Strictly star Flavia Cacace talks to Gabrielle Fagan about her love for actor Jimi Mistry and why she’d love to be a mum ... but just not yet.
Flavia Cacace rushes into the cafe, looking a little flustered as she's running late after training with dance partner Vincent Simone. Petite, glamorous and with a megawatt smile which lights up her tiny face, the star from Strictly Come Dancing oozes charm and apologies.
“Vincent and I know each other so well that we hardly need to talk. We can read each other and know instinctively what each needs to do artistically and technically,” Cacace explains.
“But when we're concentrating so much on what we're doing, time just slips by without our noticing.”
The pair have just finished touring with their own dance show, Midnight Tango, and are about to begin rehearsals for the ninth series of BBC One's Strictly.
But, while their on-stage chemistry is still apparent in their sizzling routines, it's now a purely professional partnership for the dancers who first met as teenagers.
Their 11-year personal relationship broke up when Italian-born Cacace, now 32, fell for her celebrity partner, former EastEnders actor Matt Di Angelo, 24, in the 2008 Strictly series.
They romanced for three years but broke up last November and now she's quickstepped her way into a romance with another of her celebrity partners, actor Jimi Mistry.
She gives an insight into how romantic feelings can develop on the hugely successful TV series during the months of demanding one-to-one training, where emotions are inevitably heightened by the highly competitive atmosphere.
Cacace's not the only one to have found passion through the series. Boxer Joe Calzaghe broke up with his girlfriend to date his professional dance partner, blonde Russian Kristina Rihanoff.
But the dance show reportedly cost professional dancer Camilla Dallerup her relationship with fellow dancer Brendan Cole. The pair split after allegations that the New Zealander had become close to his celebrity partner Natasha Kaplinsky in the first series, although both Cole and Kaplinsky denied they were romantically involved.
“It's a bit like working in an office with someone and seeing them every day, but also this is a very intense situation because you're competing,” says Cacace.
“But in a way, it's probably the best way to meet someone because you see the 'real' person when you're spending up to six hours daily with them almost seven days a week. It's rare to get a day off. You either end up not liking them, although that's never happened to me, as friends, or falling for them.
“If you do end up falling for them, you know there is something genuinely there and worth trying for because you've experienced so much pressure together.
“You're always on a deadline to perfect new routines — so any cracks or faults show up very quickly.”
During the last series Cacace and Mistry repeatedly denied rumours of a romance but began dating the following January.
“Our closeness grew slowly and was completely unexpected. We fought our feelings for a long while. We realised we got on incredibly well and there was this chemistry but neither of us wanted to rush into anything,” she says.
“I was, of course, disappointed when Matt and I broke up even though it was amicable and we're still friends, and I wanted to have some time on my own.”
Father-of-one Mistry, 38, — star of films including Bafta award-winning East Is East and the Hollywood hit The Guru — had been single since his marriage ended four years ago.
Cacace is clearly head-over-heels in love, and says: “We had a heart-to-heart talk about our feelings, while he was on tour in Strictly, and we knew this was serious because it felt so right.
“I'm probably the happiest I've ever been and I really hope this will work out into something permanent. He's such a lovely, sweet, caring person with a wonderful sense of humour, which is probably the biggest thing for me.
“We can chat forever to each other and never run out of things to say. We've talked about marriage and children in a general way, but we're not planning anything, it's far too early days for that!”
Her new-found happiness is clearly reflected in her glowing appearance. She has a glossy brown bob, and at 5ft 2in and eight stone, a super-toned figure.
Disappointingly for those who fight the flab, Cacace reveals, there's no short cut to that shape or her famously washboard flat stomach, which is adorned on Strictly usually with little more than a few sparkling sequins.
“It's down to years of training - you have to be like an Olympic athlete at this level. When we're in the series I can do 40 or 50 dances daily and not leave the studio until midnight.
“I only go to the gym on days off because I find it relaxing, fun and it boosts my energy,” she says.
She doesn't even believe in dieting because she grew up in an Italian household where food and cooking was at the centre of life.
Her father, Roberto, a chef, brought the family — Cacace is the youngest of six children — to Britain when she was aged four.
“I was brought up on our typical, traditional diet, with lots of olive oil used for dishes, dressings and on bread,” says Cacace, who's launching Kerrygold Spreadable With Irish butter And Olive Oil.
“In the Mediterranean the lifestyle is about balance. People don't deprive themselves of the things they like, they just enjoy them in moderation,” she says.
“So I never feel guilty about spreading butter on bread, or enjoying vegetables with a generous dollop of Kerrygold Spreadable melting on them — with the butter and oil it's the best of both worlds.”
Patently, that's what she aims for in her own life. Cacace began dancing at six and her career in competition dancing with Simone led to international success. He's now father of a two-year-old son, Luca, with his partner, Susan Duddy, who is from Londonderry.
“Vincent and I are like brother and sister, we get on so well. It's wonderful to work with someone you've known since you were 16.
“I get terribly broody when I see Luca, he's so adorable. But it does make you realise that being a parent is the hardest work ever! It's not for me yet because, like most dancers, I know that having a child would limit my career and at the moment I want to make the most of these years while I can. Hopefully, motherhood will happen a little later in my life.”
Her time on Strictly, she and Simone joined the series in 2007, enabled her to recharge her passion for dance, she says.
“Strictly has changed my life and I'll always be eternally grateful because it's such fun and a wonderful combination of teaching and performing — both of which I love.
“While Vincent and I enjoyed the competition circuit, it can over the years drain you a little of the inner passion for dancing, because you're constantly performing to please the judges rather than yourself.
“Nowadays, we have full rein to be creative in the Strictly series and in our own show, and it's also tremendously satisfying to help people perform to their best.”
It seems Cacace is all set to step sure-footedly into the future. “Life's the best it's ever been. I'm very much a believer in fate and the saying, 'What's meant to be will be', and trusting in good things to happen.
“One of my teacher's once told me, 'Always walk with a sense of purpose in life', and that's what I always try to do.”
Kerrygold Spreadable With Irish Butter And Olive Oil is available in Full Fat and Lighter, at £2.80. www.facebook.com/kerrygolduk