Motsi Mabuse: 'I understand the Strictly curse completely' – The Telegraph
As Britain’s favourite TV show gears up again, judge ‘Crazy Motsi’ is back – but her exuberant on-screen persona belies her past struggles
When Motsi Mabuse was 13, she joined a new school in South Africa. Immediately, there was a problem. She was barely being noticed.
Class sizes were big, other girls were just as loud as she was – for a child with a hankering for fame, this was not good. The answer, she decided, was to enter the school swimming competition. As the only black participant, it would guarantee all eyes on her. The only problem? She couldn’t swim.
OK, that’s not quite true. Young Motsi could swim a few strokes but only while holding her breath; after that, she had to stop and put her feet on the bottom. And this particular pool had no shallow end, meaning she couldn’t do that. No matter. In she plunged.
‘I simply didn’t stop. I swam literally for my life. I managed the whole stretch in a single breath,’ she writes in her new memoir. She came second in the race. ‘I was treated like a heroine. The attention I’d been missing was now mine.’
It is a story that sums up Mabuse’s approach to life: determined, passionate and happy in the limelight. She laughs loudly when remembering it now. ‘I wanted a way to be seen. So I just swam. It was fun, fun, fun. It’s a part of my personality – I always go where the border is and think, can I push it a little bit?’
Mabuse brings Crazy Motsi – as she refers to this side of her character – to the Strictly Come Dancing judging table. She joined in 2019 as a replacement for the more sedate Darcey Bussell and returns this month for her fourth series, alongside Shirley Ballas, Craig Revel Horwood and Anton Du Beke.
She is an exuberant presence on the panel. In person, she is friendly, assured and surprisingly short. She can talk and talk. We meet in a photographer’s studio in her adopted home of Frankfurt. You might not recognise her if she passed you in the street: she arrives barefaced, dressed in a sweatshirt and leggings (she cheerfully refers to glamming up for Strictly as transforming her ‘from sofa slob to princess’). Plenty of celebrities would rather die than let anyone see them in their natural state, but Mabuse, now 41, has no such hang-ups.
It is hard to imagine this confident woman in an unhappy marriage to a man who controlled her money, booked their holidays, tried to guide her career – even decided what she would eat sometimes – but that, she says, is where she once found herself.
She married her first boyfriend, Timo Kulczak, at 22. They met at a tournament in Blackpool, centre of the ballroom-dancing universe, when she was 18. It was the first time she had been abroad; Kulczak was four years older. Soon she had dropped out of her law degree in Pretoria to train with him in his home town in Bavaria. Mabuse moved in with Kulczak’s family, who treated her like a daughter and helped her to learn the language (his father labelled every item of furniture and food in the house with Post-it notes, which she supplemented by memorising vocabulary from German Family Fortunes).
A romantic relationship developed, in which Kulczak was the driving force. The wedding sounds like quite a sad affair: arranged partly to solve her visa issues, and conducted in Denmark’s equivalent of Gretna Green with none of Mabuse’s family present. Still, they followed it up with a fancy wedding in South Africa’s Sun City, and Mabuse did her best to make a go of things. But Kulczak decided many aspects of their lives.
‘It hadn’t bothered me too much in the early days of our relationship that Timo was quite old-fashioned in some respects,’ she writes in her memoir. ‘He had the bank accounts; he made many of the decisions; and when I taught dance, or appeared on television, my earnings went through his account and he gave me an allowance. But as time went on, I lobbied for change.
‘I can see now that it was probably difficult for him, though. Right from the beginning, Timo had always wanted to look after me. I was his princess.’
Today, she is reluctant to criticise Kulczak, describing him as ‘the sweetest, sweetest person’. I suggest the descriptions of his behaviour in the book sound controlling. ‘Maybe,’ she says uncertainly, the only time in our interview that she gives a nervous laugh rather than those big, infectious ones. I sense that she doesn’t want to hurt any feelings. But he controlled your money? ‘Absolutely everything,’ she concedes.
And as time went by she became increasingly unhappy. Yet she was unable to extract herself from the marriage. What held her back? ‘Guilt. This family took me in; I loved them. But how can you live for other people?’ Life in a gilded cage began to feel desperate. ‘I remember one day I was on a cruise and it was so bad, I just took a towel and I put it on the floor and I prayed. And I still stayed.’
Around this time, she suggested that they have a baby, but Kulczak said not yet. She began putting away small amounts of money. ‘When I’d teach he’d say, “Oh, you did eight lessons. Where is the money?” But then I started keeping a little bit for me. I needed my own account, my own driver’s licence. I had to fight for those things in the marriage.’
By this time, Kulczak had taken a job as an air steward. They had been married for a decade. One day, when he was working, Mabuse packed up and drove away. She took nothing but her clothes. ‘It was tough. I was shaking and crying. But I did it.’ After a ‘horrible’ divorce, they are now on friendly terms.
Why does she think he behaved in that way? ‘Because people are afraid. When you’ve got something and you love it so much, sometimes you don’t want to let it go.’
When Mabuse left in 2012 she had already met her husband-to-be, Ukrainian dancer Evgenij Voznyuk. They started training together, and the attraction was instant. In her memoir, Finding My Own Rhythm, she describes their first try-out on the dance floor. ‘As I looked him in the eye, I noticed that he had beautiful eyelashes. Uh-oh.’
Does this mean Mabuse can understand the fabled ‘Strictly curse’, when celebrities fall for their professional partners? ‘I understand it completely,’ she says. ‘Especially when you become a team and you’re together and you feel like everybody is against you; then you get closer and spend all this amount of time away from reality. There’s a certain type of energy that happens and then… oops!’
Can she see it happening in front of her with the Strictly contestants? ‘Oh my God, I think half of the stuff that’s happening, people don’t even know. Yeah, you can see. Everybody has vibes. There’s an energy, a laugh, a hand, a look.’ Mabuse beams when she mentions her husband. ‘He’s my everything.’ They have a four-year-old daughter. She conceived six months after marrying Voznyuk in 2017. The couple run a dance school together in Frankfurt.
Personally and professionally, then, Mabuse seems to have it all: a happy marriage, a beautiful daughter, a business career, a place on Britain’s most popular Saturday night TV show. Yet her book delves deeper – the overarching story is of a black girl who grew up under apartheid, and the shadow that has cast over the rest of her life.
She was born Motshegetsi Mabuse in 1981, in Kraalhoek, moving to Pretoria aged five. Her father, Peter, was a lawyer, her mother, Dudu, a teacher. Mabuse was the eldest daughter, followed by Phemelo, and then Oti, who preceded her on Strictly as one of the professional dancers. Had they been closer in age, Mabuse and Oti might have been rivals, but the 10-year gap means Oti maintains ‘little sister’ status.
Theirs was a relatively middle-class life, with a car and holidays. But discrimination was part of their everyday existence. By the 1980s, Mabuse says, things were less harsh than they had been when her parents were younger. ‘There was a certain space for us. But we couldn’t live where we wanted. We couldn’t travel as we wanted.’
Mabuse still has a fear of large dogs, particularly German Shepherds, because she witnessed the police setting them on black people. She attended a convent primary school. It had a mixed intake, but a white majority. She remembers an Irish nun called Sister Hawkins who would refer to the black girls as ‘black witches’. Mabuse writes: ‘She clearly despised us because of our race… it impacted the way I saw myself and I started to want to be something I was not. I think the mental conflict it gave me probably affects me to this day.’
Dance was her salvation. She describes it as a way of life for black South Africans: ‘Even at a funeral, people will find space for dancing.’ Aged 11, Mabuse entered her first contest, wearing a green nylon dress and white shoes, and won top prize in the junior category. She was on her way.
But the dance world was still divided along racial lines. There were no multiracial partnerships, and white judges always favoured white couples. It was Britain that gave her hope, when she and a partner placed 10th out of 190 couples in a ballroom competition in Blackpool. For the first time, Mabuse’s colour had not counted against her.
When she moved away from South Africa to Europe, it represented freedom: ‘I felt I could breathe.’ Mabuse’s parents instilled their girls with self-belief and told them to rise above racism. ‘We were brought up not to take in that stuff. “Don’t take a second to cry about it. Let’s get on.” Which is good for survival, but at some point you grow up and you say, how can I ignore the way I was treated?
‘I hear quite often, “Oh, playing the black card, playing the victim card,”’ she continues. ‘But we have to understand that when somebody has been through something, you can’t set a timing on when you think they should be over it or how they should feel [just because] from your perspective it was a long time ago.’
Despite her outward confidence and supportive parents, Mabuse developed ‘a self-worth of 0.0001 per cent’ – partly also because of the succession of dance coaches who subjected her to ‘mental torture’. One beat her with a stick; that was not as bad as another who, she recalls, sneered as she was about to go out on the floor: ‘My dog dances better than you.’
In 2009, she had a breakdown. By then she was German champion but became gripped by the thought of losing the title. She recalls lying on the sofa, sobbing. She accepted a role as a judge on Let’s Dance, Germany’s answer to Strictly, and quit dancing. During lockdown, she sought therapy. ‘I was sitting there, not able to go to work, and I just felt a sense of panic.’
Initially, it was group sessions over Zoom, but ‘when everyone was invited to speak together, I kept on asking, asking, asking… I took over! I said to the coach, “Listen, can we do one-on-one sessions because I feel like I’m being unfair to everyone.”’
At the moment, she and Voznyuk are sharing their home with her in-laws from Ukraine, who fled the war. Asked how she is finding her living arrangement, she jokes: ‘Well, I’m human. Ask any human how it is to live with your mother-in-law!’ But they are thinking about making it permanent, and the arrangement works well for childcare when Mabuse travels to London for Strictly.
Viewers might imagine that the Strictly judges are pals, enjoying raucous nights out and exchanging gossip. She shakes her head. ‘No. None of that. There are some moments where you write “Happy birthday” or something like that.’ She describes their relationship as ‘professional’. ‘In Germany, we’ve had the same judges for 10 years and there’s a basis of friendship. In the UK, it’s different.’
That’s a bit disappointing, I say. Not even the occasional dinner with Craig Revel Horwood, who seems as if he’d be a hoot? ‘No. There’s so much pressure – it’s prime time, so you get in, you do the job and everybody just wants to go home.’
When I mention Bruno Tonioli, who left the show in favour of the US version, she starts belting out the Disney song We Don’t Talk About Bruno, then dissolves into laughter. She is sad that he has gone.
‘I’m going to miss Bruno because he was an extrovert and I’m an extrovert, so I feel like we were balanced. I was not the only one around that can freak out.’ She mimes trying to connect with everyone else: ‘Now I’m just like, “Hello? Hellooo?”’
She enjoys being part of a show in which women over 40 – two judges, plus Claudia Winkleman and Tess Daly – are centre stage. ‘You know, ageing can look so tough. So I think it’s good to have women diverse in our looks, diverse in our bodies. This is us: the new ageing.’
She is certainly in no need of ‘tweakments’ – her skin is luminous, and she looks a decade younger than her years. But she has thoughts on the subject. ‘If you have something that makes you totally unhappy and you want to change it: do it. Just. Do. It. Get that Botox! If you want to look like Catwoman, do that! Just make sure you are doing it for yourself.’
Mabuse cries once during our interview and it’s not when recalling her toughest times, but when she tells me about Strictly giving her a hairstylist who understood black hair. ‘One of the worst feelings that we get from racism is shame,’ she explains. ‘Like, you’re ashamed to speak about your hair and say, “Can I get it properly done?” But when I went to Strictly, they organised for somebody to do my hair. She brings products, she doesn’t judge me. And I realised: I’ve been doing TV for 15 years and this makes such a difference.’ She apologises for crying. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t realise it meant so much to me.’
She hopes that by sharing her life story, Strictly fans will understand the real her. ‘Crazy Motsi – that’s one side of me that I’ve had for survival purposes. If that Motsi wasn’t there, I would have gone under. But I also have a side of me that’s different. And as I have grown up, I have let that side of me be more out front.’
After her first Strictly episode, her proud father sent her a message. Mabuse still has it saved on her phone. He ended with the words: ‘Keep it up, my girl.’ She is doing exactly that.
Finding My Own Rhythm: My Story, by Motsi Mabuse, is out now (£20, Ebury, £20); order at books.telegraph.co.uk. Read an exclusive extract at telegraph.co.uk
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