Arlene Phillips at 80: on Strictly, scandal, survival – and still being a sizzling hot choreographer | Arlene Phillips

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Not long ago, trying to book Arlene Phillips in for a check-up, a nurse was trying to find a date she could make. “I said: ‘I’m sorry – I’m working.’ He said: ‘Well, it says here you’re 80. What are you doing working?’” She told him she had never given it much thought. “I wake up, I go to work, I love it.”

Not only is Phillips working – steadily, some might say relentlessly – she’s also producing some of her best, most creative work in her ninth decade. Alongside her associate James Cousins, she has just been nominated for an Olivier award for her choreography in the hit musical Guys & Dolls. “I am looking to make sure that everything I do will be as inventive, unusual or as different as can be,” she says, “so I never have to repeat myself.”

In the 1990s, Phillips choreographed the London revival of Grease. She also worked on the new version, which opened in the West End in 2022 and is about to go on tour, but it didn’t feel like a retread of old steps – this production is closer to the original show that pre-dated the 1978 film. It is, she says, “raw, edgy, visceral. Everyone’s tremendously excited about it because we’ve got a very young cast with some unbelievable performers – it’s youthful, it’s challenging. It has, in many ways, no relationship to the Grease that I was first involved in.”

I think it’s this constantly searching for the new, and surrounding herself with young people, that makes Phillips seem so youthful. How does she keep current and ahead of dance trends? Can she be going to clubs to see what the cool kids are up to? I’m nearly half her age and the thought exhausts me – I question, also, whether I should use the phrase “cool kids”. Does she keep on top of TikTok? She does, she says, and she has colleagues who bring new ideas. Mostly, she’s just very engaged – she rattles off some new plays she’s seen in London, and a Pina Bausch dance piece at Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Phillips with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephanie Lawrence on the set of Starlight Express in 1984. Photograph: Clive Dix/Shutterstock

Phillips is still best known as one of the original judges on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, which ended badly (we’ll come to that). But that was only four years out of a 60-year career in dance that brought her a damehood in 2021 and has included choreographing stage musicals, including Starlight Express and We Will Rock You, and films such as the 1982 version of Annie. She has created routines for music videos for a ridiculous number of superstars, including Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Elton John and Freddie Mercury. In the 70s and 80s, her wildly sexy dance troupe Hot Gossip changed, in this country at least, what mainstream dance looked like. She has a reputation as a grafter with exacting standards, but in person she’s also warm and grounded.

She always wanted to be a dancer. Growing up in Manchester, where her father was a barber, Phillips would hang around after her dance class, wanting to watch the next. Her family had very little money, and her younger sister gave up her own dance class so that Phillips could attend it instead. “I think dance for me became a haven, a place where music and movement could take you out of any troubles or hardship. You didn’t have to think about anything but listening to the music and getting your body to respond, and anything else couldn’t touch you.” It’s why she thinks dance, and the arts in general, should be essential to the school curriculum and beyond. “Dance and music together is vital to wellbeing.”

When Phillips was 15, her mother died from leukaemia. Her father became ill around the same time and Phillips, the middle of three, felt responsible for the family, especially her sister. “My brother left school to get a job,” she says. “It was really tough, and counselling was unheard of. There was no: ‘Let’s stop and find out how we can help this family.’” She became, she says, “very well schooled in putting all of that sorrow somewhere back here” – she touches the back of her head – “and just storing it away so I could get on with my life. There was no other way.” It also, she thinks, fuelled her determination.

Phillips choreographs her dance group Hot Gossip with her daughter Alana on her lap. Photograph: Phillip Jackson/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

Phillips was at grammar school, but she missed a lot of her education to care for her mother. There had been talk of auditioning for one of the London dance schools on a scholarship, but that was no longer viable. She and her aunt went to the council offices in Manchester to demand a grant to attend dance school in the city instead. “I remember the building, the room – it was so foreboding. But I just knew that’s what I had to do.” She got it, and after studying, she became a dance teacher, taking on numerous part-time jobs to supplement her income. At one point, she came down with glandular fever and spent three months in bed. “I’m not surprised. I was working around the clock.”

Her dance school sent her to London to take some classes and experience the dance scene there. On her last day, she saw a sign for a modern American jazz class, taught by the choreographer Molly Molloy, and fell in love with it, deciding there and then to stay in London. It helped that Molloy offered her a scholarship, and wangled her a job as a live-in housekeeper for a then little-known director, Ridley Scott. “It changed my life. I didn’t go home, because I knew if I had, I would never come back. I would never have had the courage.” Was it a wrench to leave her family, who depended on her? “Listen, I’m born full of guilt,” she says. “It was difficult and that caused a rift. I just said: ‘I have to do it.’ Eventually they understood. It wasn’t that I didn’t love them – it’s just that I had to pursue my dreams. And eventually it did all work out.”

‘I’ve had so many extraordinary things happen in my life’ … Phillips. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

I’ve heard her say in the past that she was never the best dancer, but transformed herself through sheer grit. “I don’t really have a dancer’s body,” she says now. “I’m quite short and stocky. Strength was my fortitude – I could jump as high as the boys, spin faster, solid moves. But in terms of a beautiful classically perfect body suitable for ballet, I was so far away.” Did it leave her with lasting body image issues? “Yeah, I felt like my body was all wrong, I was all wrong. I worked so hard and built my strength and power, but I could never compete. Some bodies are not made like that.” Seeing a production of West Side Story in Manchester made her realise she no longer wanted to be a ballet dancer. “And certainly, when I came to London to learn American-style jazz, there was no situation where my body wasn’t suitable for the art I was pursuing. That was a revelation.”

While Phillips was teaching in London in the 70s, she put a dance group together, featuring her best students. She named it Hot Gossip because she hoped everyone would be talking about them – a name they didn’t live up to for the first three years. Then they were given a regular slot on The Kenny Everett Video Show in 1978. For years they had been considered too sexy for TV, but the country was changing. “There seemed to be a vibrancy and a sexuality, the things people wore – Lycra costumes, sex shops opening, and in the windows these amazing shiny PVC bodysuits. But, every time I switched on TV on Saturday night, there’d be lovely smiley dancers, usually tall and blond. Dancing always felt very safe on television.”

Mary Whitehouse, the morality campaigner, was outraged. Does she have any sympathy with Whitehouse now? Did Hot Gossip open the floodgates for skimpy clothing and sexy moves? Phillips says she was always more concerned about the level of violence in pop culture, rather than sex, and it was important to her that the women in the group were empowered. “They were young people who knew what they wanted to do,” she says.

In the late 70s, Phillips went to the US to work on a musical film called Can’t Stop the Music, a fictionalised biography of the disco group the Village People. Members of the cast and production team gradually started falling ill – they didn’t know it then, but this was the early days of the Aids epidemic. As fear and misinformation spread, Phillips found the divide between those who were suffering, and those without the virus, painful. One friend, who was HIV-positive, invited her for lunch and it felt as if he was challenging her to eat the soup he had made. “I can remember how he looked at me as I had every mouthful.” By the late 80s, Phillips had musicals running in New York, London and Bochum in Germany. “And just one by one, people were dying.” One of her assistants on the German production of Starlight Express was in hospital, and a friend – “one of the dearest loves of my life” – was in hospital in London. She remembers shuttling back and forth between them, grief-stricken. “The treatment [of people with HIV and Aids] was disgraceful. It’s a scandal.”

Phillips being made a Dame, 2022. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Phillips threw herself into work. She was by now a single mother to her first daughter (she had her second, a surprise baby, at the age of 47 with her long-term partner, Angus Ion, a carpenter and set builder she met on a Freddie Mercury music video in the 80s). As a young woman in the industry, she says sexual harassment wasn’t something that really affected her. “I think I was quite lucky that I was never the most attractive person around.” Sexism, though, was another story. In the 80s and 90s, she was often the only woman in a senior position on creative teams, and fuming at “the way some men feel power over you, the way they feel, ‘You should do as I say,’ which they never would to another man. I’ve had people not listening to my suggestions, and immediately shout me down.” She would stand her ground, but there were other times when the response to her was unexpected and “vicious”. She remembers focusing on tapping her feet on the floor and willing herself not to burst into tears. “Sometimes a woman speaking up or trying to change something offended some men.” Now, she says, “I won’t let anything go.”

Did her working-class background make her feel like an outsider in the industry? “Yeah. I never felt posh at all,” she says with a smile (at her first dance class, she wore green ballet shoes because the pink ones were too expensive). When she was teaching in London, Bianca Jagger was one of her private students. “She had many very posh friends and I was like an amusement. I was invited out and it did feel like I was there for some form of entertainment, because I was so ordinary.” Did she mind? “I don’t think it really bothered me,” she says (Jagger was always kind, she adds). “I knew my place. But I certainly saw how the other half live.”

By the time Phillips was made a judge on Strictly – she and Len Goodman were the first to be cast – she was in her 60s and had already had a stellar career. When she was the only judge not to have her contract renewed four years later, it caused uproar among Strictly fans who couldn’t understand why the accomplished judge – and only woman – was being replaced with the much younger, far less experienced pop star Alesha Dixon. The fuss made it into the House of Commons, where Harriet Harman, the minister for women and equality, blamed ageism (the BBC denied this).

‘I resent that the BBC didn’t come to me’ … Phillips with fellow judges Craig Revel-Horwood and Bruno Tonioli on Strictly Come Dancing.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Given all Phillips has achieved before and since, Strictly seems like a blip – my view is the show was lucky to have her – but I am interested in how you weather something so publicly humiliating. Did it knock her confidence? She thinks for a moment. “More than knocking my confidence, I think it swirled around me, and I thought: ‘I need to find myself.’ I needed all the mental preparation that I could muster to go: ‘Hang on a minute – you had a big career before this and you’ve got work lined up.’ I think I stepped up and out of it as fast as I could. When the rollercoaster goes down, find the up.” She is angriest now about how it happened – the first she heard was when a radio show called her to ask her how she felt about it. “I was a grownup when I did that show, so I resent that the BBC didn’t come to me as soon as they had the thought.”

She doesn’t know how long she will continue to work for, though I can’t see her stopping. “I feel pretty cool about what happens now,” she says when I ask about remaining ambitions. “I’ve had so many extraordinary things happen in my life.” It isn’t all about work. She has two grandchildren who are, she says, “my world. My daughters grew up not knowing my mum, so I always vowed I’m going to be the grandmother I would have loved my girls to have. I want to give them the love that my mother gave to me, make sure I always have time for them every week, no matter what.”

It’s a physical job. “I can’t dance the way I used to, definitely not,” she says, but adds she can always explain her vision. Does she still dance around at home? No, she says, unless she’s working some steps out. She walks a lot, but she says she’s “happy to slob on a sofa and do nothing”. Though “nothing” is relative in Dame Arlene Phillips’ world. “I’m never still,” she says. She sits with a book, a newspaper, a notebook, a laptop and her phone, ready to grab inspiration or note down a gripping new idea whenever it dances past.

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