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All in a Dame’s work


All in a Dame’s work

Britain’s queen of dance Dame Arlene Phillips learned one thing early on, which has stood her in excellent stead. ‘If you’re in showbusiness you’re judged every day, so you have to be able to face rejection and get back up,’ she says.

That determination propelled Phillips through an extraordinary career that’s seen her choreograph videos and musicals for the likes of Cher, Diana Ross, Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber. At 60 she became a household name, judging the first series of Strictly Come Dancing, before being replaced after five years by Alesha Dixon, 35 years her junior. ‘My heart was broken but in my head I was like, “Get on with it,”‘ she says.

Now, just a month short of her 80th birthday, she’s being hailed as the choreographer of musical theatre’s hottest ticket: Guys & Dolls at London’s Bridge Theatre, which has received five-star reviews. Tonight she’ll receive this year’s Special Award at the Oliviers – British theatre’s Oscars – for her choreography and directing.

‘What a year it’s been!’ she says. ‘The Olivier is so lovely and Guys & Dolls is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved with. I don’t recognise 80. I think of my grandma at this age who would hardly move from her chair, everything hurt. I bound up every morning to go to my work – it’s an absolute gift.’

Phillips, the daughter of a barber and a housewife, grew up in a Manchester two-up two-down with an outside toilet. She started dancing aged three, then – as she grew older – paid for classes with a daily paper round and by working in a bakery. Aged 15 she lost her beloved mother to leukaemia and temporarily abandoned her dreams of studying dance in London to support her younger sister and sickly father.

Arlene at auditions in January. Arlene Phillips told YOU Magazine about a lifetime of a career in world of dance

Finally, at 23, she made it to the capital. She was in her 30s when she founded the dance troupe Hot Gossip, but producers rejected the group – whom she dressed in cheap lingerie bought from sex shops – as ‘too sexy’. They were about to disband when they landed a slot on ITV’s The Kenny Everett Video Show where their risqué moves were spotted by an outraged Mary Whitehouse.

‘She was the self-proclaimed protector of public morals. She hit out and we made front-page news,’ Phillips recalls, sitting in a café near her North London home, stylish in a black, embellished jumper. Unlike her waspish Strictly persona, she’s gentle and warm. ‘I was quite shocked that people were shocked. To me, violence on the screen seemed so much worse than what we were doing. But it broke my career. From then on I was everywhere.’

It was the heyday of the MTV music video and Phillips choreographed pretty much everything going. There were Whitney Houston’s ‘How Will I Know’ and ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ videos.

‘They’re still shown all the time. Whitney didn’t like her feet, they were very long and slender and she didn’t like looking at them, so I had to find ways of keeping them out of sight.’

Then there was Diana Ross, who instructed everyone involved in the ‘Chain Reaction’ video to address her as ‘Miss Ross’. ‘David Mallet, who directed the video, banged on her dressing room door and said, ‘Darling, everyone can call you Miss Ross except Arlene and I because we are so busy and why use two names when one will suffice?’ She just laughed. It was a very long shoot and by the end everyone was calling her Diana – all her cool had gone.’

Phillips also worked with Elton John on his legendary ‘I’m Still Standing’ video. ‘He came in and just said, “Tell me what to do.” It was an adventure, there wasn’t too much rehearsal. But I always enjoyed it – he’s a very generous human being.’

Weren’t there tantrums?

‘Oh yes! It could be about anything, mainly I think when I look back now [it was] because Elton was just exhausted. There had to be a lot of, you know…’

Now, just a month short of her 80th birthday, she's being hailed as the choreographer of musical theatre's hottest ticket: Guys & Dolls at London's Bridge Theatre

Now, just a month short of her 80th birthday, she’s being hailed as the choreographer of musical theatre’s hottest ticket: Guys & Dolls at London’s Bridge Theatre

Phillips mimes smoothing down the arm of her jumper.

Unlike Elton, Freddie Mercury, whom she collaborated with on his ‘I Was Born To Love You’ video, threw himself into the creative process.

‘You could always converse easily with Freddie, he was very involved in what was going on, everything that he did he wanted to do more. As a person he was just extreme and glorious.’

Less fun were Duran Duran, with whom she made the video for ‘Wild Boys’ (remember the windmill?).

‘They were quite serious, because it was a massive shoot, so it was all about the work. Anyway, if there were any parties I’d have missed them; I generally skipped them so I could be up and ready the next morning.’

I don’t recognise 80. I think of my grandma at this age who’d hardly move from her chair

After all, by now Phillips was a single mum to Alana, who was born in 1979 in Los Angeles when she was choreographing the Village People film Can’t Stop the Music (she’s never named the father).

‘I was about seven-and-a-half-months pregnant when I had to choreograph a number on roller-skates so I learned to roller-skate but when the producer saw me, he had a huge panic attack – “We haven’t got insurance!”‘

She told her friend Andrew Lloyd Webber this story, ‘just as gossip’. Two years later he called and asked if she was still roller-skating. ‘I said, “Not so much but I could get the skates out…”‘

It turned out he’d had an idea for an all-skating musical: Starlight Express. Phillips choreographed the show, which ran for 18 years in the West End and led to her working on a string of stage musicals from Grease to Saturday Night Fever, The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz.

No wonder the BBC was thrilled to sign up the mega-experienced Phillips for Strictly. 

When she was ignominiously booted off, MP Harriet Harman asked questions in Parliament about the BBC’s ageism and in the following series, Strictly viewing figures dropped. Phillips says the BBC never explained its reason for dropping her. In fact, they didn’t even bother informing her she’d lost the gig. Instead, she found out in an early-morning call from a radio station asking how she felt about her sacking.

‘I said, “I can’t talk to you”, then I looked out of the window and my little street was full of reporters and photographers. But I couldn’t get in touch with anyone to tell me what was going on. It was a world of unhappiness. I think the BBC could have prepared me. But I just picked myself up again.’

Throughout her busy work schedule Phillips was juggling family life, with the help of nannies and her partner Angus Ion, a set builder she met while making the ‘I Was Born to Love You’ video in 1985. Phillips gave birth to their daughter Abi when she was 47.

‘[I was told] I was some kind of freak, that I’d find it hard to bond with my baby when I could be the grandmother. I let all these remarks go by with tears in my eyes. Nowadays, being an older mother is very common. When you let all those things go you see the absolute joy of having a baby when you’re older. You feel like you’ve been given a gift.’

She’s been with Ion for nearly 40 years, so what does she think is the key to a long relationship?

With daughter Alana in 1989. Alana was born in 1979 in Los Angeles when Arlene was choreographing the Village People film Can't Stop the Music (she's never named the father)

With daughter Alana in 1989. Alana was born in 1979 in Los Angeles when Arlene was choreographing the Village People film Can’t Stop the Music (she’s never named the father)

‘You need to live your own life – have your own job, hobbies, friends but always have something that ultimately unites you. And I don’t just mean sex; have some shared passion like going to the cinema and most of all share in the love of your children – then nothing can part you.’

Now Phillips is besotted with Alana’s daughters, aged four and two. ‘The love for your grandchildren is so inspiring – it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. It’s very special,’ she says.

Two years ago, it was her granddaughter Lila who inspired Phillips to take part in I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here.

‘I’d always been terrified of things like daddy-longlegs and worms. But my four-year-old granddaughter loves spiders. I’d been asked to go on I’m A Celebrity… before but always said no – I’d never been free. But when they asked me again I thought, ‘I’m only saying no because of my pathetic fears and now [because the pandemic had halted live shows] I have no excuses.’

This was 2021, when Covid restrictions meant I’m A Celebrity… was filmed not in the Australian jungle but in a freezing castle in Wales.

Being there, aged 78, was ‘quite overwhelming at times. You had to accept the cold and having very little food and being told what to do constantly, which I’m not very good at, because I usually do the telling. But I achieved what I wanted, which was doing a challenge in a glass coffin with snakes crawling all over me. I went into a kind of trance – “I’m going to feel the snakes, I’m going to love them” – and it was an incredible experience.’

Not long after she emerged from the castle, Phillips’s professional achievements were recognised when she was appointed a Dame by Princess Anne at Windsor Castle.

‘That truly came out of the blue; it just never, ever entered my mind I’d be invited to join this great club called dames. Though in the end, you realise a dame is just you with a fancy name,’ she laughs.

She has no idea yet how she’ll mark her upcoming 80th.

‘I’m torn – I’ve got to celebrate, but at the same time I think, “Maybe I’ll just let it pass.” I’ve been so wrapped up in work I’ve barely thought about it.’

How many 79-year-olds can say that?

Guys & Dolls is at London’s Bridge Theatre until September. Tickets available from

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