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Strictly's Johannes Radebe on overcoming anti-gay bullying and why the show is ready for same-sex dance couples

"They used to call me names, they used to beat me... I’m thankful for dance because that was the one place I could be who I am."

2019-10-21

This is an abridged version of an article first published in Attitude issue 303, December 2018.

Words: Thomas Stichbury

Photography: Markus Bidaux

Strictly Come Dancing's Johannes Radebe set social media ablaze during Sunday night's results show after tearing up the group number with a fierce, '80s NYC ballroom-inspired performance in a pair of high heels.

For South African Johannes, 32, strutting his fabulous stuff in front of an audience of millions each weekend is the culmination of years of dedication to dance and being his unapologetically fabulous self in the face of adversity - as we learned when we caught up with him at the end of last year to talk sexuality, self-acceptance, and never letting the bullies get you down...

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the dusty roads of a township in the Free State of South Africa. It’s far from everything!

And when did you learn to dance? I was an active child and used to play rugby and do athletics. I started dancing at the age of nine but it was not about the dancing, it was about the costumes and sparkles. I came back from school one day and there were auditions for a dance school that was opening. The couple holding the auditions did a demonstration and I was a blown away by the woman’s outfit: a beautiful ballroom gown covered in sequins. I was transported to a different world. It was like, “Please can I get into one of these costumes,” [laughs].

Does your heart still skip a beat when you spot a sequin?

Absolutely! Now I’m living in a world full of sparkle.

What did the other kids at school think about you dancing?

That was a bitter-sweet moment. I was always unique, I will put it that way, I will not say that I was different. I was a flamboyant child and I thank God for my parents, my sister and my close friends because I was bullied. It was terrible. I hated school, I did not look forward to it. Dancing was my refuge and I could not wait for that bell to ring so I could get out of the premises. Kids can be very ugly.

Was the bullying verbal or physical?

It was verbal, it was… [pauses]. Everything terrible you could possibly think of. To this day, what still boggles my mind about it is that there were adults who used to have a name for it [being gay] as well. Kids called me this name, [which translates as] “sissy boy,” bringing attention to who I am, and, at that time, of course, you don’t want to be the centre of attention, you really don’t. I used to hide from the world. It was terrible. They used to call me names, they used to beat me, for what, you don’t understand, “Why are you hitting me?” But I’m thankful for dance because that was the one place I could be who I am. No one teased me, or if they did, my coach was on them. I don’t think any child should ever experience that.

It’s weird isn’t it? That sometimes you only realise that you’re gay once someone, a bully, has called you it.

Absolutely. I didn’t realise I was gay until they pointed it out. Adults at the time would bring it up as well. Even though they were not mocking, they would point out the difference in me, “Oh, this one is such a girl.”

What is it like being a gay man living in South Africa?

You can imagine back in the 1980s and 1990s. Things have changed now.

 

They were one of the first countries to legalise same-sex marriage, right (in 2006)?

We are very progressive in our thinking. South Africa has come a long way. The fact that we have freedom in our own country is huge, but we’re still getting there. We are still a third-world country if you think about it. But compared with other African nations, we are far ahead.

OK, this is my final question about being gay… what is your favourite colour of sequin?

[Laughs] Charcoal.

What is your training regime like? Do you hit the gym a lot?

 I hate the gym. I know hate is a strong word. I just get distracted and can never focus for long. When I do go, it is to stretch and use their cross-body machines rather than lifting weights. It is good to have a total body workout, which dance does because you use everything. I just love dancing and taking classes. It is the best way to keep in shape. If people don’t know that, they should. Find a studio, move, dance, go three times a week, that’s all you have to do. Just make sure you sweat, and watch your body transform.

 

How do you feel about wearing the show’s more revealing costumes?

As long as there is sparkle on it, I don’t care. There just have to be diamantes. It is nice to show a little bit of what the body looks like. It’s a beautiful thing. I demand to see more flesh! I do enjoy a see-through shirt [smiles].

Has a performance ever gone horribly wrong? What is the worst thing that has ever happened while you’ve been dancing?

I was dancing with a lady [earlier] this year and her dress came loose. How do you tell this novice to calm down, that it is all going to be OK, that there are a million people watching you, but it is fine? There she is in her bra and I know I froze, but I wouldn’t let anyone else know about it. I just locked eyes with her and, while I was doing that, fixed her dress. I’ve also had my pants split on stage and all I was wearing was a dance belt. Do you know what that is?

Nope.

It’s basically a G-string!

 

Did you get an extra point from the judges? [Laughs].

I danced the whole choreography facing the front. I didn’t turn once. My partner was thinking: “What’s going on?”

Who would be your dream celebrity to hit the dancefloor with?

Meghan Markle. That would be absolutely insane.

You’ve probably been waiting for this question, so… do you think there should be same-sex couples on Strictly?

Darling, I would be the first person jumping up and down with joy. Representation is really important. When, or if, the BBC do, it will be fantastic. I would be all up for it. It might even make a rumba worth watching. [Laughs]. Those are the kinds of things that need to be considered, the tradition of dancing, but it is 2018 and it would be revolutionary.

We previously crossed paths at Attitude’s 300th issue party and you told me that you thought our columnist and Strictly contestant Dr Ranj was cute. Do you still think so?

[Laughs]. I do – my gosh! That smile, those eyebrows, which are on fleek, his aura… he is a beautiful man inside and out. I’m surprised to see his progress in the competition, I was not expecting that.

Any dates?

Don’t! Dr Ranj and I are just buddies.

Strictly Come Dancing continues this Saturday 26 October at 6.35pm on BBC One.