Former Strictly judge Arlene Phillips, reveals the goss ahead of her new show Arlene: The Glitz, The Glamour, The Gossip.
Arlene Phillips was famously one of the toughest judges on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing – and then more famously was not a judge on Strictly when she was unceremoniously replaced by the younger and (let’s just say it) far less qualified Alesha Dixon.
With more then 40 years in the business, the queen of dance has worked with some of the world’s biggest stars including Elton John, Freddie Mercury and Whitney Houston. She founded risqué Seventies dance troupe Hot Gossip, and she’s choreographed more films and stage shows than you can shake a sequinned stick at.
She reveals all in her new show Arlene: The Glitz, The Glamour, The Gossip, currently touring the UK with a date at the Duchess Theatre in London on Nov 20. It takes the form of a conversation between Phillips and her friend and fellow dancer, Jacquie Storey. Before she takes to the stage, Muddy had a quick chat.
Right Arlene, let’s start with an easy one. How would you sum up the show?
It’s like a tea party with Arlene Phillips where you can ask me any question you like because you’ll hear about everything. It’s a Q&A format, with lots of footage from things I’ve worked on with loads of famous faces and also many photos from my personal archive.
Ok, so tell us the the glitziest thing you’ve ever done?
Definitely the Elton John video for I’m Still Standing. We planned to shoot it in the South of France with a big opening scene showing Elton driving in an open-top car down the mountains onto the promenade in Cannes. When he arrived in Cannes he was going to swerve into a plate glass window, which would shatter and then three dancers would step out of it. But of course, on the morning we were to begin filming, health and safety stepped in and said ‘No, no, no, we can’t insure Elton driving down the mountains into a plate glass window!’
My friend owned a dance group and school in the South of France, so I got a troupe of her dancers together, and body-painted them. And suddenly it was like the South of France opened its doors to us. Nice gave us the promenade to dance on, and we were given the beaches and ballroom and staircases of the Negresco Hotel. It took us two days to film and on the last night Elton took everyone to dinner.
And the most glamorous?
That would have to be the opening night party in New York City for the film Annie. It was a vast and very, very glamorous party. Everything was divine – the food, the wines, the champagnes – attended by the toast of Broadway and the film world. It was very glamorous indeed.
And, I’ve gotta ask… what’s your juiciest bit of gossip?
It’s probably the little drama I had on Freddie Mercury’s video for I Was Born To Love You when Freddie had to rescue one of our poor dancers after an accident. Off he went with her to Mile End Hospital to get her stitched up, but the big thing that happened is that it introduced me to my partner [Angus Ion]. I had no idea that an argument would end up with me finding my lifetime partner.
You’ve worked with so many big names over the years. Who have been your favourites?
Oh gosh, I loved working with Elton John and of course I’ve had a very long association with Andrew Lloyd Webber. He is one of the most exciting creative people that I know, no question. And I’ve worked with so many female divas – from Whitney Houston to Aretha Franklin to Tina Turner to Donna Summer. My collection of female divas were stunning and all very different, some demanding and some not, all asking for different things and you just have to be there for them. A choreographer often exposes what you can and can’t do so you need to keep the choreographer on your side and make sure they show you at your best.
Any tough customers?
Diana Ross wasn’t easy at first but by midnight she thawed. [Laughs] She thawed in the freezing cold while we were filming outside. Generally, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything where I’ve finished with a mortal enemy.
You made a name for yourself as director and choreographer of Hot Gossip in the Seventies. Were you being deliberately saucy?
The group was created at a time where I was not only teaching rock jazz but also going out clubbing at night, feeling the excitement of London and the way people were moving in clubs and discos. Putting those two together with the clothes I was wearing – which was not a great deal – seemed so opposite to the smiley dancers that were shown on television on the likes of Seaside Special and the Saturday night entertainment shows, full of vitality and bonhomie with simple steps and lots of energy. I felt at odds with that. I wanted to put into dance what I was experiencing at night in the clubs, a more immediate form of dance and physicality where you connected to it and didn’t always have to smile. It was about using your body and expressing your feelings so it became very sexy.
Then there were the clothes, which were really borne out of having no money. Lingerie was cheap and cheerful and you could dye it lots of different colours. Everybody in Hot Gossip was doing part-time jobs and one of the boys was not only driving a taxi but also worked part-time selling clothes in a sex shop. He was given some of the clothes by his manager for us to wear so the whole image visually and physically became very sexy.
What have been your subsequent career highlights?
A big highlight is Starlight Express – trying to get triple threats and having them rollerskate or teaching skaters what a bar of music is and getting them all to stop at the same time on a count of eight. For me that was so thrilling and the show goes on and on, celebrating its 30th birthday in Germany next year. It was a real challenge and I loved it being part of my life. I also loved doing a lot of the music videos, especially Duran Duran’s Wild Boys where I had such great dancers. Gosh, there have been so many highlights.
What did you most enjoy about your time on Strictly Come Dancing?
I loved doing Strictly. I’ll never forget it, especially the excitement in the beginning. I remember being there for the pilot with Len Goodman where we really didn’t know what the show was going to be about. It seemed like it hadn’t quite formed, then gradually it found its feet. We had the amazing Natasha Kaplinsky, who really took to dance, and there was the comedy element where everyone fell in love with Chris Parker when on his paso doble he just ran around the floor stamping his feet with a cape on his back.
‘Arlene: The Glitz, The Glamour, The Gossip’ is touring the UK. arlenephillips.com