I’m going to smash Strictly!’ Jayde Adams on love, death, fat-shaming and disco dancing

The comedian has been training for the Saturday-night extravaganza ever since she was a child on the holiday camp dancefloor. She talks about TV snobs, loathsome standups and losing her big sister Jenna

During the very first series of Strictly Come Dancing in 2004, Jayde Adams turned to her sister or her mum – she can’t quite remember which – and said: “I’m going to be on Strictly.” This year, she is doing just that. Adams – actor, comedian and force of nature – has realised her dream and she is very excited, flipping between not quite believing it and shrugging at its sheer inevitability. What does she love about the show? “It’s what I know,” she says. “I grew up wearing fluorescent costumes with crystals on them – that’s normal to me.”

As a child, growing up in Bristol, Adams would enter freestyle disco-dancing competitions alongside her sister Jenna, who was two years older than her. It is not something she thinks will give her any particular advantage on Strictly – except maybe her experience in learning a routine – because of disco’s frenetic, techno pace. “But we used to do the cha-cha-cha quite a lot together,” she says. “It wasn’t part of dancing for us but we knew it. We used to go clubbing and do synchronised dance routines, and everyone would watch.”

Adams rarely won a competition, but Jenna did. “Loads. The bitch,” she says, jokingly; the sisters were intensely close. “She was really slim and athletic. I didn’t fit the mould, and my mum did a really good job at pretending it wasn’t to do with me being chubby. Who knew Gail Adams would be the body-positive queen of 1997 or whatever it was?” Adams laughs. The day Adams did win, in a performance with her sister at one of disco dancing’s main contests at a holiday camp, is cemented in her mind. “It was a huge competition that happened over the weekend; we’d all stay in static caravans. Jenna and I had new costumes – our mum’s best.” She beams. “We danced so well that when I came off stage, people were touching me like I was a god. There was a tunnel of people complimenting me as I left the dancefloor, and I remember thinking: ‘This is nice.’” It was perhaps the moment when she realised she wanted to be a performer – her first experience of the rush of audience appreciation. “Jenna had it before because she was so good.”

In 2011, Jenna died of a brain tumour aged 28, and her absence will weigh on every moment of Adams’s time on Strictly, however joyful. “It’s incredibly emotional,” says Adams, simply. “I don’t care if I get knocked out in that first week, as long as I get on it.”

We meet in a London restaurant. Adams has just returned from the Edinburgh festival fringe – “after an 11-hour train journey with five huge bags and a 69-year-old mother” – where she was performing a standup show. Over the coming months, she will be on primetime Saturday night TV, and next year she will tour her comedy show, appear in the film version of the Take That musical, Greatest Days, reprise her role in the award-winning sitcom Alma’s Not Normal and star in her own sitcom set in a call centre. She has been a TV presenter, does a podcast and is huge on TikTok, where clips of her have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. “I’m pretty busy at the moment, but I want it,” she says. “I’m having the time of my life.”

Adams is warm (she greets me with a hug) and funny, clearly. She is ultra-confident and sure of herself – her newfound profile does not seem a surprise to her, and at one point she states, matter-of-factly, “I’m incredibly charismatic” – but there’s also a sense that it has been hard-won. She doesn’t follow any comedians on social media, she says. “Comparison is the greatest form of violence against yourself. You can’t do your job if you’re constantly comparing yourself to other people’s successes.”

Jayde Adams in red PVC dress.
‘I think sometimes there’s this idea that all us working-class people are thick’ … Adams. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Adams is 37, and about four years ago started having therapy, partly to unpick why she is such a people-pleaser. Her therapist, she says, “taught me all about boundaries – I didn’t have any”. Does she still want people to like her? “Yeah, a lot,” she says instantly. “Less and less as I get older, and the right people, now I’ve had therapy. I’m not as open as I used to be. I don’t let people treat me like shit any more.” Being a performer, she is well aware, is often the ultimate in people-pleasing: “I like to make people happy. I like people being comfortable in my presence, and performing is the extreme version of that.”

Her latest show, which she performed in Edinburgh, is called Men, I Can Save You, and is her take on men losing power and how she can help them deal with it. “I’d already done a show about women” – Serious Black Jumper, renamed from its original title The Ballad of Kylie Jenner’s Old Face, for Amazon Prime – “and what is equality if you don’t even it up?” she says. “I had observed men a lot, and what I had observed is that they are really quite lost right now. That immediately kicks in the desire I have to save everyone.” And so the rest of the show is about her saviour complex at the expense of herself. She had the idea for the show before her relationship with her boyfriend, another comedian (who she doesn’t want to name), ended, but her newly single status allowed her to write about finding herself, sexually and otherwise. She is, she says, “absolutely so happy to be single. I’m going into Strictly single, not having to worry about how convincing your rumba looks.”

Also, she says, smiling, “The real reason I’m doing the comedy show is, through a series of eliminations, I came to straight white guys as the only thing I can take the piss out of. No one’s going to cancel me.” It’s a joke, but it’s also the current conversation in comedy: what, if anything, is off limits? “I know what I don’t want to joke about; I have no desire to hurt people’s feelings,” she says. “I also don’t believe that you should be telling other people what they can say. I don’t want to live in that world.” It hasn’t made her second-guess what she writes, she says, because “I’m a good enough writer to write stuff that’s not going to offend people. I think sometimes we mistake offensive comedy with bad writing. I believe you can joke about anything, as long as the writing is good enough.”

She likes the American comedian and musician Stephen Lynch. “He’d be cancelled nowadays for some of his songs. There’s one about being fat that is really dark but it makes me laugh. It’s so naughty. I think that’s what I would miss, if we had this stringent list of what we can and cannot laugh at – I’d miss the naughtiness.”

That is why, she believes, new and diverse voices are key. “Getting comedy from working-class people is so important,” she says. The reason Alma’s Not Normal, a dark comedy about a woman who takes a job as an escort (Adams plays her best friend), did so well – its writer and star Sophie Willan won a Bafta – she says, is because “it’s an incredibly fresh take on the world, from a viewpoint that isn’t often in the industry, so it means all the jokes are new. If you keep [promoting] people from the same university, you’re going to get the same point of view on every TV show. You’re not going to be able to differentiate between anything, and people are going to get bored of comedy.” What happens then, she says, is “rebellious people come along to try to do the antithesis of that”.

Adams doesn’t have much time for many of the middle-class leftwing liberals she meets backstage at TV shows. “You see what they’re like online and it looks like they’re such nice people, and then you meet them and you’re like: ‘You’re a terrible person.’ Hypocrisy does my head in.” In one of her shows, she remarked – amused but derisive – that standup isn’t considered standup these days unless it preaches something to its audience, often regardless of whether it is funny or not. “Who are we to teach other people how to live their lives? Have you met comedians?” she says now, with a laugh. “They’re the worst people I’ve ever met in my life: scared, fearful, rejected, proving people wrong.” She spits out the final word as if it’s the worst: “Mediocre.”

Despite her success, as a working-class woman Adams feels that she is treated differently in comedy. “I don’t get second chances like other people do. If I mess something up, I don’t get asked to do it again. If I’m bad it’s like it’s the worst thing ever because I dared to believe that I can do this.” There is an assumption, she thinks, that she shouldn’t be as confident as she is. “But I am. I can fail and I can dust myself off and try again.” Where did that come from? Those dance competitions, she says. “Failing every single week for 13 years, you get used to being gracious about it. I think that has instilled quite a big work ethic in me for this industry. I try not to think too much about the injustices or the politics of it. I’ve just got to be good, better.”

Adams always thought she was funny, but it wasn’t until her sister was very ill that she really embraced it. Jenna, in hospital, had asked her to try to make everyone else laugh. “Everyone’s looking at me like I’m about to die, and it’s doing my nut in,” Adams recalls her sister saying. After Jenna died, Adams, angry and grieving, wasn’t sure what to do with herself. She did a couple of shows at Edinburgh, the first in which she “sang opera and did a silent evolution of dance. I didn’t really talk when I first did comedy. I couldn’t. I didn’t know what I was going to say.” In London, she was performing on the drag scene, often as an Adele impersonator, and in cabaret. Her career in standup got a boost when she won the Funny Women award in 2014, and in 2016 she got a best newcomer nomination at Edinburgh, for the show she had written about Jenna’s death and its impact. Grief is something she returns to often in her work.

Adams with Sophie Willan in Alma’s Not Normal.
‘I’m incredibly charismatic’ … Adams with Sophie Willan in Alma’s Not Normal. Photograph: Matt Squire/BBC/Expectation TV

Adams was a creative child. Her father worked at British Aerospace, and her mother’s supermarket job paid for the children’s extracurricular activities – the dancing and keyboard lessons, and her brother’s karate. At school, Adams got into music and joined the choir, and she went on to study drama at the University of Glamorgan. “ I did fuck all,” she says, but that isn’t exactly true because she put on two shows and developed a love of conceptual art and contemporary dance. “I want to create work that doesn’t patronise the people that are watching it,” she says. When she runs her work past script editors or producers, she sometimes has “a fight on my hands where I want to keep stuff in the scripts. I’m like: ‘Trust me, they’ll get it.’ I think sometimes there’s this idea that all us working-class people are thick as shit.”

Alongside her degree, she worked with a choreographer and got arts funding to produce experimental dance pieces. Adams isn’t limiting herself to standup – she has ambitions for films, cabaret, Las Vegas one day, and a career like Bette Midler’s is the dream. Dance, too. Although she loved it, she says it “has not been something I’ve stuck at because there’s not a lot of money in it, especially when you look like me”.

Coming to a wider audience on Strictly, she is braced for sizeist comments when she takes to the dancefloor. “It’s part of my life,” she says. “A woman can’t be on television without one of two things happening: either someone saying she’s ugly or fat, or they send her really disgusting messages.” She says she is “desensitised to it”, though she will report abusive tweets to the tweeter’s workplace, if she can find that out. “I don’t take any of this stuff lying down. I’m not a victim.” Male Strictly contestants don’t get comments about their weight, she points out, and she knows her appearance on the show will be political.

Adams will think, instead, about her sister. She would love to make it to Strictly’s Blackpool week and the ballroom that loomed large in her and Jenna’s childhoods – the other big disco-dancing competition was held there. “That would be amazing, if I can last,” she says. One of the shows falls on what would have been Jenna’s 40th birthday. “She wouldn’t have ever really understood any of the standup or the cabaret I’ve done – she didn’t really watch that sort of stuff. But she would understand this. It will be bittersweet.” Jenna’s absence will be huge but, Adams adds: “What if I hadn’t been able to tell her story in 2016: would I have any of this stuff? All I know is I’d give it all up to …” Tears spring to her eyes, her voice cracks and she can barely get the words out. “… spend a day with her. But that’s not possible so I’m just going to go and smash Strictly.”

Strictly Come Dancing is on BBC One on Saturday evenings and on iPlayer. Jayde Adams tours her new standup show, Men, I Can Save You, in 2023; tickets from jaydeadams.com

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at guardian.letters@theguardian.com


Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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