Strictly: a contestant's view
Pamela Stephenson Connolly reveals all about life backstage on the ballroom dancing show
We stood together, shyly at first, beneath the incandescent glow of a million watts. My low-cut black velvet gown perfectly matched his jacket and lavender tie. We gazed at each other; he drew me close against his powerful chest, nuzzling my neck in a playful, tantalising seduction . . .
No, these are not the opening sentences of a bodice-ripper, but a true account of my first close encounter with my newly announced dance partner, James Jordan, on Strictly Come Dancing. James is now cast as my coach (God help him) and object of my very public fascination (ditto). Both of us are married and he is half my age, but as if to deliberately set tongues wagging, our first photo shoot included poses that could only have been inspired by Jackie Collins.
OMG, in a seemingly out-of-character move, I – a 60-year-old author and mental health professional – have joined the latest lineup of celebrity contestants for the eighth year of BBC1's beloved primetime show. This immensely popular television offering is no reality show; rather it is an unreality show – a fantasy ride for contestants and viewers. From the glitter ball that's actually made of polystyrene to the universally mouthed mantra, "Winning's not important – I'm just here to have fun", it is a journey of frothy dreams, camp comfort and elegant escapism. So, while this is ostensibly a serious dance contest, even a middle-aged politician who professes to not having a sense of rhythm can score a whirl round the room with the dashing Anton du Beke – and the savvy judges' approval to boot.
The machinery of Strictly – production staff, designers, makeup, hair and costuming artists, press team, recording crews and sequin-sewers – is well oiled, with no sparkly detail missed. Even the man who booked my taxi for my first costume fitting carried a silver lamé clipboard. And it was there that I first heard the immortal words: "Let's cover the bodice with sequins, add rhinestones, then sew Swarovski crystals on top of that." Glitz on top of more glitz is truly the name of the game.
I myself have been metamorphosised – although not too seamlessly – into a purveyor of camp. My best friend (also a psychologist) blames our tendency to buy awful souvenirs on holiday in Spain on what she calls "situational aesthetic". After only three weeks on Strictly, I've got it bad.
It started with the spray tan. My initial resistance (my children have begged me to avoid turning orange) lasted a mere 10 days, before I entered the backstage misting booth like a lamb to the slaughter. I awoke next morning with the smell of baked vinyl emanating from my skin.
But for others it was worse. Fellow contestant Scott Maslen revealed that he mistakenly put his disposable g-string on back-to-front and one of his testicles fell out; he now has a terrible case of two-toned sack. I also succumbed to wearing false eyelashes; subtle at first, but by the beginning of my third week I was sporting two enormous pairs – not to mention the pair on my bottom lashes. I'm even thinking like a Strictly space cadet; my friend Kathy Lette nearly choked on her martini when I uttered the words: "Hope I get the Scottish vote." ("Pam, I can't believe those words came out of your mouth!" Yes, it's true: I am getting lost in Spangleland.)
Having soberly decided to take part in the show (on the basis of enjoying the US version Dancing with the Stars, being a true dancing enthusiast/hobbyist, plus desperately wanting to improve my fitness level), I surrendered quite happily to the performance aspects – sparkling, posing, twirling and simpering with the best of them. But the preparation for those moments in the spotlight is exhausting: exfoliation, plucking, hair pieces, waxing. I tried to hide some of this from my husband, Billy Connolly. He is not a lover of artifice in either man or woman, so it was unlikely to go down well. When he discovered my teeth-whitening trays in the bathroom, he turned to me with a sardonic smile: "You're leaving no stone unturned are you?" Nevertheless, the "fridge doors" (as he calls them) will be bleached.
I even shaved my pudenda completely bald to ensure a smooth crotch line, although I needn't have bothered because there were four layers of fabric between it and the wildly cheering live audience. Only I and 30 members of the ingenious costume department knew that under my costume I wore two pairs of tights (slimming, tan-coloured fishnets over fat-squishing support hose that also lift the buttocks), a pair of breath-squeezing stretch pants sewn into the dress (need I mention that going to the toilet was extremely challenging?), a stretchy midriff cincher to suck in my "muffin top", and a hydraulically operated push-up bra welded to the entire mother ship. Naturally, during the grooming process, I tried to be helpful to others – in my own small way. When the men were asked to trim their chest hair, I couldn't resist warning them that this would reduce their animal magnetism, since their excreted sex hormones would no longer cling to their short and curlies. But sadly, no one wanted to hear it.
To be honest, being on Strictly is partly an experiment. As someone who has long been researching the psychological effects of fame, I am in a unique position to watch the effects on my own psyche as I am catapulted into the limelight. Among last week's progress notes were jottings such as: "Noticed hypomanic state during press launch – immediately afterwards, experienced moderate to severe ego-dystonia because I had felt compelled to present a more glamorous/wittier version of myself (true self deemed not good enough? – accompanying shame)"; and "After launch show experienced sleeplessness, tachycardia [a fast heart beat] and mild dissociative state (type: depersonalisation)." I noted that at 6am on my way to a publicity shoot, I almost took a sleeping tablet by "accident". It resembled another pill I take daily. Was my unconscious mind attempting to withdraw me from the limelight? "No," said my husband, "you just need to wear your bloody glasses."
I'm hoping I'll be able to stick around long enough to get some longitudinal data, but that, of course, would mean, er, dancing brilliantly, and wooing both judges' approval and public votes. Am I up to the task? Popularity-wise, folks who watch Strictly may remember my comedy days on Not The Nine O'Clock News, but will not necessarily be champing at the bit to keep a curious shrink out of the "bottom two". However, when it comes to dancing, I've had a reasonable amount of experience, through Scottish ceilidh dancing and the odd bit of hoofing when I was an actor. I was sent to ballet classes at the age of five to strengthen my limbs after contracting polio. I developed a passion for it, and continue to prefer barre exercises to a boring gym workout.
But I am most fascinated by the anthropological aspects of dance – its history and development in various cultures. I briefly studied Balinese dance in Indonesia and, during a recent stay in the South Pacific, learned to dance the Samoan taualaga. My current passion is for the social forms of Latin dances popular in my New York neighbourhood – the butt-shaking, passionate ones such as the bachata, meringue, salsa, and the Argentinian tango. Learning to tango has long been on my 10-point "bucket list" of things I want to do before I die (it's at No 5, right behind a dirty weekend with Johnny Depp). In summertime, there is even outdoor tango-dancing in Central Park – a fabulous sea of entwined twosomes adding several degrees of breathlessness to the sultry Manhattan heat.
The actor Robert Duvall (a fantastic tango dancer) introduced my husband and I to that dance many years ago at a party in Los Angeles, and back then it seemed impossibly difficult. The next time I tried at a New York tango club, a stranger invited me to dance, then held me close – forehead to cheek, in fact – in the desperately intimate embrace that is an essential element of the dance. "Relax!" he kept whispering. "Close your eyes and just feel what I am doing with your body!" I was initially appalled, but eventually began to understand the extraordinary symbiotic nature of the relationship between tango partners who manage to get it right – and now, I confess, I'm hooked.
I long to tango with my new paramour James, but that would be further on in the series. For our first group dance (usually a car-crash, according to the professional dancers), I was in a far less intimate situation – the chorus line. All 28 of us took to the floor in a number miraculously choreographed by Karen Hardy to achieve maximum impact of one kind and minimum impact of the other. I had thought it would be a bit of a stroll and a pose, but I was dead wrong.
We wove in and out of each other at high speed – a pirouette here, a backbend there. Karen cleverly invented celeb-friendly terms to cue us into the steps: "Call for a taxi!" she cried when we were supposed to lift one arm, and "Wipe my boobs!' when those same arms needed to come down in a path across our bodies. My favorite was the "Noo-noo wipe", which involved us women firmly straddling the men's knees and diving backwards for a sweep of our upper bodies. Oh yes, it was hot. But I hate to think what the pro dancers thought of us, and would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in their changing rooms. It was like a bunch of top surgeons coaching a team of novices for a week, then letting them operate . . . Come to think of it, what a brilliant idea for a TV show: Strictly Come Lancing!
"How did we do?" I asked my husband, who had come to cheer on the sidelines. "Some of you were looking very bewildered." He was referring to the "celebs", as the production team refer to us; there was no bewilderment among the pro dancers, who pulled and poked us into position with grace and kindness. I am already devoted to them. Each one has an almost divine sense of body and space, athleticism beyond that of most sports champs, and the ability to radiate power, sexuality and charm. I am awestruck by their mental and physical resilience.
Kristina Rihanoff, the Russian bombshell who is dancing with Goldie, sustained a hamstring injury that was causing her considerable pain. Brendan Cole slipped on a costume hem during the first pro dancers' number and badly injured his shoulder. Flavia Cacace and Vincent Simone received nasty groin bruises from their aerial tango. If one of the better-known "celebs" had so much as grazed a finger, it would have been headline news. Yet those pro dancers – and probably others I didn't even hear about – quietly iced, nursed, stretched and bandaged, and got straight back on the dancefloor.
Waiting backstage, I was wracked with anxiety about wearing a stretchy, pink-and-silver-glitter Carmen Miranda outfit in public, and the possibility of inflicting mayhem on others and embarrassment upon myself. But all that was swept aside as I spied 14 unbelievably fit, lithe and beautiful young men and women, limbering and priming themselves for yet another physical battering. For them alone, Strictly Come Dancing is a true reality show.