Take That Gary! Strictly star Jason Donovan on how well he”s done and how his best friend Gary Barlow secretly longs for the spray tan and sequins
Before Jason Donovan leaves his house every morning he has to check his bed. He can’t shut the front door unless he knows it’s perfect. The sheets have to be completely straight and the cushions fluffed up. And if one of his three children dares approach the bed they should know better; he’ll shoo them away and straighten it – even if he’s about to get in and go to sleep.
This unexpected perfectionist side to Jason is one that Strictly fans have caught a glimpse of recently. For Strictly he has worked harder than many of the other celebrities, dancing six or seven hours a day. The 43-year-old admits he is tired to the bone and he looks it, with bloodshot eyes and dark bags beneath them.
‘Maybe I shouldn’t have taken it all so seriously,’ he says when we meet just before last week’s semi-final. ‘But that’s me. People said I should smile more, relax, enjoy it. Maybe I should have run into Tess Daly’s area giggling and screaming, “That was amazing” but I couldn’t pretend to be somebody I’m not.
For Strictly Jason has worked harder than many of the other celebrities, dancing six or seven hours a day
‘Chelsee Healey, bless her, has been a breath of fresh air compared to me. If ever I asked her what she was dancing in a particular week she wouldn’t even know – it all comes so naturally to her, while Holly Valance always seemed able to pull it out of the bag at the 11th hour. But I’m not naturally gifted at dancing; it’s totally out of my comfort zone and so I thought if I prepared well enough, even if things went wrong, I’d be ready for what happened next. The show has all been about the survival of the fittest. Yes, I’m totally exhausted, but I’m the only one who didn’t catch a cold in the past four months and I put it down to eating healthily. I know I couldn’t have worked harder. I did my best.’
Jason’s brilliant run on the show is the latest chapter in his incredible life story. Strictly has been more popular than ever this year, regularly beating X Factor in the ratings and part of that must be down to Jason’s entertaining dances. He’s been a star since he was 17 and when he was in the Australian soap Neighbours it was one of the biggest shows on the planet, with audiences of over 20 million people in the UK alone.
He and his co-star and lover Kylie Minogue moved to the UK and sold a million copies of their cheesy hit Especially For You. Then it all went wrong. Kylie left him for INXS singer Michael Hutchence and Jason became hooked on cocaine. ‘I was looking to be cool,’ he says now. ‘My image was not cool.’ For over 15 years Jason found himself in the showbusiness wilderness. The last time I met him, nine years ago, he was doing personal appearances in Essex burger bars.
Understanding: Jason pictured with his friend Gary Barlow backstage
‘It was a tough time,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t denigrate those opportunities because a lot of people came to see me and I made a good living out of it. But job satisfaction Zero. I think I was struggling because it is a hard journey to make from boy to man. You can’t just turn around at 23 and be all stubbly and respected. It was different for Kylie – it’s a lot easier for a girl to become a woman.’
At the time I met him he was clean of drugs and had already met his future wife, theatre stage manager Angela Malloch. When Angela became pregnant with their daughter Jemma two years earlier, she gave him an ultimatum: stay off the drugs or you don’t get to bring her up. ‘I was getting bored of it anyway, but I needed someone strong to help me take control,’ he recalls. ‘From the moment I held my daughter I’ve never done that again.’
He credits another reality show, I’m A Celebrity… for being the turning point. ‘It gave me a chance to get back on TV and show people I was healthy,’ he says. He came third in the 2006 series and his gamble paid off. Since then he’s had barely a moment off, appearing in stage versions of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert and The Sound Of Music. He even had his first UK TV acting role for years, in Echo Beach.
‘My reinvention hasn’t been as savvy as it could have been but no career keeps going up and up,’ he insists. Which brings us back to Strictly. Ange didn’t want him to do it.
‘She saw me dance in Priscilla, and we were both worried I’d be out in the first week. She was also worried about how I’d be perceived by the public. She’s interested in family, not fame. I had to go against her judgement.’
Perhaps she was also worried about the many relationships that are formed on the show Jason’s dance partner has been blonde bombshell Kristina Rihanoff, who paired off with boxer Joe Calzaghe after they danced together in 2009.
‘With all that rubbing against each other and passionate looks, I can see how that happens,’ laughs Jason. ‘Kristina and I have become close friends, but I don’t feel a need to be anything other than Ange’s husband. And then there’s Joe Calzaghe, of course.’
We have a lot in common. We’ve bothhad our ups and downs. He’s emotional, talented, smart, a great performer and a family man.
Over on ITV is Jason’s good friend, X Factor judge Gary Barlow. The two got to know each other when their eldest children were at school together. Gary calls Jason his best friend and last summer they all holidayed together.
‘We have a lot in common. We’ve bothhad our ups and downs. He’s emotional, talented, smart, a great performer and a family man. We’ve been watching each other on Saturday nights and laughing at the fact we’ve been on the wrong shows. Gary always loved Strictly and I think he always fancied himself on the show with a spray tan and sequins, while I was more of an X Factor fan.’
Acouple of weeks ago Gary admitted one reason he had taken the X Factor job was because he was addicted to fame. ‘I recognise in me too, what I see in Elton John and all those people. We’re chasing the buzz,’ he said. ‘Once you’ve tasted it, you never want to lose it.’ Jason, in contrast, took Strictly for the money, not the limelight.
Close friends: Jason with dance partner Kristina Rihanoff on Strictly Come Dancing
‘For me, it’s been to keep my currency up. I’m a business and this has been a way to sell myself.’ Among the fans who’ve been supporting Jason is Kylie Minogue. The two were rumoured to have had a huge falling-out but Jason insists it’s not true.
‘We’ve never not talked,’ he says. ‘There was never a problem between us. We’re different people in different worlds, but I’ve always been supportive of her and she of me. It didn’t surprise me that she wished me luck. She was a huge part of my life and we’ll always have that bond.’
His career has long been compared to Kylie’s, but now work is good again he has nothing to worry about. He’s looking forward to the Strictly tour early next year – and to a bit of time off. ‘I can’t wait for Christmas,’ he says. ‘A few glasses of wine at lunch, relaxing with the family. Happy days.’
The Grand Final of Strictly Come Dancing is on BBC1 tonight at 7pm.
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