used to seeing on Strictly Come Dancing. ‘People see me in a suit and tie, but this is what I usually wear,’ he says in his flamboyant Italian accent while giving me a tour of his beautiful garden, which he tends to as his way of relaxing.
‘I love normality. I like being in this tracksuit and having days where I can just go to the gym, then garden and cook.’
The tanned 56-year-old pours me a glass of Chablis – his favourite tipple – and lies back on his cream leather sofa, sighing. ‘This is my last day of relaxation for 11 months.’
Bruno, a dancer-turned-choreographer who was plucked from obscurity to become a Strictly judge in 2004, isn’t exaggerating. Now one of Britain’s favourite TV personalities, he’s about to be reunited with fellow judges Craig Revel Horwood and Len Goodman on Strictly’s nationwide tour.
Then he’ll relocate to Los Angeles for four months to judge on the US version of the show, Dancing With The Stars. In July he’ll head back to London, presumably to resign with the BBC for another series of Strictly, before a gruelling eight weeks at the end of the year when he’ll do both shows at the same time, commuting (with Len) across the Atlantic every few days.
This year Alesha Dixon will not be joining the trio on BBC1, after she defected to ITV rival Britain’s Got Talent – a move orchestrated by Bruno’s close friend Simon Cowell last year while Strictly was still on air. ‘Oh, that was sneaky,’ Bruno yelps, only half-joking. ‘I should have known because I know Simon very well. He should have told me.’
But Bruno insists he has no hard feelings towards Alesha, despite her not personally contacting him about the decision.
‘It wasn’t a shock. I had a laugh with Alesha so I have no problems. It’s her decision and nothing to do with me.’
But why leave when Strictly is finally beating arch-rival X Factor in the ratings ‘Only she knows, but it’s probably something to do with lots and lots of money,’ he cackles. Three times her BBC salary, to be precise.
It’s no secret in TV circles that the Strictly judges are significantly underpaid. ‘I do Strictly for love, not money,’ Bruno admits. ‘You can’t compare our salaries to the X Factor judges’ because the BBC would never pay that.’
Will Alesha leaving hurt Strictly ‘No. I think the brand is bigger than any of us. Strictly’s going to come back and be very big regardless of who’s doing it.’
Right now, Alesha’s place on the panel is the most sought-after job in TV, with contenders including X Factor guest judge Nicole Scherzinger, former winner Kara Tointon, former pro dancer Karen Hardy and, of course, former judge Arlene Phillips.
But Bruno has a bombshell plan that would save the BBC a six-figure salary… don’t replace Alesha at all.
‘Len, Craig and I have been doing this for six years – we’ve had ups and downs but we know how to play it,’ he explains.
‘They could easily do it with the three of us. That’s what it’s like in America (along with Len, the other judge is Carrie Ann Inaba) and it works very well.’
A three-judge panel is clearly his preferred option, which is a surprise given his closeness to Arlene – sacked in 2009 – who many want to see reinstated.
Moving on: Bruno says he is not worried about how Strictly will survive now that Alesha has defected to Britain's Got Talent – what's more he doesn't think they need to replace her
But Bruno says, ‘I’m not Simon Cowell. I
don’t call the shots. I don’t have any say on who the other judges are. I
spoke to Arlene before Christmas. She’s not someone who waits around
for things to happen. She gets on with things and always has. It’s a
The stakes are high because last year’s
Strictly, won by Harry Judd of rock band McFly, was widely considered
the best ever. Of course, the not-quite-so-talented contestant Nancy
Dell’Olio has publicly claimed she was behind the ratings increase. ‘Oh,
she must be joking!’ Bruno hoots in response. ‘She can’t mean that
seriously.’ Bruno believes Nancy has cynically exploited her Strictly
appearance to guarantee herself a future career.
‘People have the opportunity to raise their profile through our show. I never played it that way, but good for her. There are people who make careers out of doing that,’ he reasons.
Nancy certainly seemed to be taking the show seriously. So seriously, in fact, she threatened to sue Bruno for telling her it looked as if she had ‘inhaled two gallons of Veuve Clicquot’ champagne after one of her performances on the show. Speaking for the first time about the incident, and visibly annoyed, he says he would have exploded had she raised it with him face-to-face.
‘It was nonsense. Once the performance is over, I don’t discuss it. It’s nothing personal. All the dancers know they’ll get hit like a ton of bricks if they try and bring something up with me afterwards. I’d only have taken it seriously if it came from my lawyer, and I never heard a thing. It was all talk. And I know more people than she does!’ he says cheekily.
Whether it was down to Nancy or not, Strictly’s success has monumentally riled Cowell, who is now bent on revenge. ‘He’s fuming about it. That’s why he’s coming back to the UK to do Britain’s Got Talent. He’s driving everyone crazy!’ Bruno smiles.
Perfect 10: Dancing With The Stars judges Len Goodman (centre), Bruno (right) and Carrie Ann Inaba
Strictly has always been a thorn in
the X Factor mogul’s side. ‘Simon likes it so much he’d buy it if he
could. And his mum loves it too, which doesn’t help.’
an admission that will cause extreme nervousness at the BBC, Bruno
reveals that, like Alesha, he has had discussions with Cowell about TV
projects away from Strictly. ‘He’s asked me about things. I can’t
exclude the possibility. It would be great to do something with him, but
it has to be the right thing.’
In any case, Bruno is far too busy at
the moment with his judging duties. The last Strictly was notable for a
changing dynamic on the panel. ‘I think I ganged up with Craig on Len,’
Bruno reflects. ‘Craig and I like it when dancers push the boundaries.
But Len is more of a traditionalist so it gets on his nerves.’
But Bruno and Len have become very close because of their transatlantic commute. They even stay in the same apartment block in Los Angeles. ‘We’re not literally next-door neighbours because we’d end up killing each other. We do different things to socialise. He plays golf.’
He has had at least one wild Hollywood night out, with supermodel and well-known hellraiser Kate Moss, who is apparently a big fan of Strictly. They met over dinner with Cowell’s ex-girlfriend Terri Seymour at the famous Chateau Marmont hotel, and ended up spending eight hours drinking together. ‘We had such a scream,’ Bruno recalls. ‘We started gossiping and I love it because she speaks like a bloke. There is nothing you can say to her that will faze her. You can just let rip. She loves watching Strictly with her mum. Kate’s actually a really good dancer. We’re friends now.’
‘I’m not Simon Cowell. I don’t call the
shots. I don’t have any say on who the other judges are. I spoke to
Arlene before Christmas. She’s not someone who waits around for things
One thing Bruno’s uncompromising schedule has not allowed time for is a boyfriend. The openly gay dancer has been single since splitting from a long-term partner during the early days of Strictly. Given his success, he must get a lot of offers
‘No I don’t. Absolutely nothing. Do you have any suggestions for me’ How about the internet Bruno explodes. ‘I’m not going to sit on the b****y internet! Are you kidding me I’m very private. I’m not even on Facebook.’
He believes his fame has made it more difficult to find a partner, because potential suitors expect him to have his bubbly judging persona on all hours of the day. ‘Simon Cowell said to me, “It’s because you’re stroppy.” Maybe he’s right, not that he can talk! But I am very direct, that’s the problem. People see me on TV and think I’m something, but in reality I can be quite blunt.’
Bruno has known he was gay since he was ten, and was often beaten up over it while growing up in Ferrara in north-east Italy. It was something he never discussed with his bus-driver father Werther or seamstress mother Fulvia. Today, he says the fact he could openly flirt with Harry Judd about his ‘amazing six-pack’ on Strictly shows how far attitudes have come. ‘Things have advanced enormously, especially thanks to TV. But it’s the grassroots that have to change. There are still a lot of kids who kill themselves because of bullying.’
Now it’s time to pack for the Strictly tour, where Craig is running the show as creative director. ‘But he’s not going to tell me or Len what to do!’ insists Bruno, ‘Never!’
Did he see Craig as the wicked queen in panto with Ann Widdecombe over Christmas ‘I saw the pictures and Craig in drag is stunning. He looks like a beautiful woman! Whereas with me in drag, I look like a trucker in women’s clothes… but at least I don’t have man boobs like him!’ And, with a final gulp of his wine and a flash of his pecs to illustrate the point, the bundle of energy that is Bruno Tonioli waltzes me to the door.
Bruno is the new face of the Hilton HHonors Platinum Visa Card, visit www.hiltonhhonors.com. See him on the Strictly Come Dancing Live Tour until the end of the month. www.strictlycomedancinglive.com