SOPHIE ELLIS-BEXTOR: Strictly took such a toll on our marriage

How Strictly took such a toll on our marriage my husband ended up in counselling: We all know about the curse, but no contestant has explained the strains the show put on couples as eloquently as SOPHIE ELLIS-BEXTOR

Although I’d been asked lots of times, I’d always said no to being a contestant on Strictly. But my friends were desperate for me to do it when the question rolled round again in 2013.

With the kids in bed, I talked it through one evening with my husband Richard and decided that, yes, we could handle it. It had to be a joint decision.

I’ve thought back to that night many times and I’m so glad we decided together. Because my whole experience of the show often makes me think of that Dickens quote: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

Some of the show was pure joy and exhilaration. But some of it was seriously intense and, even for a strong marriage like we have, it gave our foundations a good old shake.

In the launch show where we met our Strictly partners, I looked absolutely terrified. It wasn’t that I was terrified to be paired with Brendan Cole – I liked Brendan.

TESTED: Some of the show was pure joy and exhilaration. But some of it was seriously intense and, even for a strong marriage like we have, it gave our foundations a good old shake. Pictured: Sophie with her husband Richard Jones in 2017

We’d got on when we’d met to learn the group dance for the launch and I secretly wanted to be paired with him as he was the only professional to be married and a dad, so I knew this would give us things to talk about other than footwork.

It was more that I found the whole thing of being paired a bit mortifying. I felt uncomfortable that there was a slight weirdness in forming a new ‘couple’ when you’re both two married strangers.

In the show, I found that kind of thing just didn’t sit too easily with me – even though Brendan was a complete gentleman throughout.

Why do they fetishise the ‘couples’ aspect so much? Dance partners, yes, but a couple has a different nod.

I had found this really innocent when I’d read it in the newspapers, but when it was me, with another man, and Richard watching on, I didn’t find it quite so innocent.

As soon as we were paired and the show stopped recording, Brendan went straight over to find Richard in the crowd to shake his hand. Brendan had done the show since the first one so he knew inside out how weird it was for the family outside of the programme.

PERFECT GENT: The physical closeness was something I struggled with throughout. Pictured: Sophie on the show with dance partner Brendan Cole in 2013

He had good advice for me. ‘If you want this to work well, involve your friends, involve your husband.’ I think it did make a difference.

Some of the show was incredible. I loved that first waltz. I have to say, of all the things I’ve done in my professional life, my grandparents loved Strictly the most.

I have to confess as well that from that beginning dance, for all my awkwardness about having to cling on to another man for the dances, I was hooked and addicted to the show and the ride.

I never actually cared about winning. But from the start I knew that if I was only going to do the show once, then I wanted to have a go at all the dances. Making it to the final just before Christmas meant I got them all.

So it feels a bit of an awkward juxtaposition to have had this exquisite experience on one hand – learning all these gorgeous routines and being put in fabulous sparkly frocks with amazing hair and make-up – to then have a downside. But there was.

Richard started to struggle with my involvement from the launch show onwards.

It was so hard for him that I can remember wondering if they’d ever had a contestant walk away from the show before they’d even danced their first dance.

The physical closeness was something I struggled with throughout, but, by the end, a lot of things I had thought were odd – like the ‘couples’ holding hands or gripping on to each other for the results show – I was used to and it seemed as if, by doing those things, I had crossed another Strictly hurdle.

In a lot of ways the show was good for me. I became a better performer on stage. I loved pushing myself and trying new things and seeing what I was capable of.

It also changed my relationship with my body. I realised I was stronger than I knew and my body lapped up the exercise. For a brief moment I had what I call a ‘dancer’ bod, and though I knew it was on loan, I loved it while it lasted.

But at home my head was distracted. I’d get in exhausted, and while listening to what had been going on with the kids, I could feel my thoughts getting foggy as I went over and over some step I was finding hard.

I still feel bad that I was so absent. Especially at Christmas time as the final approached. The number of people still in the show dwindled and the intensity ramped up.

I could see some of the other contestants’ marriages and relationships were under strain. There were three marriage break-ups in my year and two Strictly babies have been born from fellow contestants and their dance partners.

That is not meant to trivialise any of those incidents. I have no idea what was going on in the marriages that broke down, and hey, working together is sometimes how you meet people.

But the concentric circles of these real-life situations, changes and developments definitely started to change the atmosphere of the programme. I can’t think of any word other than ‘intense’.

By the final week, I was done. I can remember standing beside the dance floor with Abbey Clancy and we were both saying how ready we were to go back to our husbands and our normal lives.

All the while, Richard was feeling left out in the cold. He was worried he was losing me. Not that I was going to run off with anyone – he liked Brendan and knew that nothing was going to happen there – but I think he thought that something was awakening in me and he felt he wasn’t part of my future.

I never, ever felt like that, but I couldn’t convince him. He could see that I was completely wrapped up in the show and consumed with the intensity of it and the constant learning, learning, learning which you share with one other person – your dance partner.

Richard started to struggle with my involvement from the launch show onwards. He was worried he was losing me. Not that I was going to run off with anyone – he liked Brendan and knew that nothing was going to happen there – but I think he thought that something was awakening in me and he felt he wasn’t part of my future

Richard became unusually insistent on knowing where I was all the time. If I didn’t reply to a text, he’d spiral.

Supporting me in all that I do usually came so easily to him, but with Strictly I think he was just waiting for it to end. He’d message me all day when I was rehearsing, extra keen to know my schedule.

We would argue when I was home about how distracted I was and about whether I’d get through to the next week. He just felt as if I might slip into a new life that left our family behind.

I had no such desire, but was too spent at the end of the day to give the reassurance he needed. I think the only real reassurance could come with the show finishing.

I feel terrible that I did that to him and at Strictly Towers there was no one to help. There’s no emotional care at all – aside from the wisdom and make-up-chair counsel of the folk working backstage.

For the dancers, too, they have to be choreographer, dancer and occasional psychiatrist. It starts off with you just being keen to show you can do the right heel or toe footwork for the chief judge, then your confidence in your ability to act or be sexy gets tested, and that is more emotionally challenging.

As a mum of five, I’m always spinning plates

Earlier this year I started recording a podcast. I called it Spinning Plates because I felt it was an appropriate analogy for this time in my life. Arguably, I’ve never been busier.

I still have the day job – songwriting, singing, performing – and the other jobs that come with that: endorsements, photoshoots, promotional stuff like telly and radio.

But there’s another massive element of my life: raising my five sons. My children, as I write, range from two to 17 and the teenage bit is where the parenting really ramps up.

The podcast was initially going to be speaking to other working mums about how they balance it all.

But as time went on, I realised it was about how we, as women, as mothers, kept our sense of self.

How do you not lose yourself when you are at the mercy of your new baby? Are you the same person you were before you became a parent? Do you pick up where you left off with work, yourself, your priorities, or do they shift? I just don’t know.

One thing I do know is that I’m still learning.

I do think they should have a counsellor, just to check in with the contestants. Richard began seeing a counsellor after I’d been in the show a month or so, and it really helped. Perhaps I should have, too.

If all this seems a little dramatic just for a show that teaches you to jive, I couldn’t agree more. It’s too much.

For all the glitter and sequins and stagecraft it taught me, I had to pay quite a heavy price, and Richard, too. Luckily what Brendan said was true: if you start off happily married, you’ll leave that way too. But it wasn’t immediate.

The final was three days before Christmas. On the camera rehearsal day, each finalist (I had a brilliant finalist family – all women, all supportive backstage) was taken to a little studio for an interview.

We were asked questions such as: ‘Is this the best thing you’ve ever done?’ ‘How incredible has your dance partner been?’ ‘What will you do to fill the hole after Strictly?’

And I had the epiphany that, oh my God – it’s like a cult! Trigger words and the constant repetition of how much it must mean to you. I looked to my left and right and all the finalists were being talked to as if we were in barrels about to go over a waterfall.

One of the cameramen even said to me on the day of the final: ‘You’re going to love this. Best day of your life. Better than your wedding day!’

And I thought: ‘No it is not. This isn’t the best thing ever. It’s been great, but this isn’t better than my wedding day.’

Final conclusions on the Church of Strictly?

I’m glad I did it and dancing the Charleston is one of my favourite things I’ve ever done, and thank you to Brendan for making the whole show lots of fun.

We never argued and I’m proud of that, but I’m prouder still I didn’t cry or anything. I kept part of myself back and no matter what I was asked to do, I never did more than I meant. It took more strength than you’ll know but hey, it’s just a nice thing I did once.

After the show finished, I felt done in. Rinsed.

That Christmas I felt removed from everything. Part of me was terrified – what if my feelings didn’t return? – but more of me felt calm. I told myself to just go with the flow.

And slowly, I did return to myself. Richard and I took care of each other. We went away, just the two of us. A lot of it wasn’t spoken about. We didn’t really talk about how hard it had been for a long time – not properly. It was too tender. We never doubted our love for each other but I think Richard worried that I just wouldn’t want our life again.

But of course I did. To me, my family is everything.

© Sophie Ellis-Bextor, 2021

Abridged extract from Spinning Plates, by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, published by Coronet on October 7 at £16.99. To pre-order a copy for £15.29, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before October 23. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. 

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