A decade ago, few could have predicted that in 2022, some of the most recognisable and talked-about stars on British TV wouldn’t be actors, presenters or even reality TV contestants – but a group of ballroom and Latin dance experts doing their thing on screen for just a few months out of the year.
Having recently finished its 19th series, the phenomenon that is Strictly Come Dancing is showing no signs of slowing down, with its group of resident professional dancers now enjoying as much of a following and media presence as (if not more than) the celebrity contestants that sign up each year.
Among these pros is Johannes Radebe, who joined Strictly in 2018. Over the course of his relatively short time on the show, he’s emerged as a fan-favourite, helped by his scene-stealing appearances in some of Strictly’s most memorable group routines.
In recent years, we’ve seen him strutting in high heels on a red carpet, leading a group of his fellow male pros in a drag number inspired by Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and performing in a same-sex routine with fellow pro Graziano Di Prima.
Now best known for making it to last year’s Strictly final with celebrity baker John Whaite, Johannes is as surprised as anyone that dancing has led to him becoming a celebrity thousands of miles away from his home country of South Africa, where he learned to dance as a child.
And while his new-found fame might be something he “never ever” expected, Strictly is something Johannes has always had in his sights, describing the original UK version of the show (which has gone on to spark more than 60 international editions) as “the mothership”.
“I’ve always loved Strictly,” he tells HuffPost UK. “When I was doing Dancing With The Stars in South Africa, we used to watch the likes of Anton Du Beke and Brendan Cole to see what it is that we needed to do.”
Johannes says it was watching his eventual colleague, two-time Strictly champion Oti Mabuse land her place on the show that made him even more determined to follow in her footsteps.
“That really gave this Black boy confidence to say, ‘maybe I also belong’,” he recalls. “This urge to get out of South Africa and come to the UK, it just grew. You can’t be something that you can’t see, that’s a fact. And that felt like, for the first time, I was allowed, so to speak, to dream.”
Johannes first caught the eye of BBC producers when they came to watch him perform in the live dance show Burn The Floor in 2015, but he’d have to wait another three years before he eventually got the call inviting him to take part.
“In January 2018, two Strictly producers came over to South Africa to help out with Dancing With The Stars, and they saw me for the second time there,” he explains.
“They were planning to bring me in the following year – that’s the story that’s going around – but apparently [Strictly producer] Jo Wallace turned around and said, ‘you bring him now, because I don’t want to lose him’.
“Little did they know, this has always been my dream, I wasn’t going to go anywhere.”
Three months later, on his 31st birthday, Johannes’ wish came true when he got the call asking him to come to the UK for the 2018 series of Strictly Come Dancing, and he was thrust immediately into the spotlight. Unfortunately for Johannes, this also meant dealing with the British media, something he says he was “naive” about at that time.
“People being papped and being followed and all of that, I really did not anticipate,” he admits. “I was very naive. I come from a place where you will not be in a position where somebody is shoving a camera in front of your face without your permission. Those are the kinds of things that I don’t understand.”
It’s hardly a surprise this tabloid culture is something Johannes is uncomfortable with, given the baptism of fire he received early on in his inaugural series of Strictly.
Despite being a newcomer with no celebrity partner, Johannes found himself on the front page of The Mirror in 2018 after off-hand comments he made about Blackpool during an interview, comparing the town to a “squatter camp”.
“I thought people had forgotten about that!” Johannes says with a shriek when the debacle is brought up, before revealing just how much the incident took its toll at the time.
“I felt like I wanted to run away,” he recalls. “I’d been here for two weeks, I’d never had media training, I just didn’t get the British media at the time. And I was very hurt.
“I just remember my producer at the time coming to me and saying, ‘did you or did you not say that Blackpool is a squatter camp?’. I died a slow horrible death.
“I’m not a malicious person. If you really know me, you know I’m not that kind of person. And what was written about me, I just felt it was completely blown out of proportion. It was just taken out of context.”
“I didn’t know that I had to be so diplomatic,” he adds. “I thought we were having a nice open conversation – I was telling [the journalist] about where I come from.
“I was telling her how I’m aware of a township being neglected by its municipality, and what happens then. I told her that I come from places very near the squatter camp and whatnot… [but] the stories got twisted around. And yeah, the following week it was a front page newspaper story, ‘Johannes says Blackpool is a squatter camp’. I was like, ‘what a shame’.”
Since then, Johannes has intentionally distanced himself from the media, and is now much more selective about who he speaks to – “you just never know, do you?” – as well as what he reads about himself.
“Honey, I try and stay far away from it,” he says. “I do not engage, I do not read. I really try to pretend that it does not exist at all, even though it does. I don’t feed into it, I don’t give it my time.”
After making it through his first year on Strictly, Johannes landed his first celebrity partner in Catherine Tyldesley. The two were well-known for their immediate close friendship, and it’s clear the former Corrie star still holds a special place in his heart.
“Cath was more than a partner, she became a sister to me,” he says, remembering how the soap actor “looked after” him during their time together.
“She made sure there was food in rehearsals, she made sure that every time I travelled to Manchester I had a hot coffee. When someone shows you that level of care, it transcended the dancing partnership. And we never ever fell out.”
Catherine also taught him not to take the competition so seriously – or, as he puts it: “She really took me out of that competitive spirit, and said, ‘oi, just enjoy yourself’. That’s what I learned from her, to take things light, and make the most of it.”
The following year, during the pandemic, he danced with Caroline Quentin, who proved to be a very different partner altogether, though he still cherishes their bond, too.
“If there’s anything that I learned from Caroline Quentin, it was to never shy away from what you really think. And speak your mind,” he says of his former celebrity partner.
“Honey, talk about an assertive woman. Truthful. Honest. And she would give it to you, the way you needed to hear it whether you wanted to hear it or not. That’s just what Caroline was, and I found her a beacon of light.”
Since leaving the show, Caroline has always spoken highly of Johannes, though she has also indicated that Strictly wasn’t always the best of experiences.
“I have never read any of that,” Johannes insists. “You see, those are tabloids once again. Are we going to listen to those and call it the truth? I wouldn’t.
“Listen, we had the best time – but it was too short for my liking.”
Then came the partnership Johannes is now best known for, when he and John became the first pairing made up of two men to compete on Strictly.
As soon as John is mentioned, Johannes is full of praise, saying: “The fact that John said yes to the gig, I can’t tell you how courageous that is. A guy from Wigan dancing with another bloke on national television, that’s huge.
“[Whereas] I had been planting that seed since 2018. I’d danced in heels on the show… I think in my own way I’ve always been heading this way and pushing this agenda – listen to me calling it an ‘agenda’, and I hate saying that! But I think I’ve always just been [showing], ‘we’re queer, we’re beautiful, we’re proud, we’re just like you’.”
It was obvious that the pair had formed a bond right from the start of their journey, even if dancing with another man did require more adjustments than Johannes had anticipated.
“Having to teach a 6’2” bloke who’s got shoulders broader than you – I was like, ‘oh my god, what have I gotten yourself into?’,” he admits. “But it was interesting. I had to find ways to make it work.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, I’d be lying if I said that I knew – I was discovering as I went along. But I fell in love with my art form again through doing that.”
Asked for his funniest moment from rehearsals, Johannes lets out a laugh, insisting: “I won’t give you that information!”
“The funniest moments in rehearsals with John were just not being able to get any of those ballroom dances correct, because of our height and our legs and the fact that we kept on bumping each other,” he continues, laughing again. “But let me not give too much information away. Let me just say I had fun.”
So there was a lot of accidental “bumping”, then?
“We’ll just say that,” he adds. “And I found it funny! Because I was just like, ‘oh, clearly this would never happen between a man and a woman’ – because of the height and there are just so many things about it that are different…”
Despite the laughs he shared with John throughout their time on Strictly, Johannes concedes that dancing with another man on TV every week did have its difficulties, namely what he describes as the “brouhaha” around them both in the press and on social media.
“I hope whoever gets to do it next time,” he says of any future same-sex pairings on Strictly, “That they don’t make the front page of the newspapers, and it’s not such a big brouhaha.
“I feel like, as much as John and I were wonderful, there was just too much brouhaha and noise around us. That is something that I wish we could overcome as a society.”
Johannes’ previous experiences meant he had already made “a conscious decision not to entertain or engage” with the press during that time, and he and John both also decided to distance themselves from social media before the series began.
“But I know that there was a brouhaha, because everybody else around me was talking,” Johannes explains. “I even had my mother saying, ‘oh my gosh, did you hear what they said about you?’, and I was like, ‘why are you looking at it?’.”
Eventually, Johannes had to sit down with friends and family to make sure they didn’t bring any of the negativity to his attention, though he admits some of it slipped through the net when he checked his DMs for work purposes.
He recalls finding a string of homophobic and racist messages in his inbox, saying: “I’d be reading all these wonderful messages, but there’d be others in the mix, telling me to ‘never fucking come back to Africa’ or else they’d kill me. Or people saying ‘you and John look like you’re bumming each other’ and ‘that monkey is bumming you’.
“These people exist – and what was sad for me is that some of them had their full profiles on there, and you’d see they’re mothers and they’re uncles and aunts to kids. I just think to myself, ‘how are you responsible for another person’s life, when you can spew so much hate?’. I can’t tell you what it does to me, it is terrifying.
“But then, I remember who I am. That is something that my mother has always instilled in me… to know who you are as an individual and what you represent and what you stand for. If your only mission is to spread love and bring others joy, then you cannot focus on people like that.”
Obviously, it seemed the whole nation was thrilled to see Rose lift the Glitterball trophy, marking the first time a deaf contestant had won Strictly. But was any part of Johannes a little bit gutted to have come so close to the win, only to miss out?
“Oh, a lot of me was gutted, babe!” he admits. “I’m not going to hide that – excuse me, I’m in a competition. I wanted to lift that Glitterball!
“John was like ‘each and everyone who has made it this far in the competition is a worthy winner, regardless of who lifts the Glitterball’ – and I hear where he’s coming from. When I looked around and I saw Rose and Giovanni dance, it was like, ‘yeah, winning doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t’.
“But I was hoping that it would be us, I really was. I was dying for that moment to happen… Any other year, I think John and I would have won, but Rose, really – it was just a beautiful moment wasn’t it?”
Still, Johannes adds, while he and John “might not have lifted that Glitterball”, he knows that they “won people’s hearts”.
“And that was more important for me,” he insists. “That is why I was a mess every single week [when we made it through to the next stage of the competition]. People would be like, ‘Johannes, stop crying’, and I’d be like, ‘leave me be, because you don’t know what I’m feeling right now’. It was just so beautiful to know that we actually had people supporting us.”
Johannes and John recently completed this year’s official Strictly tour, and he now has his first ever solo tour, Freedom, to look forward to. Looking to the future, Johannes has still got his eye on the Glitterball (“the day when that ends for me is the day when I know it’s time to hang up my dancing shoes”), but is willing to be patient, insisting: “I just want it one day. And when it happens, it will be right.”
With certain celebrities’ names constantly reported in the press as contenders for future series of Strictly, Johannes is reluctant to name anyone he’d like to dance with in the coming years – but there is one former contestant he’d like to take for a spin around the floor.
“I would love to have an All-Stars moment with Alexandra Burke, if it ever gets to that with Strictly,” he says. “She is a lover of life, and you don’t find that a lot. And she pays attention to detail, with a bit of a laugh and a smile on her face. Gorka must have had a beautiful, beautiful season with her.”
As for the future of Strictly, Johannes says he’s proud to have helped “break down barriers” when it comes to diversity and representation, and wants to see it continue in the future.
“They can go wherever they want to go with it, I’m here to support all of it,” he enthuses. “Moving forward, Strictly has proved to push boundaries, and I think it will continue to.
“I want everyone and anyone involved – however they identify. As long as they’re human beings and they want to be a part of this show, and they’ve got credentials, and they want to dance… let’s do it. The sky’s the limit.”
Johannes Radebe will be touring the UK with his Freedom tour from March 2022. For more information visit his website.