Strictly Come Dancing judge, Shirley Ballas, was rocked to learn about her family's harrowing ancestry and unravel past events that had been clouded with false rumours...
Ballroom dance champion, Shirley Ballas, has become a household name since taking over from Len Goodman as head judge on Strictly Come Dancing. The glamorous 57-year old, dubbed the Queen of Latin, says being part of the show is a dream come true, but her life and rise to success has been far from easy.
Growing up on a council estate in Merseyside she was raised by her mum Audrey after her dad walked out when she was two. Her own two marriages ended in divorce and she was devastated when her only sibling, David, who suffered from mental health issues, took his own life 14 years ago.
With many parts of her own family history still a mystery, Shirley, whose son Mark, 32, is also a dancer, jumped at the opportunity to find out more about her relatives, ‘I had heard on my dad’s side that we might have black ancestry so I was particularly keen to find out more about that’, she says.
But the star was emotional, when she traced her family back to the mid-19th century, to discover her distant relations had once been working as slaves in Madagascar.
TV times caught up with Shirley Ballas, 57, to hear more about her moving voyage of discovery, the surprising twists she encountered and what she’s looking forward to most when Strictly returns this autumn….
TV Times: How much did you know about your ancestors beforehand?
Shirely Ballas: "I’d heard that my mother’s grandmother, Clara, was an irresponsible party girl who loved shoes and clothes and had abandoned her children and run off to America so I was keen to find out more about her. I’m quite boring but my mum likes a good party so I used to tease her and say, ‘You probably take after your grandmother.’"
TVT: What did you find out?
SB: "I discovered that the story just wasn’t true. Her husband had died from cancer and had left all his money to his own mother, Elizabeth, and nothing to Clara. With no income at all, Clara went to America to find work and left the children with their grandmother because she thought they would have a better life with Elizabeth. Clara herself had a dreadful life in the States, she remarried and fostered a daughter, but was abused both physically and psychologically by her husband. She was a battered woman who feared for her life."
TVT: How did it make you feel to discover that the truth was very different to the rumours?
SB: "Very sad. I regret we’d all assumed she was something she wasn’t; it was all tittle-tattle and tales probably started by Elizabeth. It was upsetting that Clara’s own daughter, my mum’s mum Daisy, never knew the truth and grew up not knowing her own mother. Clara ended up being diagnosed with a brain disorder and spent 17 years in a hospital or an asylum and died from syphilis."
TVT: What did you discover on your father’s side?
SB: "Because my dad left when I was two I didn’t know too much about his family. I know that my dad’s father was a bare-knuckle boxer from Birkenhead and had heard rumours that we might have black ancestry. My great-great grandfather George Rich was born in Cape Town, in South Africa so I went there to find out more and after doing some research discovered he was mixed-race. We went further back down the line and found out my three-times great grandmother, Caroline Otto, was a former slave who had been taken from her family at a young age to work Madagascar."
TVT: How did that make you feel?
SB: "Emotional to say the least. I was sad to hear she’d been a slave but pleased that the family line had survived. It shows great strength of character to make it through such difficult times. The more I found out, the more I discovered there were a lot of incredibly strong women among my ancestors. Not just Caroline but Clara showed great strength of character too seeking a divorce from a man who was abusing her. She represented herself in court which was very unusual back then and must have taken a lot of courage."
TVT: Were you expecting to find any dancers in the family?
SB: "I was! I embarked on the journey hoping to find dancers or musical people. Caroline Otto and her mother were washerwomen and would have carried big bundles on their heads. They would have needed good lines of vertical posture so I’d like to think I may have got my balance from them!"
TVT: What would you say to anyone considering researching their family tree?
SB: "It’s an amazing experience finding out about your history and learning how much of what’s passed on down through the generations is true…or not! You could be like me and discover things, that never in your wildest dreams, would you have thought would pop up."
TVT: You’ll be back in Strictly this autumn. What do you think you’ve learned from the first series?
SB: "How to hold the scoring paddles properly! And I’ve learnt a lot more about being infront of the camera because I didn’t have any experience of that before going on. I’m so grateful for all the support from the British public. Of course there were trolls on social media who didn’t always have nice things to say, but generally the support has been overwhelming."
TVT: Would you like your dancer son, Mark, a professional on the US Version Dancing With The Stars, to be on Strictly?
SB: "He’s already suggested it! On the American version, Julianne Hough was a judge and her brother Derek was a professional on it, so it seems acceptable over there to have family ties but I’m not sure how the British public would take it if Mark and I were both on Strictly together here."
TVT: What do you like most about being part of the show?
SB: "I love the journey that everyone embarks on, the ups, the downs, the contestants’ back-stories, how some of them have come through immense strain to open themselves up to vulnerability infront of millions of people. I don’t think anybody realises just how athletic it is. It’s a huge challenge to go the pace, both mentally and physically so whatever week you get to, it’s an amazing feat."
See Shirley in Who Do You Think You Are on Monday 30 July at 9:00pm on BBC 1
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Tess is a senior writer for What’s On TV, TV Times, TV & Satellite and WhattoWatch.com She's been writing about TV for over 25 years and worked on some of the UK’s biggest and best-selling publications including the Daily Mirror where she was assistant editor on the weekend TV magazine, The Look, and Closer magazine where she was TV editor. She has freelanced for a whole range of websites and publications including We Love TV, The Sun’s TV Mag, Woman, Woman’s Own, Fabulous, Good Living, Prima and Woman and Home.