The combination of losing weight and gaining popularity doesn’t half put a spring in the step.
Ed Balls says the surprising thing about his post-Strictly world is how filled with smiles it is.
In the old days he used to walk down the street and gain recognition – but often for all the wrong reasons.
Now the world’s turned sunny, even in the gloom of winter. Everyone loves Ed, at least for now.
‘The thing about politics is that it’s divisive,’ he says. ‘When you’re a politician and you walk down the street you never know whether people are going to say, “Good on you”, or, “I hate you”. It’s like football.
‘You can’t support Norwich City and Ipswich Town at the same time. Now everyone I meet smiles or pats me on the back. It’s the oddest feeling.’
It’s certainly odd to witness this curious new world where everyone is part of Team Ed Balls. When the former Shadow Chancellor, 49, signed up for Strictly, no one quite knew what to expect.
Ed is joined by dance partner Katya on the cover of Weekend magazine
This was going to be mortifying for everyone involved, wasn’t it? ‘And the thing is that no one was smiling on that first week,’ he points out. ‘After I did my first dance everyone was looking awkward.
‘Later, when they did start smiling and laughing, I thought they were laughing at us. Then it dawned on me that, no, they were smiling and laughing with us. That was when it changed.’
It might have been the nimble-footed Ore Oduba who lifted the Strictly glitterball, but surely Ed Balls was the ultimate winner, going from reviled politician to national treasure in a matter of weeks.
He lost a stone and a half, and what he gained in popularity was incalculable. If you could bottle the formula, every politician in the country would buy it, surely?
As he sets off on the next stage of his journey – most immediately on the Strictly tour – he reflects on what he’s learned about popularity and whether it’s compatible with politics.
The answer seems to be a resounding no. ‘The most frustrating thing has been people saying to me, “We always knew you were a politician, but it’s nice to find out you’re a human being as well.”
‘The irony is that, as a politician, I’d made a big effort to show that side of myself. I was probably one of the people who tried hardest and had actually been most effective.
‘From about 2010 I’d made the decision to be more open about my wider life. I talked about my stammer [he’d suffered from speech problems since childhood] and I’d given interviews about things that weren’t strictly about politics – like my marathon running or my learning to play the piano.
‘I tried really hard to be a human being – we’re all human beings, for goodness sake – but obviously I’d still failed. I was only allowed to show that side when I was no longer an active politician.’
The lesson, he says, is that ‘if people see you as a politician they don’t see easily beyond it’.
Can that be changed? He’s not at all sure. In the sequined version of how his future may now pan out, Ed Balls would obviously make a triumphant return to politics, transform the fortunes of the Labour Party, Cinderella-style, and be swept into Downing Street with a jazz-hands chorus and his wife Yvette Cooper high-kicking in his wake.
Alas, this is the real world, so that’s about as likely as Theresa May performing a rumba at the dispatch box.
‘I’m quite sceptical about it,’ he admits. ‘I think the reality is that if I wanted to go back into politics, quite a lot of the old political labels would come back with it. It’s quite naive to think that somehow you can change it all.’
He points to the pickle Boris Johnson – always the most ‘human’ of politicians – has found himself in as he’s tried to juggle popularity with actual power.
‘Look at Boris. When he was guest presenter on Have I Got News For You he was very amusing and popular. Now he’s Foreign Secretary he’s suddenly discovering there’s more to being a cabinet minister than being popular. He’s back into the world of making hard decisions.’
Ed was a guest on Robert Peston’s Sunday morning show with Boris in the autumn, and was intrigued by what he witnessed.
‘He was being asked about his vision of Brexit and he was squirming all over the place, not wanting to answer the questions because he really didn’t want to divide the country.
‘He wants everyone to like him but the reality is he won’t survive as a politician being the smiling lovable guy. If I were to return to politics I have no doubt that the Strictly thing would be helpful, but the idea that it would “solve” the problem of being a politician just isn’t true.’
The big question, of course, is will Ed re-enter the political fray? He’s so far refused to rule anything out, and is sending out mixed messages today.
On the one hand he says – in very unconvincing politician style – that there are no plans for a return to Westminster, but the fact that he lights up when he’s talking about his political life seems to tell another story.
It’s significant that his Strictly partner Katya Jones – who’s at his side today – puts her head in her hands when he starts talking about Brexit. The man can’t stop himself.
‘He did this all the time in rehearsals,’ she confides. ‘He over-thinks everything. We’d be trying to learn the cha-cha-cha and I’d be saying, “Ed, leave it. Stop trying to fix the world. It isn’t going anywhere. Concentrate on your steps.”’
He grins. ‘It was a bit mad. Every so often I’d realise I was sitting in a dance studio thinking about Article 50.’
Can Ed Balls ever switch off from politics? Even he admits he’s steeped in the world. ‘I miss it,’ he says.
‘I’m married to a politician. If you said to me, “Here’s a way in which you could go back and do politics again, in a way which is new,” I would think that was really interesting, but my instinct is that if I went back it would be like going back to 2015, or 2010, and reliving it.
‘You know when your kids seem to go from the age of five to 15 and you say, “If only I could go back and do it all again”? You can’t. It’s the nature of life. You either sit around moping about the fact they aren’t still five, or you start enjoying the fact that they’re 15. And I don’t want to be a new MP again.’
‘I asked him what he thought about it and he said going back was a terrible mistake. He did it because he wanted to get control of what had happened, and leave in his own way. I think for me to try to go back and just repeat what I’ve done in the past would be a mistake.’
He also makes an extraordinary observation – that even if he did go back to politics he couldn’t hope to make a bigger mark on British society than he has done via Strictly.
‘I don’t want this to sound arrogant but I can remember being in the playground when I was eight, nine, ten, and doing impressions of Jimmy Hill and his beard.
‘There’ve been kids in playgrounds for the last three months doing my Gangnam Style dance, and when they’re grown men they’ll still remember doing that. That becomes a bigger thing than whatever I do as a politician again.’
Even if you became prime minister? He nods, but doesn’t seem in the least bit perturbed at the idea of being remembered mostly for a dance that involved him leaping on top of a woman young enough to be his daughter, and riding her like a pony.
It was the Gangnam routine that changed everything. Unsurprisingly it will form the highlight of the 30-date Strictly tour – the annual jamboree that sees the stars taking to stages up and down the country, recreating the Strictly experience as a live show, which starts in Birmingham on Friday.
Joining Ed and Katya on the dance floor will be Ore and Karen Clifton (Ore’s partner on the show, Joanne Clifton, has signed up to a musical), Danny Mac and Oti Mabuse, Daisy Lowe and Aljaz Skorjanec, Louise Redknapp and Kevin Clifton and Lesley Joseph and Gorka Marquez.
Each performance will see the dancers marked by judges Len Goodman and Craig Revel Horwood, who’ll be joined on the panel by Karen Hardy, with former contestant Anita Rani hosting.
Ed says he’s looking forward to recreating the now infamous dance, and some of the other moves that got people talking.
‘Some of the lifts are proving problematic though. Do we try to do them properly, or as they appeared in the show?’ Viewers will remember one near-disastrous one.
Bizarrely, Ed will be replaced by Judge Rinder for the Manchester dates because he’s flying off to Arizona to give a lecture on Brexit and the world economy. ‘What a clash, eh? I think I can safely say I’m the first person to do that.’
Hearing him and Katya reminisce about how the Gangnam routine came about is hilarious. It was Katya’s idea but he admits to a very British reluctance to execute the move fully.
The pair collapse laughing when Katya talks about explaining to Ed that, “You have to jump on me. Just jump on me as hard as you can.”’ He smiles. ‘It had to be hard, otherwise it wouldn’t work. If it was feeble she couldn’t hold on. Someone filmed it and I sent it to a friend who sent a message back saying, “Is Katya sure about this? Does she know what she’s doing?”’
What was Yvette’s reaction to the sight of her husband straddling the rather gorgeous Katya in such a way? ‘She thought it was very funny,’ says Ed. ‘It was probably good that we built up to it though. If it had happened in the first week or two there might have been raised eyebrows.’
Did Yvette ever worry that he might hurtle into a full-on mid-life crisis in such close proximity to Katya and skip off into the sunset with her for good? He laughs about the idea of their marriage falling foul of the Strictly Curse.
‘I think Yvette’s attitude was, “In your dreams!”’ he says. ‘And Katya’s dad is just a year older than me. I’m not sure people who talk about the Curse of Strictly actually understand how these dancers work. They’re professionals.’
Actually, it sounds as if Yvette enjoyed the whole Strictly process as much as her husband.
‘At the start Katya would actually run everything by Yvette and the kids. She’d ring them and explain what she wanted me to do. Then I’d ring Yvette myself to get her input. When I was struggling with the paso doble I rang her and she suggested doing it as Adam Ant.
‘I thought that was genius. I even went to make-up and asked them for paint stripes on my face. But the producers felt it wasn’t as good as our other ideas, which might have been a mistake in hindsight.’
What about the female attention that’s come with flinging himself around the dance floor? Are we to believe rumours that he’s now a sex symbol?
‘Ha ha ha,’ he laughs nervously. ‘I can’t say I’ve noticed attention like that. The people I’ve made an impact with are kids, or people who say, “You made me smile.” I don’t think you’d describe any of our routines as raunchy.’
Indeed, he admits that if there was anything he struggled with during the process, it was the raunch factor.
The paso doble, he says, was the dance he simply couldn’t do. He gets to his feet to explain that the macho matador look is all about the set of the hips and the thrusting out of the chest.
Alas, he does look more like a constipated penguin than a bullfighter when he attempts it. ‘I couldn’t do it,’ he moans.
‘I asked Katya, “Can’t I just do the camp version?” and she said, “No! You have to do it in the most manly way you can.” So I did. Then the producers laughed and said it was the campest paso doble they’d ever seen in their life.’
What was the problem? He pulls a face. ‘My idea of being macho came from the rugby pitch,’ he says, clenching his fists, hunching his shoulders over and adopting the bruiser pose he seems more familiar with. And is there anything unsexier, he says, than a former politician trying to be sexy?
‘To be honest, there’s nothing more off-putting than me attempting to be sexy and attractive. If I was trying to be sexy, I think people would recoil. I think it’s more attractive to not try to be attractive. And, let’s face it, the guys who could do sexy out there, like Danny Mac and Ore, were half my age.’
Still, a part of him would have loved to attempt the smoulder. ‘My big regret is that we went out before I could do my rumba,’ he says.
‘That would have been the big test because the rumba has to be passionate. But I don’t think ours would have been one of those steamy rumbas.’
He looks at Katya, who’s inclined to agree. ‘Maybe the world is happy to have been spared that,’ he concludes.
Click here for the original interview with Jenny Johnston.Posted January 14th, 2017 by Ed