Strictly’s Oti Mabuse: ‘I still wear £5 leggings – I work for the BBC!’
She conquered Strictly while still living in a bedsit. Now the dancing multi-linguist and trained engineer is making the leap into musicals – where she’s planning to ‘go crazy’
Glamour is often an illusion. When Oti Mabuse relocated to London in 2015 to work on Strictly Come Dancing, she moved into a bedsit. “Not even a one-bedroom flat,” she says. “It was like a little single bed with a mini fridge and half a cupboard and everybody sharing the same shower.” But come Saturday night, there she’d be at the centre of TV’s glammest show, doused in sequins, shimmering across the dancefloor, queen of everything – then it was back to that tiny bedroom to choreograph the next week’s routines, like Cinderella doing the cha-cha-cha.
Mabuse, the champion Latin dancer from South Africa, won over Strictly audiences with her effusive warmth and whip-cracking coaching style. She pulled off the same trick on The Greatest Dancer, the talent show that reached its climax last month when one of Mabuse’s acts, 14-year-old Ellie Ferguson, was crowned the winner.
We meet in her dressing room at The Greatest Dancer studios. A few weeks ago on the show, fellow coach Cheryl commented on the slinky Hervé Leger dress Mabuse was wearing. “Life is changing for me, Cheryl,” Mabuse laughed. “Two years ago, I’d have been in leggings for £5!” Not that she’s minted, though. “I still work for the BBC,” she says. “Off the show, I still wear my £5 leggings.”
Life is certainly changing for her, though. The Greatest Dancer has been a huge boost for Mabuse’s profile and, while viewers had mixed feelings about the show, Twitter’s legion of critics all agreed on one thing: everybody loves Mabuse. She has just been snapped up as a guest presenter on The One Show, and she is about to make her debut as a stage choreographer in the jazz-age musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, opening this week in Colchester. Mabuse is definitely having a moment.
Today, she is looking cool and fresh-faced in a studded black leather cap and black-rimmed specs. She is happy getting dolled up once a week (“On Strictly, it’s a requirement! You feel like when you’re walking you’re just leaving bits of glitter and eyelashes behind you”), but at home you’re more likely to find her in a leopard onesie, complete with tail. Home is no longer a cramped bedsit but a smart rented flat in Wembley with her husband, the Romanian dancer Marius Iepure. Four years in, Mabuse feels settled in the UK. “It’s quite easy to integrate into the UK,” she says. “The British people have made it easy.”
Mabuse, now 28, has been impressed by the Brits’ enthusiasm for dance, too, and by the eclectic acts competing on The Greatest Dancer, from precocious primary school street-dancers to an 81-year-old ballerina. “It’s amazing to see the amount of talent in this country,” she says. “All these kids from all over the UK working so hard. It’s great to see that dance is supported.”
The show gives studio audiences the vote on who gets through, causing mild controversy when technically gifted dancers miss out to more crowd-pleasing performers. Mabuse was interested to see which acts people reacted to. “I’ve learned in this country that people love it when the dancers can connect. So they want a great dancer who can communicate through dance, who gets people emotionally, makes you cry – and is entertaining.” And the Brits adore an underdog. “So they love Stacey Dooley, who’s never danced before. They like to see people who’ve worked the hardest succeed. And there’s a lot of support when you feel somebody’s not been treated right.” The Guardian