AJ Odudu: ‘Strictly Come Dancing Is So Surreal, I Feel Like I’ve Literally Stepped Inside The Telly’

'I love Strictly. I’ve wanted to do it before and this is my time now.'

AJ Odudu Strictly come dancing

by Shannon Mahanty |

I am learning these dance routines in my dreams. I swear down I’m training in my sleep!’ exclaims AJ Odudu. We’re sitting outside a west London studio as she spills behind-the-scenes tales of Strictly Come Dancing.

The 33-year-old TV presenter is one of nine celebrities still competing to be crowned winner of the beloved BBC One competition and, right now, life consists of little other than dancing. ‘Some days, I leave the studio thinking I had a really bad session and I don’t know how I’m going to get the routine into my head. Then I go to sleep, I dream about it, I dream I’m doing it correctly, then I wake up and I’ve got it! I can do it!’

It might be the power of dreams, but it could also be down to AJ’s relentless optimism and enthusiasm. Throughout her Grazia photo shoot, the Blackburn-born, London-based presenter radiates positivity. If she’s tired – and with a gruelling rehearsal schedule she must be – she never shows it. Instead, she dances around the studio and fills it with cackling laughter. In her first week of training, rehearsals lasted eight hours a day, six days a week, although AJ reveals she’s gradually working up to dancing for longer days. Of course, there’s a slight problem. ‘My feet! Oh my gosh, they are absolutely battered and bruised. I have blisters, cuts, bunions that are throbbing... I started to suffer from day two, it’s really intense. I thought I was used to wearing heels. But I was used to walking in them; not dancing, jumping, running and kicking.’

Bunions aside, the broadcaster – who made her name presenting Big Brother’s Bit On The Side and as backstage reporter on The Voice – is loving every minute of her time on Strictly. She’s a long-term fan of the show, and she talks about it with complete adoration. ‘Those feelings of walking into the studio, hearing the voiceover man say my name, seeing the live band, seeing Tess and Claudia and all the professional dancers; it’s so surreal. I feel like I’ve literally stepped inside the telly.’

Her dance partner, Kai Widdrington, is one of Strictly’s new pros. He is in it to win it, but he’s also the one forcing AJ to take breaks and recommending ice baths when the pain gets too much. ‘Kai is brilliant. As soon as I met him, I got into my dancing gear and it was time to go, we didn’t even have time to get a cuppa.’

Has AJ Odudu got any dance experience or training?

Having no prior dancing experience, AJ initially felt like an underdog. ‘I have the least experience of everyone. Even Tom [Fletcher] has been to stage school. I’m from a working-class background; we never went to after-school clubs or took modern dance classes. However, I am a TV presenter; I’m used to the pressure of live TV and I love to be around people showing off. At weddings, I’m always the first person up on the dance floor; I don’t mind making a fool of myself. I think that’s what I’m bringing to the table: shamelessness! I’m bringing you shameless energ y – that’s all I’ve got to give.’

It’s certainly true that in the last few weeks, AJ has become a fan favourite. She’s wowed audiences with a spell-binding week one jive that topped the leader board. In its fifth week when we meet, the competition is ramping up, although AJ says the cast WhatsApp group remains a constant source of support. ‘You bond so quickly,’ she explains. ‘Greg Wise is making jam for everyone. John Whaite is making chocolate brownies. I am bringing no food to the table, I’m not gonna lie, but I’m providing messages of positivity and motivation, pep talking the girls about pushing through the pain and all of that jazz!’

Watch AJ Odudu perform the Charleston to near perfect scores:

The group chat has a new significance with the cast unable to interact physically. Covid-19 protocols require each celebrity and dancer pair to be bubbled up, while the studio audience is limited. Despite the restrictions, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. Two dancers have reportedly refused to be vaccinated against the virus, and one pair – Tom Fletcher and Amy Dowden – recently tested positive (although Amy confirmed she had received both vaccinations). ‘The guidelines and stuff like that is no stress,’ says AJ. ‘I’m used to being constantly tested, but what is scary is the potential of being knocked out of the competition not based on your dancing ability, not based on the public vote, but just on the fact that you might have contracted a virus. That is stressful, because I love Strictly. I’ve wanted to do it before and this is my time now.’ As a fan of the show, AJ applied for last year’s series, too. ‘I had a meeting, I got my agent to badger them, but they weren’t having me; it wasn’t my year,’ she recalls.

As it turns out, 2021 has been a real period of levelling up for the presenter. Known for her work on BBC’s Would I Lie To You and The Voice, last month she presented a one-off revival of Channel 4’s iconic The Big Breakfast Show, alongside Mo Gilligan. It was aired as part of Black To Front, the broadcaster’s 24-hour programming takeover where every show was made by and featured Black talent, in a bid to ‘represent and champion under-represented audiences’. ‘It was beautiful, it was emotional. It was everything that I didn’t think I’d ever see on TV growing up,’ says AJ. ‘There’s a lot of nuance when you work with people of different cultural backgrounds, and it was the one time that we were all together and everyone was allowed to be their authentic, unapologetic selves.’ The show was a massive hit, with longtime fans of The Big Breakfast camped outside the studio from 4am on the day it was filmed. ‘Everyone always loves the original – I love the original – so we definitely wanted to pay homage to it, but I really wanted to bring it forward and put our own stamp on it.’ It was such a success that fans are now calling for it to be reinstated as a regular fixture. ‘It’s not happened yet, but I’m waiting for that phone call,’ says AJ.

Both Strictly and The Big Breakfast have been huge ‘pinch me’ moments for the presenter. ‘I’m from Blackburn, it’s a very working class town and it’s just not the done thing getting into the world of showbiz. My mum was a cleaner, my dad was a joiner and then became a bus conductor; these things don’t really happen to people like us.’ AJ credits her mum for instilling an early sense of self-belief. ‘When you say at school that you want to work in telly when everyone’s a cleaner and a dinner lady, it’s a ridiculous thing to think, but my mum always said, “Of course you can do it, why not? Why not?” So it’s quite an emotional thing to come full circle and realise, Oh, my gosh, she was so right!’

Where is AJ Odudu from?

Though she’s now living in London, AJ goes home regularly. ‘Growing up in Blackburn had its ups and downs, but I love my hometown with a passion. It’s where I learned to be loud and to be myself, it’s where I get my Northern banter and grit from; it’s where my dreams were realised.

’‘Strictly Come Dancing’ is on BBC One on Saturdays at 6.45pm and Sundays at 7.10pm and is available on iPlayer

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