Celebrity talent executive Stefania Aleksander has been booking stars to appear on TV shows for more than 20 years, which has included anything from quiz formats and shiny floor spectacles to I’m A Celebrity and The Jump. But there was one series she’d always dreamed of working on.
“I wouldn’t tell my other employers, but Strictly Come Dancing was the goal,” she admits. “I’d been an audience member in the Patsy Palmer year and I remember thinking, ‘One day, I’m going to be here working on this show’.”
Fast-forward 13 years, and Stefania’s hopes became reality when the ballroom came calling ahead of the 2018 series.
Stefania Aleksander has been Strictly Come Dancing's celeb booker since 2018 (Photo: Stefania Aleksander)
She recalls: “I was doing a lot of shoots abroad and I remember manifesting Strictly, because I just wanted to work on something that was all-year, was fun and loud. Three days later, I got the phone call asking if I would come in for an interview.
“At that point, I was like, ‘this job has to be mine,’ so I went in with a whole array of pictures of dream cast members, and here we are, five years later I’m still here.”
Stef’s job involves not just securing all the names for each year’s Strictly line-up, but also looking after them once the series begins, as well as booking celebs for VTs and the Christmas special.
And despite Strictly only being on our screens for four months out of 12, it’s a year-round gig.
“With Strictly, you never stop casting ahead of yourself,” Stefania explains. ”Already now, I could think of five people where I’m like, ‘I must get in touch with them for next year’.
“It’s a process, and it’s such a big show for the BBC. There’s such a huge volume of interest in Strictly and there’s also a whole heap of names out there that you want to entice into a meeting and talk to them about the show and the magic of it.”
As we continue our behind-the-scenes tour of Strictly Come Dancing in our Backstage At The Ballroom series, Stefania reveals here how she painstakingly pieces a line-up together, the eye-watering number of Strictly WhatsApp groups she has to be in, and why 2018 winner Stacey Dooley was once known as “Cheddar” for two months of her life.
Officially, I start casting for a new series in January…
You’ve got to go through the shortlist, meet people, pitch it to the BBC. As we go along, we sign up a couple of names, then we sign up some more.
By July, I need all 15 of them cast, because in August, we start announcing the names. It sounds like a long time, but trust me, when you’re in the thick of booking it, it goes like *that*.
There are certain types of celebrities I always approach first…
If they’re in the music industry or a comedian, or even in the acting world, you have to get in early because you need to know early doors if it’s going to be viable for them dates-wise or tour-wise. Then, with soaps and getting someone from EastEnders, we speak to them early too, because they are plotting storylines way ahead and need to know whether it’s viable for the particular character we are interested in to be able to do it or not.
With people with more flexible jobs, it’s not so much of a stress, so you can kind of take your time. But in general, if you’re a big solid name, you’re going to have a lot of commitments and we need to get in there. Also, there are other shows you’re always competing against – you don’t know who else is after them so you have to get there first!
With certain names, you go to them and chase them…
I won’t lie, I probably hounded Bill Bailey for three years in a row. It turns out, sadly, that Covid and a lockdown year meant he was available, so he was like, “OK, I’ll do it.” Bill would never usually be available because he’s always on tour.
Dan Walker is another one who was like, “No, no, I’m not doing it, I’m not dancing,” and then one day he said “OK, let me think about it,” and then he spoke to his kids and was like, “OK, now I’ll try it.”
It took Stefania years to get Bill Bailey on the show (Photo: Guy Levy/BBC via PA Media)
There are a lot of people who are honest and open about wanting to do Strictly, and that’s lovely and they come forward. But I think with certain names, you go to them and chase them, because they are so busy, you just have to edge your way in there.
The key thing is that you can only book people who want to do it...
We cannot force anyone to do Strictly because it is such a commitment that if you didn’t love it or have a passion to learn the skill, there would be no point in taking part.
Even George Clooney, if he didn’t want to do it, I wouldn’t twist his arm. I would try my very best, but if he doesn’t want to learn to dance, he’s never going to be fun on the show. Although if George does read this, I’d really like for you to take part!
When I joined Strictly, I wanted to grow and explore the youth market…
Strictly’s always had a strong, solid, dedicated audience and they’ve never left and they grow with the show. But one of the visions was about trying to draw in this younger audience and getting the cool booking that would bring them to the party and engage quickly.
One of my... I wouldn’t call it revelatory bookings, but for Strictly it was different, was Joe Sugg. At the time, the older generation might say, “Who is this YouTuber?”, but all the young kids were like, “Yeah! Joe Sugg!”... People were doing all this amazingly supporting cheerleading for Joe and we didn’t have to. He really landed. He got to the final, and on the live tour, he was super popular.
Joe Sugg with dance partner Dianne Buswell (Photo: Guy Levy/BBC via Press Association Images)
Each year, we’ve grown in our youth audience and so now that’s one of the considerations we really try and focus on – finding a role model or youth person that kids can really follow their journey and watch what they do outside of Strictly.
With Strictly, you’re not meant to know every single person on the line-up…
It’s funny because if you watch an awards ceremony, you might not know every single show that’s up for an award, but you would learn, Google or watch it. What’s beautiful about Strictly is that you can learn and get to know the celebs. If you look at their social media stats from when they’re announced to the end, it’s incredible the leap in followers that they gain. It’s very interesting to see how people warm to certain people and champion them to the end.
When we’re casting, my vision is that there are the five-year-olds that love Hamza Yassin, the in-betweens that know who Molly Rainford is, then there are the cool cats in their 20s that know who Tyler West is. We keep going up the audience brackets, and then there’s the legend that is Tony Adams on the show and everyone in between.
There’s a big consideration for casting that crosses the spectrum of ages. I think we’ve learned we’ve got this audience and we want to keep hold of them, but we’ve got to keep casting it to represent them.
The Strictly 2022 line-up (Photo: Ray Burmiston via PA Media)
Zoom has changed the way we can secretly meet with celebrities…
It is a lot easier to keep it confidential. Sometimes trying to find a space somewhere in London is not ideal. So Zoom has been a godsend for allowing us to do these meetings online. It depends what the talent prefers, but we have the luxury of both now.
When the celebs are booked, they only get referred to by codenames…
On my first year, they were cheeses. Stacey Dooley, winner of 2018, was known as Cheddar for about two months of her life. Then it was superheroes, then cars and cartoon characters and last year it was dogs. We’ve had a plethora of weird code names. They’re then called that up until they are announced, which means that if we’re in a space where people are in earshot, we don’t ever use their names.
2018 winner Stacey Dooley (Photo: Dave J Hogan via Getty Images)
I’d love to say I put my feet up once the show is cast, but it’s absolutely not the case…
It just goes into fully looking after these 15 people who are all like, “What am I about to step into?!”. We have all the profile interviews, costume fittings, full medical and physio before they start so we know their physical wellbeing is in check.
Once the show gets rolling and they start training, it’s day-to-day welfare. It’s really important that we look after people – we want it to be fun, but we want their physical and mental wellbeing to be at the forefront of our minds so that they enjoy themselves, and that they can balance their normal working life and family life with the show.
It’s a lot of checking in, visits to training rooms, making sure that we’re working closely with the It Takes Two team, day-to-day reminders, making sure we liaise with the team to sort physio.
And there’s a lot more to do besides...
Me and my team book the “terms and conditions” people, the VT surprise visits from other celebrities, and any surprise VT messages. And then we also have a Christmas special to book, which is what I’m doing at the moment. So it doesn’t stop in the world of booking!
Huw Edwards reading the Strictly terms and conditions (Photo: BBC)
There are absolutely no riders on this show...
You don’t get a rider at the BBC! Everyone gets treated the same, so there are the same snacks for everyone, the same things in the fridge, the same time in hair and make-up and the same level of travel. There are no white labradors in the bedrooms or lovely lilies hanging around, none of that!
They do get very well looked after, though, and they’re very well fed. They do get a Strictly bottle with their name on it – that’s a bit of merch!
One thing you never really get to see on the show is…
When all the celebs hang out in what we call the Star Bar. We didn’t have it in Covid times because it wasn’t allowed, but now it’s like a sixth form common room where everyone hangs out.
The other day, James Bye, Tyler West and Tony Adams were all asleep on one sofa like three lads together. Everyone comes together and chats to one another, eats their food, socialises with their pro or the other celebs, and it’s kind of got that school vibe.
There’s a really lovely family feel to the cast always. Tyler, Hamza and James shared a dressing room because we don’t have enough in the main building, so some doubled up. Even when dressing rooms became free, they were like, “No, it’s us together!” They have a really nice trio where they became these three besties who didn’t want to break up the party.
I have about 20 WhatsApp groups for Strictly…
I’m not even joking! About hair, make-up, training, one with all the celebs – which is really fun, and we have to tell them as a group about various reminders – but then they all go dead the day after the final, it’s like you’ve split up with a boyfriend! That is my Strictly low, the day after the final when we’re all coming down off the cloud of glitter and we’re all a bit sad.
My proudest achievement so far on Strictly…
I think was in 2021, booking Rose Ayling-Ellis. We knew that Rose was amazing and we loved her meeting, her personality and she was obviously our first ever deaf contestant.
We took a deaf awareness course and we learned about Rose’s world and learned basic sign language for Strictly. But we never realised the impact Rose would have on the show and how much of an impact she’s continuing to have post the show.
We’ve won the Media Moment on a few different awards ceremonies for her Couple’s Choice dance, but to be there and be in that moment, it was unbelievably emotional, and in my five years, I don’t think I’ve ever felt something so big and powerful from a celebrity and their professional partner.
My most surprising Strictly signings have been...
Greg Wise, because he had the option of a movie and he chose Strictly. And then Emma Thompson came to cheerlead him in the audience!
Adam Peaty was also slightly surprising because I’d booked him before he won his golds [at the Tokyo Olympics]. He was booked and then went off to compete, and so we were rushing him through so he didn’t change his mind after he’d competed. Winning his gold whilst knowing he was booked… it was a real double whammy of satisfaction.
Greg Wise appeared on the 2021 series (Photo: Guy Levy via PA Media)
I can’t wait for the day that Alan Carr realises it’s his calling and he does Strictly…
Him, Rob Beckett and Romesh Ranganathan, I’m like, “you have to do it”. They would have such a fun time. So I’m just waiting for them to realise it’s their calling on the dance floor.
I’d also love to see Peter Crouch do the robot – we’ve seen it on the pitch, so let’s see it on the dance floor. There’s loads of other people I’d love too – Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Lenny Henry – all of them. I’d love an astronaut, and would love for Tim Peake to do it.
Alan Carr is one of Stefania's dream celebrities (Photo: Isabel Infantes - PA Images via Getty Images)
In any social situation where there’s a celebrity involved, I’m like ‘have you ever considered Strictly?!’
Then I invite them to the show and if they show an interest in coming, I entice them onto the floor and say, “One day this could be you!”. I remember Clara Amfo read the terms and conditions one year and I said, “You’ll be on that floor next year,” and she was like, “No, no”. The next year, she was on the dance floor…
Some of my favourite Strictly moments are…
Judi Love and Graziano doing Get Busy by Sean Paul was up there. Stacey Dooley coming down on a stick of rock to Gina G at Blackpool in 2018 – don’t tell me that doesn’t bring a smile to your face on any given day! Another one I loved so much was Kelvin Fletcher and his week one Samba. It was planted in the show as dance number seven, and everyone was like, “Oh yes, a lovely dance,” and then BAM! What the hell? It was just incredible.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Strictly Come Dancing airs Saturdays and Sundays on BBC One.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.