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.”

Hit for six … Mabuse partnering cricketer Graeme Swann on the last series of Strictly Come Dancing.
Hit for six … Mabuse partnering cricketer Graeme Swann on the last series of Strictly Come Dancing. Photograph: Guy Levy/PA

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.”

Mabuse looks on as 14-year-old Ellie Fergusson is crowned winner of The Greatest Dancer.
Mabuse looks on as 14-year-old Ellie Fergusson is crowned winner of The Greatest Dancer. Photograph: Tom Dymond/BBC/Syco/Thames/PA

It’s been suggested there was an underlying racism in The Greatest Dancer when a number of talented Asian contestants, including a Russian-trained ballet dancer, didn’t get enough votes to pass the audition stage. “I don’t think it had anything to do with that,” says Mabuse. “There were a lot of non-white acts that did make it through – a lot.”

Has Mabuse encountered racism in the dance world? “No, not really,” she says. “I was really lucky because I was born later and people were a lot more accepting. Whereas my sister, she’s 10 years older than me, she experienced stuff.” Black dancers are more visible in ballroom than they used to be, she says, reeling off the names of dancers in Germany and the US. “And in South Africa,” she laughs, “there’s a lot of us!”

Mabuse, an eight-times winner of the South African Latin American Championship, was born in Pretoria and took up ballroom and Latin at the age of four, following her older sister Motsi (now a judge on Let’s Dance, as the German version of Strictly is called). Their parents, a judge and a school principal, had high academic expectations for their daughters (a third sister is a mechanical engineer, an older half-brother died when Mabuse was a baby). It’s the norm in South Africa, she says. “Because education is something we had to fight for. You need something to be denied, stripped from you, have family members killed over it, to actually be like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so important.’”

She wanted to be a cartographer but ended up taking civil engineering. Not the obvious training to be a sequin-clad Latin dancer, but she loved maths and physics. Her first job, however, left her cold, and the hours meant she had to give up dancing – which is when she realised where her heart really lay.

Mabuse moved to Germany to pursue dance. She’d learned the language at school (she also speaks three South African languages, plus English and a smattering of Romanian) and there is a well-funded system there in which ballroom and Latin dancers can be paid a salary to compete for a club or their province. “It’s very lucrative,” says Mabuse. “I was lucky I started in the German team because the system financially is better [than the UK]. In the rest of Europe, dance is seen as a sport and in the UK it’s seen as an art. And art isn’t subsidised in the same way sport is.”

One day, while Mabuse was working on Let’s Dance, she came across someone British in a hotel who was stumbling over his German. She helped translate and he turned out to be from the BBC, which led to her move to London and the shared shower and mini fridge.

There’s talent and luck in Mabuse’s story but mostly there is a serious work ethic, one shared by all her fellow professionals on Strictly. “You have a choice to work four hours a day but we would do 10,” she says. “I can make a beginner, anyone with no dance experience, look amazing if we put in the hours.” When you see backstage footage of Mabuse, she’s usually barking “Again! Again!” at her charges. “I am so strict,” she says. “I take it really seriously, because I would be doing you a disservice if I couldn’t push you to your fullest, if I was like, ‘OK, 20% is enough.’ I genuinely think people don’t know their own potential – until someone comes and demands it of you, saying, ‘I see more. I believe in you!’”

Did she always have that belief in herself? “No, oh no, that’s been a journey,” she says. And she has the tattoo to prove it, one that says “Believe” in a delicate script on her right wrist. On the left is another that says: “Strength through perseverance.” She says: “I had to hide them from my mum for a few years.” The night before we meet, Mabuse tells me, her mum called her to say how proud she was of her daughter’s flourishing career. It seems like she’s been forgiven for not sticking with engineering – and for the tattoos.

‘ It’s like choreographing a telenovela’ … Adrian Hansel and Carly Mercedes Dyer in rehearsals for Ain’t Misbehavin’.
‘ It’s like choreographing a telenovela’ … Adrian Hansel and Carly Mercedes Dyer in rehearsals for Ain’t Misbehavin’. Photograph: Pamela Raith

Having conquered dance championships and primetime telly, Mabuse has a new challenge: choreographing Ain’t Misbehavin’, the musical revue based on the life and songs of Fats Waller. “It’s a completely new world for me but I’m very excited to learn,” she says. “When you see all the different relationships that happen between the characters, and I have the responsibility to bring that to life, it makes me so excited. It’s like choreographing a telenovela.”

She’s used to choreographing two-minute routines for television, but a two-hour show is something else. “Two minutes feels like a lifetime,” she says. “The first dance we did for Ain’t Misbehavin’ was five minutes and I was like, ‘What? Five minutes!’” She’s aware of the need to make that connection with the audience. “On TV, I make a joke and there are people in the studio laughing and I assume I’m funny,” she says. “But this is face-to-face communication in real time with real reactions.”

Mabuse and her assistant, James Bennett, have gone with dance forms from the 1920s and 30s: charleston, jive and swing. “I’ve modernised it a little bit with lifts and the sharpness and timing,” says Mabuse. “They said to me, ‘Oti, do what you want, go as crazy as you want, and then we’ll adjust it after.’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely not – we’re all going to go crazy.’ James has done a lot of musicals and he would say, ‘Wow, we don’t do this in theatre.’ And I was like, ‘Well honey, you’re going to learn!’”


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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