‘It’s a witch hunt’: Giovanni Pernice’s fans stand by embattled Strictly star

Amanda Abbington and Giovanni Pernice were partnered together in the 2023 series of Strictly
Amanda Abbington and Giovanni Pernice were partnered together in the 2023 series of Strictly - Guy Levy/BBC

Although they are just 15 miles apart, the Strictly Come Dancing set and the Beck theatre in Hayes, west London, may as well be on different planets for Giovanni Pernice.

The Italian dancer spent the past decade wowing millions under the lights at the BBC’s Elstree studios, but has left the show under a cloud and on Friday night made his first public appearance since in a part of London better known for its proximity to Heathrow airport than its provision of high-class entertainment.

Pernice and his dance partner, the Strictly judge Anton du Beke, kicked off their latest tour in front of 600 mostly elderly women who were not put off by the fact that the self-described “Italian Stallion” was left off this year’s roster of Strictly professionals following a months-long saga in which he has been accused of “numerous serious complaints” by some of his former celebrity partners. Pernice denies any wrongdoing.

Neither Pernice, 33, nor du Beke, 57, made reference to the tawdry row on stage, save for one throwaway joke in which the Sicilian said “people don’t always like me”. Blink and you missed it.

A reminder of the hullabaloo: Sherlock actress Amanda Abbington dramatically quit Strictly after week four last year, in the wake of reports that she and Pernice had clashed during training, because of an unspecified medical issue. She later said in an interview that she had been diagnosed with “mild” post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her experiences on the dancing show.

Anton Du Beke and Giovanni Pernice on stage at the Beck Theatre in Hayes
Anton Du Beke and Giovanni Pernice on stage at the Beck Theatre in Hayes - Instagram

And so began an unedifying game of tabloid claim and counterclaim, with each side briefing different papers. Team Amanda insisted that she was so traumatised by his training methods that she insisted their sessions be filmed and that two of Pernice’s former partners (thought to include TV presenter Laura Whitmore) had joined her in complaining about his behaviour; Team Giovanni said that, actually, he was guilty only of being a perfectionist and the pro was the one who asked for the rehearsals to be recorded in order to protect himself. Not that it appears to have done him much good.

There has been precious little by way of specifics about the fall-out, save for the fact that Abbington’s “friends” told a sympathetic newspaper that her foot was left bruised after Pernice stepped on it. Because of the information vacuum, more intellectual energy went into reading the runes about who “liked” whose Instagram posts and comments than was really necessary. Or, frankly, was sensible.

Abbington, 52, and her fellow celebs have retained top law firm Carter-Ruck to handle their grievances, which are the subject of a BBC investigation. Pernice has enlisted media law attack dogs Schillings and is represented by Joelle Rich, the one-time paramour of Johnny Depp who acted for the Hollywood actor in his unsuccessful libel claim four years ago.

Unsurprisingly at a gig where Pernice is the draw, the fans in Hayes had taken his side. “It’s a witch hunt,” said Ros Booth, 80, who was seeing Pernice live for the fourth time. Her friend, Carole Greenwood, insisted that the stories were made up. “I think he’s a fiery Italian,” she said. “If somebody says their feet are aching and they want to leave rehearsals at 5pm, I can imagine him telling her they have the rehearsal studio until 6pm and they were going to work until then.”

Fans Carole Greenwood and Ros Booth attended the first night of the tour in Hayes, London
Fans Carole Greenwood and Ros Booth attended the first night of the tour in Hayes, London - Belinda Jiao

Greenwood, 63, added: “There’s a difference between pushing somebody to that limit, as it were, than being physically or mentally abusive. This media frenzy is all just supposition.”

Barbara Hutchinson, 81, was seeing the show with her 88-year-old husband, Rod. What did she think of it all? “Disgusting. Completely out of hand and unnecessary,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair at all, and there’s two sides to every story.”

Hutchinson added that Pernice has “a nice personality and easy manner — he must get on very well with people. Anton wouldn’t do the tour with him otherwise”. Despite the loyalty towards Pernice among those at the show, none said that they would boycott Strictly without him. “Dancers do move on,” said Booth. “It gives a youngster a space to come up.”

Rod and Barbara Hutchinson were also in Hayes to watch the show
Rod and Barbara Hutchinson were also in Hayes to watch the show - Belinda Jiao

Pernice, who left home aged 14 to attend dancing school, joined the show in 2015 and quickly became a viewers’ favourite. He reached the final in his first series, with soap actress (and one-time girlfriend) Georgia May Foote, and was runner-up a further two times before finally triumphing with the EastEnders star Rose Ayling-Ellis in 2021.

Since that high, in which Pernice won the hearts of a nation by teaching the deaf Ayling-Ellis to dance, things rapidly went downhill. In 2022 he was partnered with the hapless Radio 2 presenter Richie Anderson, who was eliminated in the third week. Last year came the ill-fated partnership with Abbington.

Debbie McGee, widow of the late magician Paul Daniels who partnered with Pernice in 2017, leapt to his defence this week. “I am heartbroken for Giovanni Pernice. My experience on Strictly will always be happy and life-changing,” she said. “Gio nurtured me through my grief and gave me the confidence I could do things I thought were beyond me.”

Du Beke, the longest-serving Strictly pro who went behind the judges’ table in 2021, is publicly sticking by his man. So too, it would appear, is head judge Shirley Ballas who is running dance workshops in central London with both Pernice and du Beke on June 30.

After the Hayes show, a beaming Barbara Hutchinson gave just a one-word review: “Brilliant.”

Pernice’s fans show no sign of abandoning him either.


Anton & Giovanni Together: the Live Tour; until July 21; tickets here