Saturday 25 January 2020

'I could fall in love with either sex' - Craig Revel Horwood

Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood has endured the death of his father and the bitter break-up of his relationship. But he'll be back on our screens soon in a new series of Strictly

Craig Revel Horwood, second from right, with fellow Strictly judges, from left, Len Goodman, Darcey Bussell, and Bruno Tonioli
Craig Revel Horwood, second from right, with fellow Strictly judges, from left, Len Goodman, Darcey Bussell, and Bruno Tonioli

Daphne Lockyear

A lot of "big stuff" has happened to Craig Revel Horwood since the last series of Strictly Come Dancing. When the toughest and funniest of the four judges returns to the phenomenally popular show next month, he will have dealt with a death in the family - his father's, last December, from alcohol poisoning - and, a couple of months later, the very public break-up of his three-year relationship.

The split came after the Australian-born former professional dancer found himself in a Sunday tabloid, accused by his boyfriend, Britain's Got Talent puppeteer Damon Scott, of being a drunk.

The experience would have broken a weaker man, says Revel Horwood. Yet here he is at Leicester's Curve Theatre, where he's directing and choreographing a new production of the feelgood musical, Sister Act.

"What Damon did was really nasty, especially after I'd just lost my father to drink. But the underlying feeling was disappointment more than fury," he says.

"As for my father, he was a long-standing alcoholic. I'd see him once a year, back in Australia, and every time I thought it was the last. I was mentally prepared for his death, I assumed he'd go from cirrhosis of the liver."

In fact, the day before our interview, he received a copy of the toxicology report. "Amazingly, for someone who drank every single day, to the point of oblivion, his liver was, apparently, absolutely fine. What killed him was alcohol toxicity, just like Amy Winehouse. He'd been drinking a homebrewed spirit, moonshine, made by a guy down the road, and there was so much alcohol in his blood, it killed him."

Particularly hurt by Scott's accusation, Revel Horwood is now keen to set the record straight. What is striking is that at 51, he's in tremendous shape - taller and broader than he appears on screen, the dancer's rippling, musculature strongly evident in the jeans and pale blue shirt he is wearing for our interview.

He's four weeks into gruelling rehearsals for Sister Act, which demand discipline and commitment alien to dipsomaniacs.

"When you're dealing with other people's money, producing a show, you don't want to get caught up in all that. Plus, children of alcoholics - who've dealt with it all their lives - tend to be careful about their own drinking. It's so easy to drink too much, especially in our industry, but I'm really, really vigilant.

"My sister wrote to Damon to say she was horrified by what he'd said, particularly given the struggles with my father. He could hardly accuse me of drinking every day - especially as I'd spend about nine months a year on tour when he wasn't even with me."

Those long periods apart led to the split, he says. But who left whom depends on which of them you ask. "Either way, I was nothing but loving and kind to him throughout the whole thing, and I would never do to anyone what he did to me."

Despite the forbidding Strictly façade, in real life he's hugely likeable, open and honest. "I'm not saying the persona on Strictly isn't me," he insists, "it's just that the nurturing side, which is also a part of who I am, isn't what I'm there for. I'm there to judge and to give an honest opinion, even if it's not the opinion someone wants to hear."

Ultimately, he says, Strictly contestants are not his responsibility. "But as a director, the performers depend on me and that means bringing love into the room, too. You have to be honest, and occasionally cruel to be kind to make the show as good as it can be. But you also have to work with people and not against them and remember that you've employed them in the first place because you know they're fabulous."

Expect great things, then, from Sister Act, which kicks off in Leicester before touring the UK and Ireland. Revel Horwood's credentials, amassed over 20 years, are unimpeachable, and include Olivier Award nominations for West End musicals Spend, Spend, Spend and My One and Only.

This time round, he's taken a show with an impressive pedigree - originally a 1992 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg, then a stage production seen by six million worldwide - and given it a makeover. Starring former X Factor winner Alexandra Burke as Delores Van Cartier, a Seventies disco diva who witnesses a murder and hides out in a convent, it differs from other productions by throwing all the performers, including the orchestra, on to the stage.

"They can all act, sing, dance and play instruments, and they do so right in front of you. There's razzmatazz, but also a simple story about the triumph of the human spirit."

He's familiar with that. Born in Ballarat, Victoria, the second of five children, his father Phil was a lieutenant in the Royal Australian Navy, and the family moved frequently.

He was shy, overweight, effeminate and bullied. It was especially tough, he says, when they moved back to Ballarat. "We'd been living in Sydney, so I was more cosmopolitan than the other kids. I didn't fit in, and people were just nasty to me. I had really thick, dark eyelashes and they said it was mascara. Being the fat kid, I was called 'Tits', and once made to run around the oval, shirtless, in front of the entire PE class while they all laughed at me.

"I hated sport, but at 13, I went to an aerobics class and the teacher thought I had natural rhythm. She suggested formal dance classes, and that's when I finally found something I was really good at.

"In the process, I lost the weight while growing to 6ft 2in - a huge change, both physically and mentally. I stopped caring what other people thought and found real friendships."

His teenage years had been confused by the issue of his sexuality, which even today can be slightly ambiguous. "You fall in love with people, not their breasts or other body parts. I'm still open to falling in love with either sex, although for the last 20 years it's been men."

It wouldn't be his first experience of women. He had a girlfriend in his teens and, at 25 and living in the UK, he married a Welsh girl, Jane Hallwood. The marriage ended four years later when she left him for another man, rather, he has always said, than because of his sexuality.

Either way, he was never the alpha male his father hoped for. "My relationship with my dad was complex, especially when I came out. The years of verbal abuse, all of it drink-fuelled, were difficult. Later, though, he came to see me on stage in La Cage aux Folles - one of his favourite shows - and loved it. Theatre won him over and he accepted me in the end."

Work commitments in the UK kept him from attending his father's funeral. "I had three different projects on the go and couldn't get out of them. It meant Skyping Australia at 3am to help with the funeral arrangements. In the end, I attended the funeral via Skype, too, and even sang my dad's favourite song, My Way. My feelings about his death hit me when the work was over, and then I did collapse a bit."

He's back on his feet for the 14th series of Strictly, which is notable as it will be head judge Len Goodman's last - and, says Revel Horwood, he will be sorely missed. "His ballroom knowledge is second to none, and he's also provided us with so many East End funnies."

When it comes to the celebrities who will be strutting their stuff before the judges - and former UK Chancellor Ed Balls let slip last week that he has signed up - Revel Horwood will only say that he will hear the official line-up an hour before it's made public.

For now, Revel Horwood says he is "excited" to be single again. "I can make decisions about my home, my life, without deferring to anyone. I always thought I needed the support of someone in a long-term relationship to make me whole. But I'm not ready to share my life again with anyone."

He's signed up to an internet dating site more for fun, you suspect, than long-term commitment. "One guy thought I was someone faking being me and reported it to the site. It became a major argument, to the point where I had to send a tweet saying: 'I'm Craig Revel Horwood and I am on'"

Don't think, though, that he's having a miserable time being over 50, suddenly single and on the gay scene.

"Not at all," he says. "I'm a grown man, I'm free, I'm gay and my life couldn't be better than it is right now. I'm loving it."

'Sister Act' plays Belfast's Grand Opera House from November 7 to November 12 ( and Dublin's Bord Gais Energy Theatre from November 14 to November 19 (

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