Life & Culture

Arlene Phillips: Dancing her way through the decades

“I don’t believe in destiny. But what I do think is that if you listen with your ears, and look with your eyes, something that doesn’t appear to be an opportunity can lead to one.”


You can imagine publishers lining up to sign the memoirs of Arlene Phillips, telling all about her 50-year career as a choreographer, working with big names on stage and TV and winning headlines when she was axed from the Strictly Come Dancing judges’ panel.

But she’s more of a talker than a writer. So the 74-year-old is telling her story, one audience at a time, touring around the UK with a show — Arlene! The Glitz. The Glam. The Gossip — in which she is interviewed by Jacquie Storey.

"I’ve always been asked to write a book, but I’ve never got round to it and I wasn’t really passionate about that.

"I started thinking about doing things that were different,” she says, “and instead of saying no straight away, which was my usual default place to go, I thought, why not?”

She says it's challenging to be on stage talking about herself night after night.“There are a lot of stories. You can almost put them under headings — my life, my passion to become a dancer, how difficult it was not having any money, and the grim determination that led me through.”

Her story started in a working class Jewish home in Manchester.

“I grew up with a lot of hardship, and that toughens you. You have to get on and you have to make your own life — there is no one else with a lovely cushion making that life happen.

“You have to work for it and you have to work hard. I was never taught that it was going to be easy,” she says.

She came to London as a 23-year-old hopeful with “no money, no job, and nowhere to live.”

Always one to land on her feet she is equally nonchalant about how she landed her big break four years later.

“It was thanks to the help of Ridley Scott, the director,” she says, “by chance I got to choreograph a commercial for him.”

It was a Lyons Maid ice cream commercial and “it went very well, but it was only a milkmaid and a dancing cow. The next commercial was for Dr Pepper to be shown in America.”

From there her career felt like “a non-stop rollercoaster. I was making commercials, and with the money that I was getting, from the commercials, I formed a dance group called Hot Gossip.”

Phillips became a household name as the director and choreographer of Hot Gossip, the British dance troupe which she formed in 1974, and which became a regular feature of The Kenny Everett Show on ITV, famed for their risque routines and costumes. They also featured on a disco hit, I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper, by Sarah Brightman, which reached number six in the British music chart and confirmed their celebrity status.

“I could only describe that sort of celebrity as extraordinary,” Phillips says now.“You would be invited on television to talk about all kinds of things, whether you knew about them or not.”

Fame, she acknowledges, is desirable to many, but is something she has always taken with a pinch of salt.

“I’ve always been down to earth. I’ve always seen myself as a choreographer, so I was grounded by that, and by the fact that I had a family.”

Much has been made of the fact she had her first daughter at 36, and the second at 47.

“I faced huge judgment both times. The first time when I was pregnant with Ilana I was asked by the doctors if students could follow me around because I was the oldest mother they had. And again with Abi, by which point I was considered geriatric.”

She has no regrets about leaving motherhood relatively late.

“If you’re fit, well, strong and able to have a baby and have the ability to experience the joy of bringing it up, then it is really the same as being a younger mother.”

Maybe she treasures the joys of motherhood all the more, having lost her own mother at 16.

“There are no guarantees in life — I lost my mother and it was very hard. You just got on with it. Grief wasn’t as easy to talk about then.

“Losing my mother was massive, absolutely huge, and impacted on all our family. Loss doesn’t go away, it stays somewhere surrounding you. But you learn to get on with it.”

When she was first asked to be a judge on Strictly Come Dancing in 2004 she was not sure it was the right move, but having agreed,"it quickly began to feel like home.

“I was so used to it — having been through the whole celebrity thing — it was just another part of life, another door.”

So, asked about being replaced as a judge by former Strictly winner Alesha Dixon in 2009, amid rumours that the decision had been made because Phillips was too old, it is no surprise when her response is delivered with an unflinchingly profession demeanor. “You make a decision to get on with life.”

The replacement of Phillips was so controversial that Harriet Harman, then minister for women and equality, raised it in the House of Commons, calling it an "absolutely shocking" decision.

Despite the up and downs of a show business career, Phillips is very down to earth.

“I’m tough. I do what I want to do,” she says, “I haven’t let people take me down a negative path, because apart from dance I don’t have an addictive personality.”

“There should be a warning sign on drugs, because I have met people who have become serious addicts just through trying a drug.”

She grew up in a traditional Jewish home, but today her connection to her faith has lapsed.

“It [Judaism] was never the foremost thing in my life,” she says, “It’s just part of me, it’s who I am. But I’m not religious or spiritual.

“When you think about how many wars are created through the word religion it’s hard to identify with it, or even accept it.”

Her voice softens as she recalls a religious friend’s battle with cancer. “She passed away with the most horrible form of cancer.” Her friend’s struggle with her belief while suffering so much had some influence on Phillips’ own feelings about religion.

“Particularly today, I think sometimes we question it even more,” she says.

Phillips prefers to think that you create your own destiny.

“You can believe you make it happen because you hear or see something, or people give you answers to things that may change your life.

“I don’t believe in destiny. But what I do think is that if you listen with your ears, and look with your eyes, something that doesn’t appear to be an opportunity can lead to one.”


Arlene Phillips is appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe, August 22 to 26. For other tour dates


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