Ballroom star and judge Gary Edwards gives us the inside scoop on Strictly Come Dancing
PUBLISHED: 12:44 04 December 2018 | UPDATED: 12:48 04 December 2018
Ballroom star and world class judge Gary Edwards has enjoyed an incredible career in dance, claiming 30 dance titles across the globe, followed by a stint as advisor to the Royal family of Brunei. Now a presenter on hit American show Dancing with the Stars, Denise Marshall caught up with the Romford-born star for the inside word on Strictly 2018!
Former world champion and teacher to the glitterati, Gary Edwards has quick-stepped his way to a charmed life worlds away from his Romford roots.
Nicknamed the ballroom giant due to his six-foot four frame, he divides his time between Miami Beach and Leigh on Sea here in Essex. Gary remains incredibly grounded, honest and personable, despite moving in royal circles and becoming confidante to the stars for three decades, a spot of polo now his favourite pastime.
Last year he was tipped to replace close friend Len Goodman on Strictly Come Dancing, leading to much press speculation, but instead Latin expert Shirley Ballas was chosen to take the hot seat. With Darcey Bussell still on board, it meant there was a balance of female voices on the panel for the first time.
Gary, 52, concedes the decision may have been a blessing. “The show probably wouldn’t have been me. Strictly’s gone to the Shirley way of judging. She’s a lot more serious. As much as I was told I was the favourite, they obviously went for Shirley for other reasons. I’ve known Shirley since I was 10, she’s amazing, but it’s always been the banter between Len and Bruno that’s made it, for me.”
Gary has also seen a marked shift in the style of performance. “The new dancers are all Burn the Floor (live dance stage show) people. I like Strictly as pantomime and loved Brendan. To have a baddie on there was great. I don’t think the show is about the great dancers – it never has been. That’s not the recipe, not what made it a success. Some people obviously love that, but I see that every weekend.”
Original panellist Arlene Phillips, who at 66 was replaced by singer Alesha Dixon amid a furore of ageism accusations, had ironically turned down a judging slot on Dancing with the Stars previously due to parenting commitments. Supporting her youngest daughter with her studies wasn’t conducive to weekly trips across the Atlantic.
“They would have loved Arlene in America. I adore her,” reveals Gary. “She’s a super human being and one of the nicest people I know on the planet.”
But there are no hard feelings, as Gary remains very much in demand. His work as a global ambassador for dance studio brand, Arthur Murray International, has brought him back across the pond this autumn to launch his #GetBritainDancing campaign, promoting the sport’s physical and mental health benefits for all.
And he stresses how dance is so important for breaking down barriers, fighting racism and social exclusion.
“The Strictly publicity opened a lot of doors. It helped all the charities I deal with including Para Dance UK,” explains Gary.
“I’m married to a Columbian and we’ve both experienced racism in America. I love car racing and we normally go to the Daytona track where the white Americans won’t stand next to the Latinos or the African Americans. This was before Trump. Everyone blames him, but this was before.
“In Miami there’s not a lot of confrontation because most people have got guns. You don’t see road rage and if you approach a car in a violent manner you can get shot legally. Yet dancing brings everyone together. Everyone is the same on the dance floor.”
So what’s the secret to successfully scooping the coveted Glitterball for the latest group of contenders?
“It’s all about attitude,” smiles Gary. “As long as they can physically move it’s so much about their state of mind. That’s why Doctor Ranj was such a favourite at the start, which is quite ironic when you think what he does for a living. Anton’s always fun but he didn’t last long. I hate seeing him in the troupe. I want him talking to the judges.”
Gary also rates the recently separated Clifton couple. “Kevin and Karen are ones to watch. I know the Cliftons very well and had lessons with them in jive many years ago. Karen has gone through quite a lot. Those guys were made for Strictly. But if you don’t get on with your partner, you’re done.
“Danny John-Jules is super cool, very well prepared,” continues Gary. “He’s probably had some coaching, a lot of them get mental coaching before Strictly starts.”
Gary also reveals that the so-called Strictly curse is very real, with many celebrity liaisons escaping the radar.
“The curse happens. I learned that lesson early on in my life, but when I was working for the Royal family in Brunei I wasn’t allowed to touch the females I was teaching.
“All you can use is your body language and your eyes, if you can’t touch. You’re in sexy clothing eight hours a day and, of course, chemistry is chemistry. If there’s any unhappiness at home… in dancing we see it all the time.
“That’s why I do a lot for the Arthur Murray brand. They have a non-fraternisation agreement, so if any of the teachers have a relationship with the pupils they are fired on the spot. If they set that up on Strictly, I wonder how many professionals would be left?”
It was in the mid-1990s, when ranked number one in the world, that Gary was summoned to Brunei. He believed he was appointed to teach the royal children to dance, like the film The King And I, for a few weeks. But the surreal post in a lap of luxury led to him teaching all manner of power players for five-and-a-half years, and eventually direct contact with the King of Pop.
“The fun one was Barry White. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone. Normally I would teach them at three or four in the morning. I would sit in an amazing marble ballroom, the doors would open and it would be like Surprise, Surprise. I taught prime ministers, presidents and most of the Sultans of Malaysia.
“The only person that had an effect on me was Michael Jackson. My number one thought was, what can I teach this guy, and number two, what music can I use? The fact he treated me like I was the celebrity put me totally at ease.”
Prince Edward was among Prince Jefri’s (Bolkiah) visitors and Gary’s tales of his time mingling with guests there, including golfers, American footballers and Argentinian polo players, are fascinating.
“I still believe Princess Diana was going to go and Prince Jefri wanted to dance with her. I got told so many secrets – I was like a hairdresser. For the last year I wasn’t really teaching much dancing. I was just hanging out with the Prince.”
And yet Essex is where Gary belongs. In a former hunting lodge of Henry VIII in Leigh on Sea to be precise.
“I’ve been blessed. I’m a typical Romford boy. My dad was the bookmaker in Romford market for years, but something came along and I grabbed it with two hands. I wanted to dance from a really young age and was bullied left, right and centre.
“They waited for me when I left school, but Len Goodman and his wife Cherry did a show at Romford Community Centre and I thought, I want to be that guy.”
On his return from his heady stay in Brunei, Gary bought a Miami condominium in 1997 and a house in Rochford with stables and land to pursue polo, before starting a family. He now has two sons, Giancarlo, 20, and Gianluca, 15, with his wife Sandy and they are settled in Leigh.
“Leigh on Sea is how Romford used to be growing up. Len loves Old Leigh as well, he’s there all the time as he has a family member there,” adds Gary.
Gary describes his boys as very Floridian and laid back, only dancing traditional Latin. “In Miami with my Columbian and Cuban family, everyone dances. It doesn’t matter how big, macho or frail they are, they dance. The gun goes in the drawer and they’re dancing.”
There are a few people that would be open-mouthed at Gary and his jet-set lifestyle, split between two seafront properties, practising salsa to stay trim in his fifties, the fruits of years of dedication and discipline in the ballroom.
“I’d love to do a TV interview with my old careers officer at Forest Lodge School (now Bower Park Academy). He said, ‘What are you going to do for money?’ When I said dancing, he said, ‘No, what are you going to do for a job?’”
Gary still has plans to grace British screens with his focus on a future with more television and acting work.
“A lot of people think I look like a mobster. If I have a serious face and slick my hair back, no one comes near me,” he laughs.
“I’m probably not supposed to say, but World of Dance presented by Jennifer Lopez in the States is another show I’m involved in and that’s the one I’d want to be on if it comes to the UK.”
We’ll watch this space.
Find out more
To find out more about Gary’s career and latest projects, visit ballroomgiant.tv