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Melissa Hamilton: 'Some see me as colder but I'm soft on the inside, I'm very different to most people's perception of me'

Ballet dancer Melissa Hamilton (29), from Dromore, was told she was a late starter, but now she's a leading light at the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden and has also fallen head over heels in love. She talks to Una Brankin

Dame Maggie Smith has been watching her from the wings recently and she's had Piers Morgan on a major charm offensive. But of all Melissa Hamilton's admirers, it's her nearest-and-dearest who make a performance most meaningful for the leading ballerina from Dromore, Co Down.

The beautiful first soloist with the Royal Ballet Company was particularly pleased to have her parents come to two of her performances over the bank holiday weekend just past - in the frothy ragtime ballet Elite Syncopations on Friday and in the classic Manon on Monday.

"My schedule is so erratic, with 13-hour days it's hard to catch up with family - my sister Victoria lives in London too and I hardly see her, so it was great that mum and dad could see me making my Syncopations debut on Friday, and then catch Manon on Monday before going home," she says.

"It makes such a difference to have loved ones in the audience. We have famous people coming in all the time; you get used to it. But I met Piers Morgan at an event last week and I was really shocked - he is a completely different person in real life. He's really charming and his wife Celia is really nice."

Now 29, the youthful looking Melissa has much to pack into the next few years.

The average age for ballerinas to retire is 35 and, although Melissa attended the Jennifer Bullick School of Ballet since she was four, she was considered a late starter when she won a scholarship to the Elmhurst School of Dance in Birmingham - where she was told she told she had no future in ballet.

Crestfallen but undaunted, she went on to train in Athens under former stars of the Bolshoi Ballet, before gaining a place in the lower ranks of the prestigious Royal Ballet in 2007 and working her way up to first soloist.

There was a while, a few years back, that the prospect of retirement would have filled the self-confessed workaholic with dread. Living alone in a messy one-bedroom flat near Hampstead Heath, her days revolved around dance, full stop. She'd take the Tube to Covent Garden six days a week on a regular basis, have classes all morning, rehearsals all afternoon and a performance in the evening, taking her working day up to 11pm.

Her working schedule is still as hectic. However, she admits that a good-looking young businessman has completely changed her outlook on life. These days, Melissa lives in a house in the swanky SW1 central London postcode with Michael Christou, the director of interior design for an upmarket housing development company.

"I loved my apartment in Hampstead but I love my boyfriend more - and I have learned to curb my untidiness in his house," she laughs. "He's not a dancer; he's a regular human. I'd known him for about six years through mutual friends and we reconnected a year and half ago.

"A lot of it has to do with timing. The planets have aligned this time. It's the right time and it's the right person. We're both very career-driven and we have the same outlook. He has this high-end design company he built up from nothing. I built my career from nothing too, so we have mutual respect. He spends hours at the office; I spend hours at Covent Garden."

Living closer to work now, Melissa's mornings are less rushed; she often has breakfast with Michael's father, a Greek Cypriot. The Christou family extends to Los Angeles, where Melissa is looking forward to visiting as a sunny escape from her indoor life.

On the phone from London, she sounds blissfully in love, so much so that it wouldn't be a surprise to see an engagement ring on her delicate left hand one of these days.

"I wouldn't be investing so much in this if marriage wasn't on the cards," she says, her accent verging on transatlantic.

"It's not on the immediate horizon but the relationship has taken me on to a whole other plain. It used to be that I didn't see kids as an option ever; now I'm open to it.

"When you watch ballerinas after they've had a child, you see such a difference in their approach and outlook. When they are playing a mother on stage, now they know what it feels like.

"And the attitude towards kids at work is very healthy. There are so many mums here, throughout the ranks. Dancers are encouraged to have a life outside the stage. The little ones come to rehearsals and play. They are looked after - we are like one big family here and many of us fall into the role of aunties."

Melissa grew up in the lush countryside just outside Dromore, with views of the Mournes from the kitchen window of the family home. At school, she achieved seven A-stars and two AS grades as a result of the emphasis on education laid down by her parents, builder Keith and her lookalike mother Linda, a pre-school teacher.

Her siblings also did well. Victoria (32) is an architect, now dabbling in acting in London, while David (27) is a primary school teacher back home.

"Nobody at home was into dance or classical music before me but my parents were just very keen to give us plenty of opportunities and possibilities," Melissa recalls.

"My after-school activities included ballet. Irish dancing would have been beneficial to some extent - it's very fast and rhythmical. It might have helped me on my feet, but it's technically very different.

"With ballet, I was a late starter, professionally. I felt at a disadvantage and I had to catch up, but I took it all the way. I never dreamt I'd come this far when I was playing with my stash of Barbies.

"I was always a girly girl," she adds. "I'm much less now; I've hardened a lot over the years but I'm still pink and sparkly at my core.

"A lot of people see me as colder but I'm soft on the inside. I'm very different to most people's perception of me."

Her fine features, upswept naturally blonde hair and erect dancer's posture can indeed make Melissa appear slightly aloof. A tiny size six, her narrow torso and delicate facial bone structure contrast with her muscular legs, and at full stretch on stage, she looks taller than her 5ft 7in - an advantage when playing her role as a lofty lady in the company of a much shorter man in Elite Syncopations.

She was making her debut in the Scott Joplin-scored production last Friday but at this stage she's an old hand as the beautiful and impulsive romantic Manon, in the Kenneth Macmillan ballet based on the 1731 novel Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost.

"They were overlapping productions, so I've been very busy - it looks overwhelming, but you get used to it," she remarks. "With age, you learn to manage your stress levels and I don't need to mediate as much now.

"Energy-wise, we're constantly snacking to keep going. You can't sit down to a three-course lunch in the middle of the day when you're going to be thrown over the head of your partner on stage in the evening.

"Your body is your tool so I have to be careful what I put into it. I like to go out sometimes after a show to unwind, after all that adrenaline, but I can't drink very much. Though, I will have a few cocktails when I get away to the sun, over the summer."

In the future, she hopes to lead workshops back home in Northern Ireland, to share her expertise and "to give students the chance I had to go away for". But she's philosophical as to the timing of any projected plans.

"Life has a way of working out if you trust the journey you're on," she concludes.

"I've learned not to ask too many questions and to let things come to me. You just trust your journey - and let it be."

Melissa Hamilton is performing as part of the Royal Ballet's current triple bill of ballets by three leading choreographers at Bow St, Covent Garden, London, until tomorrow. For more information see roh.org.uk

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