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It’s all in the business of the lady


Britain’s dancing queen Dame Arlene Phillips learned one thing early on, and that’s what makes her an excellent stand. “If you’re in show business, you’re going to be judged every single day, so you need to be able to face rejection and get back to work,” she says.

This determination propelled Phillips into an extraordinary career as her dance videos and musicals have been seen by the likes of Cher, Diana Ross, Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber. At the age of 60 she became a household name, judging the first series of Strictly Come Dancing, before being replaced five years later by Alesha Dixon, 35 years her junior. “My heart broke but in my head I was like, ‘Keep it going,'” she says.

Now, just a month before her 80th birthday, she is being hailed as the choreographer for musical theatre’s hottest ticket: Guys & Dolls at London’s Bridge Theatre, which has garnered five-star reviews. Tonight will take home this year’s Oliviers Special Award – British Theater Oscars – for choreography and directing.

“What a year ago!” Says. “Oliver is absolutely beautiful and Guys & Dolls is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved in. I don’t know 80. I think of my grandmother at that age who could barely move from her chair, everything hurts. I relate every morning to going to work – it’s a gift divorced.

The daughter of a barber and a housewife, Phillips grew up in a two-seater duplex house in Manchester with an outside toilet. She began dancing at the age of three, then – as she got older – paid for lessons with a daily paper round and work in a bakery. At the age of fifteen she lost her beloved mother to leukemia and temporarily gave up her dreams of studying dance in London to support her younger sister and ailing father.

Arlene at auditions in January. Arlene Phillips told YOU Magazine about her career in the world of dance

Finally, at the age of 23, I got to the capital. She was in her 30s when she founded the dance group Hot Gossip, but producers dismissed the group — who wore cheap lingerie she bought from sex shops — as “too sexy”. They were on the verge of breaking up when they landed a slot on ITV’s The Kenny Everett Video Show where an exasperated Mary Whitehouse spotted their boisterous antics.

She was the self-proclaimed protector of public morals. She remembers Phillips, sitting in a cafe near her home in north London, wearing a black patterned jacket. In contrast to her strictly wasp persona, she is kind and warm. I was completely shocked that people were so shocked. To me, the violence on screen looked a lot worse than what we did. But it ruined my career. Since then I’ve been everywhere.

It was the height of the MTV music video and Phillips choreographed just about everything. There were Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” videos.

It is still shown all the time. Whitney didn’t like her feet, they were too long and skinny and she didn’t like looking at them, so I had to find ways to keep them out of sight.

Then there was Diana Ross, who directed everyone involved in the “chain reaction” video to address her as “Miss Ross.” David Mallet, who directed the video, knocked on her dressing room door and said, “Honey, everyone can call you Miss Ross except Arlene and I because we’re so busy and why use two names when one is enough?” I just laughed. It was a very long shot and at the end everyone was calling her Diana – all her coolness was gone.

Phillips also worked with Elton John on the legendary “I’m Still Standing” video. He just came and said, “Tell me what to do.” It was an adventure, there wasn’t much rehearsal. But I always enjoyed him – he’s a very generous human being.

Were there tantrums?

‘Yes, of course! It could be about anything, I think mainly when I look back now (that was) because Elton was exhausted. There must have been a lot of…”

Now, just a month before her 80th birthday, she is being hailed as the choreographer for musical theatre's hottest ticket: Guys & Dolls at London's Bridge Theatre.

Now, just a month before her 80th birthday, she is being hailed as the choreographer for musical theatre’s hottest ticket: Guys & Dolls at London’s Bridge Theatre.

Phillips did a light voice mime on her gloved arm.

Unlike Elton, Freddie Mercury, with whom she collaborated on his video for “Born to Love You,” threw himself into the creative process.

You could always easily talk to Freddy, he was very involved in what was going on and all he did was want to do more. As a person he was extreme and cool.

Less fun was Duran Duran, with whom I made the “Wild Boys” video (remember the windmill?).

They were very serious, because it was such a huge shoot, so it was all about work. Anyway, if there were any parties I would have missed them; I generally skipped them so I could be ready the next morning.

I don’t know 80. I think of my grandmother at that age who can barely move from her chair

After all, Phillips was now a single mom to Alana, who was born in 1979 in Los Angeles when she was choreographing the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music (she never named the father).

‘I was about 7 1/2 months pregnant when I had to choreograph my skates, so I learned to skate but when the producer saw me he had a massive panic attack – ‘We haven’t got insurance!’ “

She told her boyfriend Andrew Lloyd Webber this story, “like gossip.” Two years later he called and asked if she was still figure skating. I said, “Not much but I can get the skates out…”

Turns out he had the idea for an all-encompassing musical: Starlight Express. Phillips choreographed the show, which ran for 18 years in the West End and led to her work on a string of musicals from Grease to Saturday Night Fever, The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz.

No wonder the BBC was thrilled to sign on with Strictly’s hugely experienced Phillips.

When she was ignominiously dismissed, Harriet Harman MP asked questions in Parliament about age discrimination at the BBC and in the following series, viewing figures dropped neatly. Phillips says the BBC never explained why he left her. In fact, they didn’t even bother to inform her that she had lost the party. Instead, she finds out on an early morning call from a radio station asking how she feels about being fired.

“I can’t talk to you,” I said, and then I looked out the window and my little street was full of reporters and photographers. But I couldn’t contact anyone to tell me what was going on. It was a world of unhappiness. I think the BBC could have set me up. But I just picked myself up again.

Throughout her busy work schedule, Phillips has been juggling family life, with the help of nannies and her partner, Angus Ion, a website creator she met while filming the “Born to Love You” video in 1985. Phillips gave birth to their daughter, Abi, when she was 47 years old.

(I was told) I was kind of a weirdo, that I had a hard time bonding with my baby when I could be the grandmother. I let all these remarks pass with tears in my eyes. Nowadays it is very common to be an elderly mother. When you let all of these things go, you see the sheer joy of having a baby when you get older. You feel like you got a gift.

She’s been with Eun for nearly 40 years, so what do you think is the key to a long-term relationship?

with daughter Alana in 1989. Alana was born in 1979 in Los Angeles when Arlene was choreographing for Village People Can't Stop the Music (father's name was never given)

with daughter Alana in 1989. Alana was born in 1979 in Los Angeles when Arlene was choreographing for Village People Can’t Stop the Music (father’s name was never given)

You need to live your own life – to have your own job, hobbies, friends but always have something that unites you in the end. And I don’t just mean sex; You have some common passion like going to the movies and most of all you share a love for your kids – nothing can keep you apart.

Now Phillips is surrounded by daughters Alana, who are four and two years old. “The love of your grandkids is so inspiring – it’s like nothing you’ve experienced before.” It’s very special.

Two years ago, Phillips was inspired by her granddaughter, Lila, to star in I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here.

I’ve always been terrified of things like daddy long legs and worms. But my four year old granddaughter loves spiders. I’ve been asked to go on I’m a Celebrity… before but I’ve always said no – I’ve never been free. But when they asked me again I thought, “I’m just saying no because of my pathetic insecurities and now (because the pandemic has stopped live shows) I have no excuses.”

This was in 2021, when Covid restrictions meant I was a celebrity… Filmed not in the Australian jungle but in a frozen castle in Wales.

Being there, at 78, was “pretty overwhelming at times.” You had to put up with the cold and eat little and be constantly told what to do, which I’m not very good at, as I’m usually a go-getter. But I achieved what I wanted, the challenge of being in a glass coffin with snakes crawling over me. I went into a kind of trance — “I’m going to feel snakes, I’m going to love them” — and it was an amazing experience. “

Soon after her move out of the castle, Phillips’ career achievements were recognized when Princess Anne appointed her Lady of Windsor Castle.

It really came out of the blue; It never occurred to me, that I would be invited to join this fine club called dames. Although in the end, you realize that Lady is just such a cool name,” she laughs.

She has no idea yet how she will celebrate her 80th birthday.

“I’m torn—I should be celebrating, but at the same time I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll just let it pass.'” “I was immersed in work and didn’t think much of it.

How many 79-year-olds can say that?

Guys & Dolls is at London’s Bridge Theatre until September. Tickets are available at bridgetheater.co.uk

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