Perhaps more than anyone I’ve ever interviewed, it’s Kevin Clifton who elicits the most queries of, “Ooh, what was he like?” It’s understandable. The Strictly Come Dancing star - affectionately referred to as ‘Kevin From Grimsby’ - is a firm favourite on the flagship BBC show, which has been running since 2004 and he has been a part of since 2013. He reached the final four times before winning in 2018 (with now real-life partner Stacey Dooley), mums everywhere have a soft spot for him and Strictly is the glittery life-raft the nation clings to when nothing else seems certain.
And now Clifton is staking out some serious non-Strictly territory, playing an all-singing, all-dancing lead role in a musical stage adaptation of The Wedding Singer - you know, the 90s film where Adam Sandler had a stunning mullet-cum-perm. (Clifton won’t be sporting that, I asked him.) “It just felt like one of those things I couldn’t turn down,” he tells me. Not totally unsurprising, given a rare early exit from last year’s Strictly, after thanklessly lugging about Anneka Rice before a sluggish Kill Bill-themed Charleston killed their hopes.
I meet him before a day of rehearsals at Troubadour Wembley Park, the newly opened theatre where the production is running. “I was actually going to take a bit of a break at the beginning of this year, because I’ve just been solidly working for the last few years,” he tells me. “It was a choice between taking a break and doing the Strictly tour. And then this came along.”
In many ways he’s exactly what you’d expect: enthusiastic, polite, eager to please. But I’m also anticipating a certain level of media-trained roboticness; the PR sits in with us at the beginning of the interview, although leaves after it becomes clear that I'm probably not going to ask him about his three divorces or his feelings about his apparent 'King Kev' nickname. In fact, he’s pretty placid and relaxed. He puts that down, in part, to the fact that yesterday’s run-through of the show went smoothly. So, can he sing?
“I’ve always enjoyed singing, but I didn’t do it as a kid. I didn’t go to stage school or anything, everything was always about the dancing. I always felt like I could sing a bit. Like you can tell when someone’s out of tune, and I was like, ‘I’m not out of tune. I just need to learn to do it properly, with technique’,” he explains.
He basically never leaves the stage throughout the show, so he’s adjusting to the levels of stamina required for singing and dancing at the same time. “I was wondering when we do a run-through, whether I’d be able to talk the next day, or I’d lose my voice,” he tells me. Just check whatever Adele does, I helpfully suggest to this trained professional. “Oh, I’m so extra when it comes to all that stuff!” he says with a bit of glee. “I asked everyone, and they say things like, ‘ooh don’t drink milk and don’t eat cheese’.”
It’s a surprise to hear him say he’s “a bag of nerves” before every performance, even on Strictly. “It should be easy, like, that’s my comfort zone,” he says. “What I do now is just acknowledge the fact I’m nervous and try not to fight it or resist it.” He also demonstrates his “pre-match routine” to me, which includes having a talk with himself, some jumping up and down, and banging the floor. Is this… private, I ask? He laughs very loudly. “No, I do that away from everyone so they don’t think I’m completely mental!”
But there’s another challenge for Clifton. He’s won hearts and minds, but he wants to be taken seriously. This isn’t his first rodeo - he previously had musical theatre roles in Dirty Dancing and Rock of Ages. “There’ll be a lot of people that don’t necessarily know that I’ve done plenty of training in singing and acting. That thing of, is it celebrity casting? I want to change perceptions, I don’t want people to see me as someone who shouldn’t have got the job. I want to prove I’m worthy of being here.” He thinks a bit. “That’s probably a pressure that I put on myself.”
It’s surprising to hear these anxieties from a polished performer, like hearing a children’s TV presenter swear, but it’s easy to forget that every year the Strictly stars go through a tabloidesque Hunger Games which is possibly a bit draining on the soul. My burning question is not about the supposed Strictly curse. With Kelvin Fletcher and Oti Matbusa now reigning champs, did he and Stacey have to return the prized glitterball trophy, like a sad ASOS parcel?
“The official, actual, real glitterball stays there at the BBC. You don’t get to take it home,” he explains. Oh, I reply, crestfallen. “No, no, no. You get to hold it up and then someone comes in with gloves and takes it back.” The winners do get given a replica each (smaller, he notes), but Dooley’s was pinched at the afterparty. “I know. Who does this?” he says, in response to my horror. God, I hope they didn’t put it on eBay, I fret. But it all turned out okay in the end. “I got her a new one for her birthday. I got in touch with the BBC and said, 'she’s had it pinched, can we sort something out?'”
I wonder if there’s an Alan Shearer type age for a Strictly dancer, when it all gets a bit rusty and the paddleboards don’t rise so quickly. How much longer does Clifton see himself doing the show? He exhales, genuinely pauses. “Yeah, I don’t know really,” he says. “I mean, I am thirty-seven.” He puts weight on these words, as if it is very, very old. “So, I can’t see myself still there in ten years time. And you never know what they’re thinking, which is why I’m always nervous to talk about it, I never want to assume that they’re going to want me for all this time, because sometimes the calls go out at some point in the year, and you know, someone might get left out. ‘No thanks, we don’t need you anymore’.” He doesn’t see himself as an Anton du Beke (still dancing in his fifties), but still loves the show and has lots he wants to achieve on it.
I suggest it would be a devastating departure for the fans. Particularly for the mums. He laughs loudly. “Stacey takes the mick out of me for this. If you go to any of her book tours, her core demographic is young girls. And they all come with orange hair and hoop earrings and are there with their books. She says my core demographic is 60-plus women.”
Dooley is the one with the sociological insights, let’s not forget (she’s made documentaries about everything from the Democratic Unionist Party to young women fighting Isis). It might be her influence that has got Clifton thinking about making a documentary about men who dance. “Sometimes there’s still a stigma, that dancing is a feminine thing to do, and what it means to be a man who dances. I’d like to explore that a bit.” (I’ve also suggested a Cheer -style behind the scenes documentary about the Burn The Floor dance company Clifton is part of, where many Strictly stars are first scouted. “I’d do love to do that actually,” he replies. Netflix, you can get in touch with either of us direct.)
A day off may be long overdue, but Clifton’s eyes light up every time he mentions a new idea or potential project. (He already has his own podcast and is off on a Burn the Floor tour straight after The Wedding Singer.) He’s keen to do more theatre and musicals, as well as acting. “It’s in the very early stages, but I really want to write a drama that’s based on the ballroom competition world. But not in a fluffy ‘wins the competition, romantic story’ kind of way. And even doesn’t have that much dancing in it. Just a proper gritty drama about real stories, based on some of my stories, my sister’s. The darker side, the politics of it all.” I am delighted by this. So what is Kevin from Strictly like? A treat. And possibly the new Guy Ritchie.
The Wedding Singer runs at Troubadour Wembley Park from January 30 to March 1