Strictly is done at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire on the sound stage where they shot Star Wars, but from the outside it’s anything but glamorous and looks like an aircraft hangar. It was the beginning of September and that first day was exactly like the first day at a new school.
The contestants all mill around and vaguely chat, and then a curtain is pulled back to reveal the professional dancers. It’s a bit like a speed-dating session. Meanwhile it’s all being filmed.
Of course I had watched Strictly in the past, but I only recognised people like Brendan Cole and Anton du Beke, who’d had been doing it for years. I had never seen Pasha Kovalev before, but for some reason I was drawn to him straight away. I just went up and said, ‘Hello, I’m Caroline,’ and he went, ‘I’m Pasha.’
They kept putting Pasha with Pixie Lott and I realised I felt really jealous, because by then I’d made up my mind: Pasha was who I wanted.
While all this getting-to-know-you was going on, a producer was trying out different partners together. First they put me with Anton. He had me laughing within seconds and I thought, Actually this could be quite funny . . . Then I was tried out with another couple of guys but never with Pasha. They kept putting Pasha with Pixie Lott and I realised I felt really jealous, because by then I’d made up my mind: Pasha was who I wanted. Whenever I passed Vinnie, I’d say in a loud stage whisper, ‘Pasha!’ Like every five minutes!
Following that first introductory session we spent a couple of days learning the routine for the opening number and staying the night at a hotel down the road, which we would do every Friday until Christmas. Some people had never performed on a stage in their lives and I suspect it did all look rather village hall, which only made it more impressive when you saw what people eventually achieved.
The opening number is a group dance – there was no particular theme as far as I remember – but while you’re learning it, the professionals are watching like hawks, all whispering with one another, deciding who they want to partner. They want to win as much as you do, perhaps even more. Not only would they get to come back for the next series, but it’s how they sell tickets for their own tours. And of course while they’re watching you, you’re busy eyeing up the competition, and desperately trying to learn these silly dance moves at the same time.
‘So, what did you do today?’ Jack asked when I got home.
‘I spent the whole time chatting with Tim Wonnacott,’ I said.
‘Who’s Tim Wonnacott?’
‘He presents Bargain Hunt. He’s an antiques expert. He has a moustache, a bow tie and glasses and he’s lovely.’
‘This is weird.’
The next day I said to Vinnie, ‘What time do I have to meet Pasha next week then?’
‘Vinnie, did you hear me? What time do I have to meet Pasha next week?’
‘Caroline. Stop it!’
Next came a full dress rehearsal for our opening routine, in costume, with Tess and Claudia doing it as if it was the real thing. For the first time we were paired off with one of the professional dancers, though they said that he or she wouldn’t be our final partner. So when they put me with Pasha I felt utterly deflated, as if my balloon had just had a huge great hole gouged out of it. Dancing with him now meant we wouldn’t be dancing together in the real thing. All my pathetic nudges and hints to Vinnie had come to nothing, and had probably done me harm. He and I looked at each other.
‘I’m gutted,’ I said.
But what do you do? The show must go on. I tried to make the best of it. The one that got away . . . At least it felt reassuring to be strutting and prancing and not feeling like the worst one there – nearly always the case at college.
We now had three weeks to rehearse our first dance, which he’d decided would be the cha-cha-cha. I very soon realised that my experience with Dancing on Wheels was going to be no help at all.
In the great tradition of TV entertainment shows, the official pairing off was all very theatrical, with great long pauses and rolling of drums – well, I can’t remember if there were drums, but it felt like there were. We were assigned our partners one by one. When it was my turn a whole posse of male dancers lined up on the dance floor. I remember that Pasha gave me a little wave when his name was read out – the only one to make any sign – and my heart did a little flutter. And then Claudia said:
‘Caroline, you have got’ – U.N.B.E.A.R.A.B.L.E. P.A.U.S.E. – ‘Pasha!!’
I literally squealed with delight! I was so, so happy and Pasha was too. He did a little dance, his feet twinkling away as he came towards me, took me in his arms, then bent me right back till my hair was touching the ground! Only later did I discover just how lucky I was. Pasha had come second in two of the three Strictlys he’d been in and the previous year he’d gone out in an early round.
We now had three weeks to rehearse our first dance, which he’d decided would be the cha-cha-cha. I very soon realised that my experience with Dancing on Wheels was going to be no help at all. The only time in my entire life I’d had a go at proper ballroom dancing was one night on holiday in Egypt with Josie when, for a laugh, we had entered a competition in the hotel where she danced the man’s part, and I was the girl and our main problem was that her massive boobs and mine kept bumping. In spite of that we came second.
Everything from here on in was down to Pasha. He decided the order in which we’d do the dances. He did all the choreography and he decided on the music. We rehearsed in a dance studio in Kentish Town – it was halfway between where Pasha lived in Notting Hill and Stepney where I had just bought my first flat. Most of the celebrities got their dancers to travel to where they lived – but I wanted Pasha and me to keep a feeling of equality. We were in this together.
For the next three months we would spend about eight hours a day rehearsing, and a camera crew would turn up now and then. But eight hours a day with someone you don’t know was definitely weird. It wasn’t all dancing – I wouldn’t have had the stamina – it was as much about getting to know each other.
Thankfully we both like to lie in – the one thing we had in common. So I would get there for eleven and Pasha would trundle in about half-past, though one of us would regularly be late as we would get stuck in traffic. Production offered to send me a car, but I preferred to drive. I’m really happy in my car and always get lots done, phone calls, listening to songs on the radio. Thinking. I catch up on life in my car. And on a practical note it means you can go on to somewhere else afterwards.
Pasha had used this studio before and it was right near Kentish Town High Street. We soon developed our little routine. He would always bring me a coffee from the Costa he passed on the way and we’d take a lunch break at the same little Spanish deli and sit there and chat chat chat chat chat. Every Thursday the woman would say, ‘Good luck this week!’
If I’m honest, I liked going to rehearsals more than I enjoyed doing the actual show. Everything about it: from getting a coffee, walking into the studio – it was like a proper job.
It’s not like falling in love exactly, but you do fall in some sort of fashion, because you’re so in awe of them, and the whole thing about ballroom dancing is that it’s so intense and so intimate.
Chat chat chat chat chat.
I absolutely loved it.
We rehearsed from Monday till Thursday. Friday and Saturday we were at Elstree and Sundays we had off. I would have trained on Sunday if I could – and in fact we did towards the end – but Sunday was when Pasha worked out the choreography for the next week’s dance. He was very clever. He actually started us with the hardest dances because, he said, ‘I know you’re going to be good at salsa, so we’ll do that in the semi-final.’ At which I said, ‘But we’re not going to get to the semi-final!’
‘Yes, we will.’
He was right. The salsa was our best dance, and we did get to the semi-final, and it was the perfect time to do it, just when the competition was getting harder and our rivals (we hoped) were struggling.
If it works – which it obviously did with Pasha and me and I know it did for others as well – you develop a really lovely relationship with your partner. It’s not like falling in love exactly, but you do fall in some sort of fashion, because you’re so in awe of them, and the whole thing about ballroom dancing is that it’s so intense and so intimate. I mean most of the time you are inches away from each other, and a lot of the time even closer than that.
It wasn’t all hearts and flowers. Pasha was a hard taskmaster and he really pushed me and it could sometimes get heated.
‘Caroline, that’s not right!’
‘I am trying!’
But he never talked back, he would just go, ‘OK.’
‘Pasha! Say something!’
‘Now you’re choosing to have an argument with me!’
‘But we need to change that move, Pasha!’
‘No, you can do it. I know you. I know you can do it.’
‘You’re just too fiery for me!’
‘You’re just too chilled for me!’
But although he could be very tough and uncompromising, suddenly he’d say, ‘Right, Caroline, you’re too tired, you need to go home.’
Actually we both changed. I totally saw his point and he totally saw mine. I have to say that Pasha is one of the most interesting people I have ever met.
If things got too fractious I could always pop in and see Scott who happened to be in the studio next door rehearsing with his partner Joanne Clifton, though they were only around for eight weeks – as they were eliminated on week six. Until then we would regularly watch each other’s routines before going to Elstree.
Usually you’d only ever see other couples on Friday at the dress rehearsal. We’d watch whoever it was and I’d say, ‘Wow – they’re amazing!’
And Pasha would say, ‘They’re good,’ but then add, ‘but you’re good.’
At which I’d always say, ‘Not as good as them.’
Until I met Pasha I had never been friends with a Russian. In fact I had barely met any Russians. He and I are exactly the same age – he’s six weeks younger – but his life couldn’t have been more different. He grew up in Siberia when it was still the Soviet Union. By the time he was a teenager he was studying to be a ballroom dancer. Then, when he was an amateur champion, he got a Green Card and moved to America with his girlfriend when he turned professional. But trying to get him to tell me stories about his life when he was growing up was really difficult. ‘The only thing that happened,’ he used to say, ‘is that I was always really cold.’ So he always wears a polo neck, even in the summer. Just in case.
What he really enjoyed talking about was politics. Politics? I never talk politics – but in the end we did, and we have such different views. Actually we both changed. I totally saw his point and he totally saw mine. I have to say that Pasha is one of the most interesting people I have ever met.
About halfway through that first three weeks of nonstop, killer training, I did an evening DJ-ing at a fashion party with Josie. My hair needed a trim, I decided, and as a hairdresser friend of Gemma Wheatcroft’s called Hannah Wynne was there, she said she’d do it. I was looking in the mirror, as you do, and for no real reason that I can remember said, ‘I might have it short. What do you think?’
‘I’ll do it, if you’re sure.’
‘Go on then.’
So off it came. On a whim. It took about ten minutes.
There’s a guy going around saying that he created my bob.
He didn’t. It was a girl called Hannah Wynne.
Looking back, I think I might have been subconsciously making a statement, not so much to the world, but to myself. I’d always played around with my hair, especially in terms of colour, but perhaps I’d somehow hidden behind it up until now. Now I was changing. Life was changing.
Without a doubt my favourite among the celebrities was Judy Murray. She is just so, so funny and can take the mickey out of herself like nobody else. When she had been slated by the judges, I’d send her a text saying Well done Judy. You were really good when you did that lift. And she’d go Don’t lie. I looked constipated. Or I’d say You were brilliant when you did such-n-such, and she’d go Don’t lie. I looked like I had a stroke. I think we were the only two who used to go out on our own, like naughty girls on the lash. I even took her to a couple of gigs. Jack was doing a Sam Smith tour in the UK and when he was playing Hammersmith Apollo in early November he said, ‘You should bring a couple of your friends.’
‘I’ll bring Judy Murray.’
‘I’m gonna bring Judy Murray!’ And in fact her son Jamie and his wife came along as well. So the four of us went and we had a brilliant time.
The other person I got on really well with was Pixie Lott. Although we did mix in the same circles occasionally, we had never actually met before Strictly. She is the sweetest, most positive little ray of sunshine I have ever met in my entire life. And in the first couple of weeks I thought, She can’t be for real, this is an act. But the more I got to know her, the more real she became. If I could freeze her, I’d put her on top of my Christmas tree. Pixie lives in Pixieland. I’d quite like to live there too, because nothing in Pixieland is complicated.
How different from the world Frankie Bridge and I live in. Frankie (of the Saturdays) was the first person I spoke to before the curtain was pulled back the day we arrived and I immediately felt I had another ally as well as Scott. I felt I’d known her for ages as we had mutual friends though we’d never actually met. She is the only person I know who worries as much as I do. Every Friday we’d arrive at Elstree and there’d be Frankie and me going, ‘What if this happens? What if that happens?’ And then Pixie would breeze in and go, ‘Morning girls!’ How is she so happy?
I soon discovered that if you went to wardrobe and were nice to them rather than confrontational they listened and they’d work with you, saying, ‘OK, we can make it a different shape.’ Whereas if you stamped your feet and said, ‘I’m not wearing that!’ they would totally switch off.
Towards the end all of us girls were on WhatsApp and we’d text each other constantly.
Monday, Yeah! Learning a new routine, all happy.
Tuesday, OK, time to take it a bit more seriously.
Wednesday, Sh*t, we’ve only got one day to go. Panic!
So Frankie would get Monday breakdowns. I had Wednesday breakdowns. Pixie never had a breakdown. Pixie was always in Pixieland.
One slight worry I’d had before I went in was the costumes. I know everyone expects them to be OTT and not something you’d wear to your nan’s eightieth, but even so . . . I was happy with my legs to be out there, but cleavage: a big NO. And the first week when I saw the cutout things that Frankie and Pixie were wearing I got quite panicky and said to Vicky Gill who made our costumes, ‘Please, please don’t put me in one of those . . .’ But gradually as I toned up and became more confident I would wear something a bit more revealing.
I soon discovered that if you went to wardrobe and were nice to them rather than confrontational they listened and they’d work with you, saying, ‘OK, we can make it a different shape.’ Whereas if you stamped your feet and said, ‘I’m not wearing that!’ they would totally switch off. Vicky was always open to positive suggestions.
‘I’d quite like some tassels here. Any chance?’
My all-time favourite was the midnight-blue high-tothe-throat, bare-shouldered, big-skirted dress, slit up the front, that I wore for the paso doble. The worst was undoubtedly the salsa outfit, all pink spangles and in-your face cleavage that I absolutely hated. But because I loved the salsa, I wasn’t that fussed. We got the first four 10s of the series – in the semi-finals – so I’m not about to complain because it was so utterly brilliant and amazing.
Working on Strictly is very schizophrenic. On one level you have to block out three months of your life because you might just win. But at the same time you can’t look that far ahead. Pasha and I agreed at the start that we’d just take it week by week. Every week I was convinced we were going to go out. And Mr Calm would come straight back with, ‘We’re not going out this week.’
Although I was exercising more than I have ever done in my life, I didn’t really lose any weight, mainly because instead of one burger I was eating two burgers, but I was definitely toning up.
Unlike X Factor, on Strictly the judges stay at a distance, which makes things a whole lot easier. You’d see them around and go hello, hello, hello, but otherwise they kept themselves to themselves. There was no fraternising, no cronying up. Also you’d see them as experts rather than judges. It’s never about how you’re dressed, it’s never about personality, it’s solely about technique and as a result it was never hurtful and the technical criticism always helped, because actually everything they said was bang on the button. It might have been live TV but I was really listening to what they had to say, nodding and thinking, Yeah, I know. That’s exactly what I did.
‘Caroline, your shoulder’s up.’ I know you’re exactly right.
‘Caroline, you don’t look comfortable on that bit.’ Spot on.
The real surprise for me was Craig Revel Horwood. He’s the judge who’s the most feared, the judge who people like to compare to Simon Cowell, but it turns out he’s just a pussycat.
Also, unlike other shows, it’s not about them. You don’t know about their love life, you don’t know who they’re married to, you don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t get papped. They’re just these brilliant experts and they’re the best in the world at what they do – Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli fly back and forth across the Atlantic as judges on the American version of Strictly, Dancing with the Stars. How they cope with that schedule I do not know.
The real surprise for me was Craig Revel Horwood. He’s the judge who’s the most feared, the judge who people like to compare to Simon Cowell, but it turns out he’s just a pussycat. Craig is one of the best judges on any programme on TV and was definitely my favourite, not only because he’s totally honest, but because he is just so nice off camera. But when he’s judging he never takes his hard-man role too far, he’s just pantomiming. His real obsession is musical theatre, and while Len and Bruno jet off to the States for DWTS, he’s jetting off across the world choreographing and directing musicals.
No one gets thrown off during the first week and Thank God, because when our music started – the Jacksons’ ‘Can You Feel It’ – I was so, so nervous. Pasha and I weren’t just doing our first dance in public, we were the first dancers on the floor, we were opening the show! Usually you don’t know your position until the dress rehearsal but I’d seen a script lying around, so I knew. That night we got our lowest score of the whole series – a 6 from Craig – but I hardly noticed because I was feeling ecstatic. I just had such a great time out there. Until we ran up those stairs, I hadn’t been sure that I was really enjoying it. But from then on I was hooked.
Pasha had told me the cha-cha-cha was ‘fun, fast and playful’ and above all that I mustn’t forget to smile, and I smiled so much I felt my face was breaking. In fact we did the same dance again in the final and that time got full marks – four 10s – though we actually made more mistakes. But I think everyone was marked low on their first outing on the principle that you’ve got to have room to improve.
That first night was especially emotional. Mum and Jody were in the audience while Dad, I knew, was in the Green Room. When the VT is being shown – the rehearsal footage and so on that’s been shot the previous week – and you’re just standing there waiting to dance, everyone in the audience is looking at you. Jo was in the front row and I didn’t dare catch her eye because I knew if I did I’d start laughing. So I tried my hardest, but it was impossible. We looked at each other and laughed just as Claudia said, ‘And now, dancing the cha-cha-cha we have Caroline Flack and Pasha Kovalev.’
Can you feel it . . .
Jack had said he wasn’t coming but in the end he did – he’d been in the Green Room and I found him later talking with Dad. Strictly have a strict dress code – so he was wearing proper leather shoes with jeans! And it was so great to see Mum and Dad getting along together, basically just for me for the first time since they got divorced.
I always felt more comfortable in the fast dances, and in week seven, when we did the waltz, we’d found ourselves in the bottom two. I wasn’t surprised as I found traditional ballroom dances really difficult and I feel I blagged my way through.
Our marks hadn’t been any different from the week before, but every week, as dancers get eliminated, it gets harder and you have to keep upping your game. We ended up in the dance-off against Alison Hammond of This Morning and her partner Aljaž Škorjanec. It was the second week Alison had been in the dance-off so she wasn’t that surprised, she said, when they didn’t get through. But in a way it was good for me. Pasha has this line, ‘It’s not how you fall, it’s how you get up again.’
Falling was a constant preoccupation with me. Falls happened when lifts went wrong, and doing lifts with heels was a nightmare. And I’d go, ‘I can’t do lifts.’
‘You can do lifts.’
‘I can’t do it.’
And then he’d lift me and I’d scream.
The week we did the Charleston I got a text message from Josie, saying I think something’s happened to Rob. People were writing things on social media, like what shocking news and I’ve lost my best friend. And then Dave called. Dave’s former bandmate, the fiddle player for the Holloways, Rob Skipper, had died of an accidental overdose of heroin on 3 October in Brighton. Tragedy is a much overused word, but this was. Rob was one of the most talented men I’ve ever met; he was beautiful – all curly hair and gorgeousness and he was only twenty-eight. He was always getting into all sorts of trouble but he had a smile that meant he got away with everything. Because he was Skipper, naughty little Skipper. He left behind his beautiful wife, George, and their lovely daughter, Elizabeth. I don’t think any of us will ever come to terms with his death.
I texted Pasha and asked if he’d mind if I went to the funeral. He said, ‘I think you should go.’
Jack drove me to a nearby cafe where Dave was waiting and he and I went together. Rob Skipper was buried in Brompton Cemetery close to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital where Jo had had Willow.
The hardest dance of all was the Argentine tango. It wasn’t like the others. It was a different style of dancing altogether and something Pasha couldn’t choreograph, so some Argentinians came in to teach us. A further complication was that the man who taught us didn’t speak English. In the end Pasha changed it to make it more dramatic for the show.
Poor Pasha. That week he had flu and was so poorly.
But he staggered in and stuck it out like the true professional he is, though I would try not to touch him too much for fear of catching his germs – one of us had to stay healthy. But this was the Argentine tango which means you’re in as close proximity as it’s possible to get before the nine o’clock watershed.
And after all that, when we came to the performance, I completely forgot what I had to do, so we made it up as we went along. When the music ended and we walked towards the judges to hear their verdict I was close to tears. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ I whispered. And Pasha whispered back, ‘Don’t say anything,’ so I didn’t. It was the quarterfinals and I knew that I’d lost it for us. All that work, week after week, and I’d thrown it. And then we got these amazing marks. Everyone gave us 10 except Craig who gave us 9. I had forgotten that my microphone was still turned on, and afterwards everyone picked up on what they thought they’d heard, and said: ‘What was all that about?’ I just shrugged as if I had no idea what they were referring to. Nobody ever knew that we just made it all up. So we spent all week learning these complicated steps that we didn’t even get to do.
But Pasha understood. He knew the reason. My private life was in shreds.