Christine Bleakley looks remarkably fresh for a woman juggling intensive dance training with her full-time presenting commitments on the BBC’s The One Show.
Wearing an electric blue, sleeveless dress that shows off her deep tan and perfectly toned limbs, Christine is in excitable form as we meet for a catch-up in the House Bar on the Stranmillis Road in Belfast.
The 28-year-old shows no signs of fatigue, despite her 6am flight from London to Belfast. I wonder how she maintains her energy levels, particularly in light of all her extra-curricular activities, if the tabloid Press is to be believed.
“I know, I’ve been a busy girl recently,” she laughs.
“As well as being linked to Adrian [Chiles, her One Show co-host], they’ve also alleged that I’ve been seeing one of the Gladiators and Jeremy Clarkson! That’s hilarious. And on top of that, I’ve supposedly adopted an African baby. I have no idea where they get these stories from.”
Since joining The One Show team last year, Christine has discovered that fame has its downsides. When her co-host’s marriage broke down a few months ago, the Co Down beauty suddenly found herself the subject of intense media speculation.
Red-top photographers began following her around, hoping to snap a sneaky picture of the two presenters together. Even her parents and boyfriend of three years, businessman Mark Beirne, were targeted.
Christine took it all in her good-natured stride and weathered the storm.
“To be honest, I was just so surprised that they were that interested in me,” she says.
“When ‘Adriangate’ broke I didn’t say anything, because there was nothing to say. But it all seems like a lifetime ago now. There’s no point dwelling on it. What I did learn is that having a sense of humour definitely comes in handy.”
Nodding in agreement is boyfriend Mark, who owns the House Bar. The Belfast entrepreneur says he laughed off the rumours and confirms that he and Christine are still very much a couple.
And he seems to get on well with the new man in Christine’s life — her Strictly Come Dancing partner Matthew Cutler. Matthew, who won last year’s hugely popular show with popstar Alesha Dixon, has accompanied Christine on her jaunt home and is rather taken with Belfast, promising a return visit when the series is over.
If there are downsides to the fame game, there are definite perks as well, and none come more glamorous than being invited to take part in the BBC’s prime-time Saturday night show.
Since she got the call-up, Christine’s feet haven’t touched the ground — well, apart from when she’s been practising the foxtrot or the rumba, of course.
And it’s why she’s giddy with excitement.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am,” she says.
“I’ve got lucky with Matthew, he’s lovely and he’s brilliant at what he does.
“But he won last year with Alesha, who was fantastic, and I really felt that I had to apologise to him in advance when we first met, because I
don’t want to let him down. It was definitely awkward at first, because you have to be intimate with someone to dance well with them. And I am not the type of person who feels comfortable writhing up against a stranger.
“But dancing is all about confidence. You really have to learn to let yourself go.”
Unlike some of the other female contestants taking part in the new series, including pop stars Rachel Stevens and Heather Small, Christine has no dancing or performing background.
“I’m a presenter, that’s what I do,” she says. “I’ve never danced before, well, apart from the odd boogie on the dancefloor, but that’s it.
“There’s an element of acting involved and dancing is all about contradictions. Your feet and body are going in one direction and your top half is going in another. It’s difficult to get the brain into gear and work out what everything should be doing.
“There is so much to remember, but we’ve had quite a few rehearsals now and I think I’m getting better.”
While Christine may be lacking in confidence, Matthew is happy with her progress.
“I can definitely see improvement in her,” he tells me.
“The thing about Christine is that she is a very fast learner, she’s picking up the steps really quickly. And she’s very hard-working.
“We know each other a lot better now, which obviously helps. I think she’ll surprise everyone.”
Christine laughs: “I’ll surprise myself. You know what, I’m just going to enjoy myself. It’s a great opportunity and I’m going to learn to dance. Before now, I couldn’t have told you what the foxtrot was, now I’ll be dancing it in front of millions of people. Oh my God, that’s unbelievable.
“I’m not a competitive person at all, but I guess I’ll have to introduce it into my personality.
“It’s funny, the rehearsal room seems like a comfortable place to be now. When we have to go into the studio again, I think that will completely bowl me over.”
Christine’s lack of competitiveness means she’s not interested in how the other girls are getting along.
“I don’t want to know, I’m just not interested,” she says.
“They’re all great girls, but I’d rather not know how well they’re all doing at the moment. There’s no point, I just need to focus on my own performance.”
Fortunately for Christine and the rest of the females, they will be spared the humiliation of being the first contender to leave the show.
When the series kicks off tonight, only the men will dance — giving Christine and Co a bit of breathing space.
“We’re to be eased in gently,” she says.
“I do my first dance next Saturday, which is the foxtrot. I’ll be a nervous wreck, but my family and friends will be in the audience to support me.”
And it’s not just those close to her who are offering their support.
“When I took over from Myleene Klass I got some lovely emails and letters from people, wishing me well and telling me that I was doing Northern Ireland proud. That was huge for me,” she recalls.
“Recently, I got this hand-written letter from a woman in Coleraine, who told me she was watching me every night and that she was very proud of me. That meant so much to me, to know that someone took the time to write a letter like that.
“But people have been so nice, stopping me at the airport and wishing me luck. It’s lovely to know they’re behind me, because at the end of the day, I’m such a wee homebird.”
Christine has been living in a flat in London, which she claims is too small in which to practise her dance routines. But, at weekends, she tries to fly home to Belfast as often as possible.
“At the moment with Strictly, my life is very much over here, but I love getting home, especially for a good old Sunday roast,” she says.
While rehearsals have been underway, Mark has been travelling to London to visit her, and is also looking forward to attending the show.
Christine says: “Last year, I was in the studio watching the programme, but never did I imagine I’d be taking part in it. It’s amazing.”
We reminisce about Christine’s time as a floor manager at the BBC in Belfast and shows like Children In Need, which she presented for BBC Northern Ireland and I covered for the Belfast Telegraph.
“Did you ever see yourself doing what you’re doing now?” I ask her.
“Are you kidding?” she replies.
“When I used to make tea in the BBC, I never imagined that I’d end up on national television, taking part in something like Strictly,” she says.
However, given her exotic looks and bubbly personality, Christine was never going to stay behind the camera for long.
After presenting several local programmes, including Sky High and Let Me Entertain You, she landed a job doing reports for The One Show. But when Myleene Klass had to make a fast exit due to the arrival of her baby, Christine suddenly found herself the replacement.
Despite a shaky start to her relationship with Adrian Chiles, the two are now the best of friends, contrary to what the tabloids tried to conjure up. And he, too, will be cheering her on when she takes to the dancefloor for the first time.
“They’re all on the countdown to Strictly in The One Show office,” she says. “They’re all really excited for me as well.”
In recent weeks, there have been rumours that Christine could be the new replacement for Fiona Phillips on the GMTV sofa, but she’s not so keen.
“Yeah, there have been a few calls about it,” she says.
“But I’m happy where I am. Plus, I don’t think I could ever get myself out of bed at that time of the morning.”
Over the next few months, Strictly Come Dancing will be Christine’s priority as she learns to salsa, samba, rumba and tango her way around the dancefloor.
“From 8am-noon, I’ll be with Matthew in the rehearsal room, then from noon-8pm, I’ll be tied up doing The One Show,” she says.
“It’s not even that the dancing is physically tiring, it’s the mental exhaustion, trying to take it all in.
“This is definitely the biggest challenge I’ve ever undertaken. You’re putting yourself out there and, of course, there’s the chance the judges or the public won’t like you.
“But I’ve taken personal criticism before. In a work situation, I’m always being told how things could be improved.
“It’ll be overwhelming, but I’m going to enjoy it.
“And I’m in the best possible hands with old Snake Hips here,” she adds, turning to her dance partner. The pair dissolve into fits of laughter.
Somehow I don’t think awkwardness is a hurdle these two must overcome.