Food milestones - Shirley Ballas

The Strictly Come Dancing judge on her journey from growing up in a low-income family to eating steak and lobster in Beverly Hills.

Shirley Ballas in a red room with chairs

Shirley, 57, of BBC One primetime dance contest fame, is one of the most decorated ballroom and Latin dancers in the world. Nicknamed the Queen of Latin, she won the British Open to the World Latin American Championships with her first husband Sammy Stopford and took the title twice with her second husband, Corky Ballas.

Shirley retired from competitive dancing in 1996 and became an internationally renowned coach and adjudicator. She replaced Len Goodman as head judge on Strictly last year.

We lived on the Leasowe housing estate (on the Wirral) and I was eligible for free school dinners.

The other kids laughed at me but all I could think was, ‘I’m getting a hot meal and you’re having a sandwich.’ I would eat everything. People didn’t like semolina, they didn’t like spotted dick – I loved everything. I will forever be grateful for the hot dinners at Leasowe Primary.

Even though we were broke, we always had a Sunday roast.

We’d have mashed potatoes, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, two veg, meat, lots of gravy made with Bovril and there would be a pudding afterwards.

I was two when my father left, so I wouldn’t know what it was like to be a daddy’s girl. I saw him sporadically but I don’t remember him even giving me a pound towards a pair of shoes. I was raised by a single mother who did anything and everything to provide for my older brother David and me – babysitting, delivering leaflets or working in a bar. She taught me to do an honest day’s work and to stand on my own two feet.

Roast chicken and vegetables on a plate

When I was 16, I headed for London and the bright lights of dancing.

My mother worked at Cadbury’s at the time and she’d make me up a goodie box of tins of soya mince, beans and Smash potato and send it down. I would wash hair, do gardens and scrub anything to earn a living and, after I’d been in London for eight months, I got the opportunity to dance with Sammy Stopford.

I married Sammy when I was 18 and we lived with a man called Bob who had a dog called Kiki.

Bob would boil liver for Kiki and, one day, he asked me to do it. I’d forgotten to cook Sammy’s dinner, so when he got home, I gave him the boiled liver with a tin of corn and Smash potato. Sammy wolfed it down and said it was delicious!

After I married Corky Ballas in 1985, I only cooked for him once or twice because that man could cook.

Corky was from a privileged background – his dad invented the Weed Eater and was a restaurateur and Corky was a food and beverage director in one of his dad’s restaurants. He was also a dancer: I trained him up and we won the British Open to the World Latin American Championships – twice!

When the children were small, we’d always stop at a McDonald’s on our way home from dancing competitions.

As well as our son Mark Ballas, we also raised Derek and Julianne Hough. We had a big SUV and we’d sit in the back and eat nuggets and French fries and, whether we’d had a great day and everyone was happy or a miserable day and everyone was crying, we’d soon all be laughing and singing.

Mark’s favourite food is pizza...

And every birthday he insists on having beef Wellington, which his wife BC Jean cooks for him, and banoffee pie made by his dad. He’s hooked on Haribo sweets – so I just buy him fizzy coke bottles!

Mark lives in the States where he’s playing Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys. I’ve seen it 50 times and, before the show, we always go to Starbucks and have the wrap with egg white and spinach and a coffee – it’s a good-luck ritual. And afterwards we always share a meal and have a glass of brandy and I’ll tell him how wonderful he was!

My favourite restaurant is Mastro’s steakhouse in Beverly Hills which my son introduced me to.

The food is amazing – from the lobster mashed potatoes to the steak. Mastro’s is my treat once or twice a year.

One of the last meals I cooked was for my ex-boyfriend Yegor Novikov.

He’s an American Smooth dancer and we were together five-and-a-half years. I cooked him spaghetti Bolognese and he ate it and even had some more. Later, he said it had been like eating wallpaper paste. We are still good friends and he will laugh and say, ‘Please, just don’t cook spaghetti Bolognese.’

Large bowl of spaghetti bolognese

Avocado, a boiled egg and brown toast is my all-time favourite breakfast. I once blew up an egg in a microwave; I opened the door and the egg exploded all over the ceiling – it was in my hair, it was everywhere. Hence, my children always say, ‘She can’t even boil an egg!’

My last supper would be....

My mum’s roast dinner and for pudding, apple tart or a Heinz treacle sponge with custard, cream and ice cream. I’d have it all – in for a penny in for a pound!


Quickfire questions

Your food heaven? Black pudding. And I’m also a Haribo freak – I often have one in my mouth when I’m on Strictly.

And hell? Haggis.

Favourite celebrity chef? Gordon Ramsay.

Describe yourself in three words: Dedicated, hardworking, funny.

Your ideal weekend? Spending time with my family and the people I love.

Dream dinner party guests? Oprah, Freddie Mercury, Walt Disney, Karen Carpenter, Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash (so my mother could sit next to him), Elton John, Frank Sinatra and Elvis.

What did you have for breakfast today? Just half an avocado because I have red-carpet events coming up and I’m trying to get into my dresses – I’ve gained 5lb.

Favourite tipple? A brandy and one ice cube.

Finish this sentence: I am most happy when… I am dancing with my son.

Half an avocado with a bowl of dressing

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