Britain's Got Talent's Stefan and Denise reveal son's cruel twist of fate as couple set for semi-final

Denise and Stefan
-Credit: (Image: ITV)

It was the performance that brought an emotional Bruno Tonioli to tears and propelled a blind North Staffordshire couple into the Britain's Got Talent semi-finals. But as Audley soprano Denise Leigh's voice soared through Climb Ev'ry Mountain from the Sound of Music, viewers had no idea just how much the song meant to her and pianist husband, Stefan Andrusyschyn.

The BGT favourites have been facing uphill battles from birth, with Stefan, 40, born without eyes. "Basically something happened while I was developing, which stopped the growth of one of my eyes at a very early stage and resulted in me having no eye in the other socket," he revealed.

"I am literally completely blind. I don't even have perception. So I am the real deal!" Denise, 53, grinned: "Beats me hands down - we're even competitive about how blind we are!"

The 53-year-old was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare group of diseases that affect the retina. "I was born with quite a lot of vision," she says. "It sort of took a nosedive when I went through puberty, and then another nosedive every time I had a baby. And then when I had chemo two years ago, it just took the rest of it basically."

READ: ITV Britain's Got Talent twist as Denise and Stefan now bookies favourites North Staffordshire couple Denise Leigh and Stefan Andrusyschyn wowed the audience on last Sunday's show

READ: Britain's Got Talent judges in love with Denise Leigh before she started singing The North Staffordshire opera singer spoke about her cancer battle, meeting her husband on the Tube, and 'needing a wee'

Diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2021, she lost a chunk of her 'favourite' left breast, "Thelma". The right one is "Louise", she told the BGT audience to thumping applause.

"As I was going through cancer treatment, Climb Ev'ry Mountain was always in my head," she says. "It is a really life-affirming, feelgood song." Denise's three adult children from an earlier relationship - Rebecca, 30, Michael, 28 and Sam, 26, are all sighted - "they dodged the bullet," Stefan says. But their child together, Dimitri, 10, has retinitis pigmentosa too, reports the Mirror.

Denise and her partner Stefan Andrusyschyn with their son Dimitri and guide dog, Tilly -Credit:ITV
Denise and her partner Stefan Andrusyschyn with their son Dimitri and guide dog, Tilly -Credit:ITV

"It's a recessive condition, which means that to get it you have to have a copy of a gene from your mum and your dad," Denise explains. "Even though Stef's eye condition is not related to my condition, it turned out he carries the same damaged gene as me. So instead of having a one in hundreds of thousands chance of having a visually-impaired child, we had a 50/50 chance.

"The geneticist would have happily put us in a glass case and stared at us for the rest of our lives, I think," Stefan chips in. It was a cruel and totally unexpected twist of fate.

"There is a period of mourning," says Stefan. "You kind of mourn the loss of the life that you thought your child would have. You think of the battles they're gonna have, because you've had them yourself."

"I realised that he was going to have this mountain to climb," Denise agrees. "It was very, very hard. He was just one when we found out."

Yet a bright and happy Dimi still watched mum and dad's triumph from the wings at their first audition - cheering them on with Ant and Dec and guide dog Tilly for company. And he's going to be there again tonight when the couple battle it out for a place in the BGT final.

"He has very, very little sight," Denise says, "After all the tests he had initially, the ERG - electroretinography where they take readings directly from the retina - they said he had no vision at all, but I knew he did, because he was reacting to things."

"More sight than the doctors thought he had... but less than I hoped. He's an absolute tech genius!" Stefan laughs. "I worry about my job as a Visually Impaired Role Model with our local education authority - going into schools and working with severely sight impaired children in mainstream education, training them on how to use adaptive technology - because Dimi can pretty much do what I do already. And he's not even in high school yet!"

Dimi was Denise's first thought when she was diagnosed with cancer. "I'd noticed a change in the skin on my boob, like orange peel - it had gone like that sort of dimply, strange texture - and the nipple had inverted," she says. "And I just thought, this isn't right."

She'd been shown how to check her breasts years by touch before at a family planning clinic. "I remember this woman showing me how to do it and I've done it every single month since then," she says. That woman saved her life.

Denise had a mammogram and was called back for an ultrasound scan. "They went from 'don't worry, it's probably nothing', to 'this is definitely cancer, we can tell it's in the lymph nodes'. It was all up around my neck, in my collarbone..."

"They did a biopsy and my guide dog jumped onto the bed because I yelped! About five nurses came running into the room, saying they'd take the dog. That was a bad day." She went home to Stefan, who was busy baking a cake.

"I said to him, 'I don' want to die, I want to see Dimi start school'. It was so scary because I hadn't been told what my chances were, what grade of cancer, what stage of cancer it was," she says. It was stage two, grade three - aggressive and oestrogen and progesterone fed. Denise had surgery then chemo and radiotherapy. Through it all, Stef was her rock.

"Because I had chemo through the winter, he'd come down if I was sleeping on the sofa, he'd light the fire for me and just sit up and watch over me all night." Stef cackles: "It's so much fun watching people squirm when they see one of us two light a stove for the first time!" A wisecrack is never far away. You get the feeling it's how they cope.

"I saw chemo as a job I had to do because I had to survive," Denise explains. "I saw the chance of chemo as my chance to see Dimi grow up and the big 'uns get married or succeed in a chosen field." But she'd dreaded losing her red gold locks.

"They told me 'it will start dropping out on day 12 of chemo'; and it did - at teatime on day 12." She had her hairdresser chop it short. "The kids said 'ooh Mum, you look like Anne Hathaway!' But then two days later, I'd got a big tonsure [bald patch] at the top. [The hair] would just come off and get into my food and my cups of tea."

And on the plus side, she says, she didn't have to shave her legs for a year. Now, as seen on BGT, Denise's hair is completely different - it's grown back dark instead of red and curly. It wasn't the only change her cancer brought. "Having such a close shave with death has made me just want to take every opportunity that I can," she says. "Thirteen years ago I'd thought about doing BGT but decided it wasn' the right time. And so I just revisited the idea."

"It was a massive brain fart," Stefan laughs. Denise was no stranger to telly fame, having won Channel 4's Operatunity in 2003. She performed at the London 2012 Paralympic's opening ceremony, too.

BGT is a completely different experience, though, she says. "I'm enjoying the fact that it's multi discipline - you know, we've got taekwondo acts, dog acts, dance troupe groups, magicians, roller skaters... It's just amazing to have all this variety."

Social media is here this time around, too. "We didn't get a Golden Buzzer which is kind of a bone of contention for social media but I was quite glad to fly under the radar," Stefan grins, downplaying what became a huge online storm over their alleged "snub" from the judges.

The wait for results on BGT has been as nerve racking as when his wife had cancer, says Stefan: "It's no easier waiting to hear if you've got through to the next stage of BGT... just slightly less life threatening!"

Denise has had positive news about her cancer treatment in that she's on a new "wonder drug" anastrozole. "It just shuts everything down, stops all the hormones that will feed the cancer," she explains, keeping upbeat in the same way that won the hearts (but not the buzzer) of the judges in their now viral audition.

"I know that there are some really dark things in our past," she adds. "But if we can talk about them in a non-scary way and somebody goes and checks their boobies, I'm a happy girl."

A happy ending for Thelma and Louise, unlike in the movie... And if Denise and Stefan go all the way? Well, we already know they've got a head for heights.

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