Strictly”s stolen my life: DAN WOOTTON joins Harry Judd for the day… and discovers the bruising truth
For viewers of Strictly Come Dancing, it’s easy to assume the celebrity contestants are the usual bunch of pampered stars who have every whim catered for before prancing on to the dancefloor to perform for just three minutes.
But for show favourite Harry Judd, the far-from-glamorous reality involves exhausting 12-hour days — seven days a week — of training (in the arms of a beautiful dancer — so it’s not all bad!). ‘Surely, a three-minute dance routine doesn’t take more than 70 hours of preparation’ I ask the McFly drummer.
Harry summons his flame-haired professional partner Aliona Vilani, who is covered in bruises after being dropped onto hard wooden floors too many times to remember over the past eight weeks. ‘You show him how it’s done,’ he winks at her. And, sure enough, within ten minutes of coaching, I’m begging for mercy as a smug-looking Harry smiles: ‘See, you have no idea what Strictly really involves.’
Dance fever: Dan Wootton dances with Aliona Vilani as Harry Judd watches on in the background
But I’m about to find out as the 25-year-old pop star, who has been credited with helping to rejuvenate the hit BBC1 celebrity dance competition, reveals his intense preparation — yes, all 72 hours’ worth — in advance of tomorrow’s highly anticipated semi-final.
It’s 11am on Tuesday in a freezing cold training room in a public gym, on a grim-looking south-west London industrial estate surrounded by council flats.
There’s no hint that Harry — a pin-up to millions of teenage girls — is part of the country’s most glittering TV show, apart from two BBC cameras which stand ominously on tripods at each end of the room.
Two bored-looking producers will sit alongside them for the next six hours, secretly hoping Harry, who wears a red hooded jumper to keep him warm, will injure himself or get into a fight with Aliona so they have content for the video packages they’re working on.
Playing up to the cameras: Two producers film Harry for six hours, secretly hoping he will injure himself or get into a fight with Aliona so they have content for the video packages they”re working on.
When Harry and Aliona break for their usual dinner of fajitas at 6.30pm, the crew will depart. But the pair will continue perfecting their every move for four more hours in a smaller, windowless studio, in nearby Chiswick.
At 10.20pm, an exhausted Harry refuses to dance any more. He lies on the floor and tries to distract Aliona with ‘mindless conversation’. He’s had enough.
This laborious process is repeated from Monday to Thursday. And, unlike the other contestants, Harry and Aliona have already practised for an extra four hours on Sunday to get a head start.
There’s also filming of the BBC2 Strictly spin-off series, It Takes Two, and the comedic video packages which are shown on the Saturday shows. And Harry has twice-weekly weights sessions with a personal trainer to ensure his depressingly pert pecs stay toned.
‘I admit I am a bit of an obsessive,’ Harry says, while downing a revolting-looking concoction, which is actually an orange, carrot and ginger smoothie. ‘I’m a perfectionist. People keep telling me to take a day off, but I refuse.’
No wonder. The pressure is firmly on Harry to win. Not only has he been the bookies’ favourite for weeks, scoring plaudits from all four judges, but less than a week ago his bandmate Dougie Poynter won the rival ITV1 reality series I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here.
‘Before Dougie went into the jungle we joked: “Imagine if we both won.” Now Dougie has and I’m in the semis.’
Harry’s life has essentially been put on hold for the past four months.
He tries to listen to new McFly songs on his headphones during training breaks, but his mind is on only one thing — Strictly.
Despite the show’s winner-turned-judge Alesha Dixon recently claiming dancing so physically close to one’s partner for so many hours makes one rather frisky, Harry remains devoted to his long-term girlfriend Izzy Johnston, 27, who experienced her own reality TV fame as a member of Escala, the electronic string quartet who got to the finals of Britain’s Got Talent in 2008.
‘Maybe I’m just different, but I see Strictly as a professional thing and would regardless of whether I was single or not,’ he says. ‘I’m completely dedicated to one girl and I don’t let myself think like that anyway.
‘Izzy will come to training and sit in the corner watching us sometimes, or will come and have dinner with us. And the most important thing is that I wake up with her every morning.’
That’s not to say the inevitable intimacy that comes with spending more than 70 hours a week with a stunning, single professional dancer doesn’t cause some obvious awkwardness, especially when Izzy has to watch their more intimate routines.
Poor Aliona looks more like a boxer than a ballroom dancer up close, as Harry points out various bruises and swollen body parts which cover her from head to toe. ‘He quite literally has to climb all over me during training,’ Aliona smiles. ‘The bruises are painful and my rib cage is very sore.
‘It is hardcore physically. We have no break mats to cushion any falls we have. This week we had to drop a particularly difficult move, because it was too dangerous. There’s a limit, even for us.’
The pair have only had one serious bust-up during the course of the competition. ‘I nearly dropped her during a lift,’ Harry recalls. ‘I had dropped her quite a few times before then and she would laugh, but she wasn’t happy this time as she knew I wasn’t concentrating.’
But, he adds, they have ‘argued the least’ out of any of the couples: ‘We bicker, but anyone would when you spend that much time together.
‘Aliona’s seen me tired, grumpy and upset, but we make each other laugh. That’s part of the experience.’
Favourite: Harry, pictured with dance partner Aliona, has become one of the most popular contestants on this year”s Strictly
Gruelling: During training, each professional dancer works differently. Aliona takes things slowly, perfecting the routine bit by bit
Harry’s arch rival for the Strictly title, actress Chelsee Healey, practises in a next-door room most of the week, but he never checks out his competition.
‘We’ll talk during a cigarette break, but that’s about it,’ he explains.
Astonishingly, considering the vigorous routines, smoking is one habit Harry hasn’t given up. He and Chelsee often nip out to the BBC’s courtyard for a quick puff to calm their nerves after the live show. ‘It’s quite a nice time, because the dance is over and we get to meet up with whoever the contestants have brought with them,’ he says.
During training, each professional dancer works differently. Many will ‘block out’ the moves on the first day of training so the celebrity is aware of everything they have to learn during the week. But Aliona takes things much slower, perfecting the routine bit by bit.
It can be painful to watch, as they go through the routine step-by-step at a snail’s pace.
Harry explains: ‘If we’re doing a samba, she’ll teach me the basic steps on a Sunday but, sometimes, I won’t do the final steps until Thursday. It’s like perfecting your golf swing — you have to put in lots of time and effort.’
Baring all: Dan Wootton covers up as Harry Judd shows off his well-toned torso
Harry is rarely disagreeable, but when Aliona suggests ‘sexing up’ the routine with facial expressions, she’s given a flat No.
On Fridays and Saturdays, the dancers finally get to move out of their suffocating training venues and into the BBC’s rundown White City studios.
At 10am Harry arrives in the ‘Star Bar’ area which houses the celebrities’ dressing rooms, and is bombarded by camera crews and production staff from the moment he walks in.
On Friday, he spends a lot of time backstage getting fitted into his costume for the live show. The male dancers’ shirts are actually all-in-ones with attached underwear made of lycra. That poses hazards when nature calls. ‘It’s very difficult, believe me,’ Harry groans.
The professional dancers do not even have their own dressing rooms because of a lack of space. Instead, there are two communal rooms — one for the females, one for males — where they get ready. Harry prefers to hang out in the professional males’ dressing room than his own ‘because there’s a good camaraderie’.
Perhaps the only perk (other than free stodgy food from the BBC canteen) is a spray-tanning booth, which all the celebrities and professionals visit.
Saturdays are the most difficult for Harry, who struggles with the long wait between the final rehearsal (where a dressed-down Bruce Forsyth warns the contestants: ‘Make sure you laugh at my jokes’) and the start of the live show.
‘I sit down and just feel sick and totally drained with anxiety,’ he says.
Each celebrity can invite just two guests to the show, making it a tough choice between parents, partners and friends. Izzy always gets a ticket, and Harry will try to see her briefly before the show.
Contrary to popular belief, the Sunday night results show is filmed 90 minutes after the live show on a Saturday.
Harry struggles with being filmed after the result is announced, as he would like a moment to himself to celebrate. He says: ‘The vultures — I mean the cameramen — flock onto the floor. Last week, I was trying to give Robbie Savage, who had just been voted off, a hug and they insisted I was interviewed. It was the last thing I felt like doing after all that! I just wanted to go and hug my family.’
Harry has given up drinking (he’s had only half a bottle of Becks during the entire series), so doesn’t go to the BBC bar with the other contestants to celebrate afterwards.
‘I don’t enjoy drinking any more. I only ever used to drink to get drunk. I could drink if I wanted to, but I don’t. I’d rather get to bed, as I’m so exhausted,’ he says.
Harry’s raunchy routines have been a hit with judges Craig Revel-Horwood and Bruno Tonioli, but he’s not complaining about their, at times, flirtatious comments.
‘Sometimes it’s embarrassing, but it’s just a bit of fun. I’d rather them say positive things than that I’m ugly,’ he says.
‘Bruno’s worse than Craig for sure. Craig’s very professional, actually. He’s lovely off camera. I think he’s very fair.’
Len has been known to apologise backstage for tougher comments. ‘He will often say to me: “Don’t get downhearted when I criticise you, just take it on board,” ’ Harry recalls.
According to Harry, co-presenter Tess Daly likes a ‘gossip’ backstage with the contestants while Bruce will regale them with stories of industry legends such as Tommy Cooper.
Harry plans to be in bed by midnight tonight, so he wakes up fresh for tomorrow’s crucial semi-final, when two celebrities will be voted out, leaving only three to compete in the final.
‘I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really want to win it. I’ll be disappointed if I don’t. I can’t concentrate on anything else. I’m in the zone.’
After the final, I wouldn’t blame Harry — or any of the other finalists — if they never wanted to dance again. For the true contenders, Strictly Come Dancing really is all-consuming.
Strictly Come Dancing is on BBC1 on Saturdays at 6.30pm and Sundays at 6.55pm.