Ex-Strictly star Brendan Cole: I love coming to Belfast and I'd live here if I could
Ballroom dancer Brendan Cole was a leading light on Strictly Come Dancing until his departure last year. As he prepares to perform at Belfast's Waterfront Hall next week, he tells Helen Carson what he's been doing since and how he balances life on tour with looking after his young family
Former Strictly Come Dancing professional dancer Brendan Cole admits that he still watches the BBC One show following his shock departure last year - but it's a "bittersweet" feeling.
The 42-year-old ballroom dancer - who was born in New Zealand and moved to the UK, where he still lives, at 18 - was axed from the primetime hit series last January, having been on it since it began in 2004.
Talking about Strictly's last season before his latest Belfast show at the Waterfront Hall next week, the world champion dancer claims the recent series was aimed at "a much younger crowd".
"I wrote a magazine column about Strictly's last season and it was weird to watch at first," he says. "It had become quite different to the show I was in for 15 years. It was much more geared up for a younger crowd. It was almost like watching a different show.
"It was a slightly sad feeling in the beginning," adds Brendan. "You're not there and part of it."
Having won the first ever Glitterball Trophy in 2004 with his celebrity partner and news presenter Natasha Kaplinsky - with whom he was rumoured to have had a fling - Brendan has great memories of working on the show.
"Before Strictly started we would be a month in rehearsals," he says. "We would all go for drinks after work, sitting in the sunshine in Covent Garden - it was a lovely, lovely time. Afterwards, I felt a bit like all my friends are there doing that and I'm not.
"But it's like anything in life - you quickly move on. This year was the biggest and busiest I've had in my entire life - but it's bittersweet."
Brendan, who occasionally clashed with some of the judges, was shocked when his Strictly contract wasn't renewed last January.
And reports suggested his clashes with new Strictly judge Shirley Ballas did not go down well with the show's bosses.
Just over a year on and the world-class dancer, who was sent for ballroom lessons by his mum as a young boy, is looking forward to finishing off his tour at the Waterfront next Thursday.
"I love Belfast - I would live here if I could. It's always a great place to end a tour," he admits.
His latest production - Brendan Cole Show Man - is set to be an extravaganza, channelling old school Hollywood song and dance and that Strictly style he is famous for, while tapping into recent box office film smashes like La La Land and The Greatest Showman.
Brendan says he struggled to find a direction for a new show post-Strictly, but he is now delighted with the final result.
"We've got 20 fantastic musicians and eight dancers so it's a pretty full-on production," he says. "Generally I do a production over a year, but it took a long time for me to decide what the show would be. But when I did it was all hands on deck for five months.
"I'm chuffed with the end result and it's very different from anything I've done before. It's not quite as Strictly-orientated and has a much more theatrical feel. I've used a lot of movie influences like La La Land and The Greatest Showman."
He says the Northern Ireland audience can expect music to suit everyone in a "mesmerising show which is also full of emotion".
"It's a great show for me to get my teeth into," adds Brendan. "I want people to come in, enjoy themselves and walk out with a smile on their faces.
"I've been touring now for 10 years and every production creates different challenges. It's all about creating a show that people are excited about."
With the stage keeping Brendan occupied, he missed another former Strictly pro James Jordan (40), who is married to fellow pro dancer Ola Jordan (36), skating to Dancing On Ice glory at the weekend.
"I'm going to watch it," he adds. "I missed it because I was on stage at the time. I didn't think he was going to win because I thought the public would go for Wes (Nelson) who didn't have any dance experience. It's nice and he's done brilliantly."
And with another Strictly stalwart, Pasha Kovalev, set to depart TV's most famous ballroom, Brendan says this will be a blow for the show.
The 39-year-old Russian dancer, who has been dating his former celebrity partner and Countdown presenter Rachel Riley (33) since 2014, joined the show in 2011 and won series 12 with presenter Caroline Flack.
"It's always an odd one when someone leaves who has been there for a long time," says Brendan. "I hope it was his choice and not the BBC's. I hope he's got things he's looking forward to doing.
"Most of us who have been on the show have always had stuff that goes on outside of the show. It's not the be-all and end-all when it comes to an end.
"This is sad for the show because he's one of the big names - but everything has its time. Hopefully he's got some exciting projects lined up for the future."
And with Brendan spending so much time over the last 12 months on the road, he admits family life can be a juggling act. He married model Zoe Hobbs (38) in 2010 and they have two young children.
"Occasionally my family travel with me on tour but not very often as my daughter Aurelia, who is six, is at school now. My son Dante turned one on Monday so it's a tricky time," he reveals.
"My wife Zoe co-produces the show with me so she understands what it takes and what's involved. I'm very lucky to be able to go off while she's able to keep the family going. Then when I'm home I take over and we balance it very nicely.
"It's not easy - more so for my wife when I'm away. I'm on stage having a great time but it's just one of those things - we make it work as a family."
He adds: "The show is as much her production as it is mine. It works well - when I was on Strictly I went to work and she was really nothing to do with it. This is very much our business."
And when it comes to Brendan's two children following in his fancy footwork, he is no pushy stage parent.
"Like most six-year-old girls, my daughter loves ballet and pirouettes around the living room," he says. "I want my children to experience everything and follow their own heart and enjoy every opportunity. If dancing is what they want to do then I can help them find their direction - but it's got to come from them. They've got to want to do it and find their own path."
Despite his success on TV and decades of international competition, Brendan says he never dreamt of a career as a dancer. "When I was young my mum wanted my brother, sister and I to go to ballroom dancing, so we did. Eventually when you get good enough and get enough pats on the back it becomes something else."
He says that, 15 years after finding screen stardom on one of the BBC's most watched TV shows, he has his own production and a successful business.
And rather than his Strictly departure hurting his career, Brendan says it has enabled him to take up opportunities he may have otherwise had to pass - including more work for the BBC.
"It actually allows you to do other things you may not have done if you were still on the show," says the professional dancer.
And he is still in touch with many of his former dance partners, but adds it wasn't all bliss in the ballroom.
Never one to shy away from giving his opinion, Brendan says: "I'm still friends with many of my celebrity partners and there are others I would probably cross the street to avoid saying hello to.
"It's very intense when you don't click with your partner on Strictly. You spend three months in their pocket - that's a tester - that can really test your resolve."
He lists GB Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton as a pal who lives just three miles away from his family home in Buckinghamshire. "We see each other now and again at events. Kelly Brook, Lisa Snowden, Jo Woods and Sophie Ellis-Bextor are also good friends."
- Brendan Cole Show Man is at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast on Thursday, March 28, at 7.30pm. For tickets visit www.waterfront.co.uk or call the box office on 9033 4455