‘To tell my story is a dream come true…’

Posted 5th November 2023

When Johannes Radebe and John Whaite took to the dance floor for the first time during the 2021 season of Strictly Come Dancing, they didn’t just deliver a terrific tango – they smashed through another barrier as the show’s first male same-sex couple to compete.

As he prepared to visit Northampton on his first-ever solo tour, Johannes told Sammy Jones that it wasn’t without pressure…

Let’s be honest, there was an intrigue and curiosity around Johannes and John’s Strictly pairing – simply because no-one had seen a male partnership compete in the show before.

When they delivered that first dance – to New Order’s Blue Monday – they did wonders for inclusivity. You could feel their emotion through the screen. 

But they also slotted in just the same as any other couple – because that’s what they are.

“I thank you very much, I am so happy to hear that,” says Johannes, “… to an extent I dislike how we were front page news, and it was such a big thing. I wish to see a world where it’s not an issue anymore.”

He’s not deluded and knows that there’s some way to go before that day dawns, but he has played his part in helping shift the narrative. Massively.

“There are still people out there that are dying; homosexuality is still illegal is certain countries, and is punishable by death. So you can imagine my joy of coming to live in this country, which is very, very progressive….”

Strictly is a glitz and glamour show for the viewer, but it’s also all-encompassing, unbelievably hard-work for the participants, and that’s without having the collective eye of the country focused on you for reasons other than the dancing. How easy was it to take on the challenge?

“When Katya and Nicola did it, I knew that it would have to be two males next and as much as that excited me, I was also very, very not sure and needed to convince myself,” he admits.

And while the UK is progressive, homophobia is still breathing here too. Johannes experienced it firsthand.

“As much as there was an overwhelming amount of love and support towards John and I, there were still trolls, and that’s why I had to get off social media and just focus on the journey, I hate that word, but I had to make sure that John had an incredible time and I’m not going to deny that there was pressure that came with that.”

Dancing with a male partner wasn’t new to the show; Graziano had joined Johannes during a performance by Emeli Sandé back in 2019.

The BBC received 200 complaints following that dance, but much like the trolling he unfortunately experienced during the last season of Strictly, the negativity was silenced by the overwhelming support they were shown.

Johannes has been dancing with the same sex since he first started his fancy footwork as a wee boy.

Johannes in rehearsals for his new show
Johannes in rehearsals for his new show. Pic: Zac Cooke

“I have been dancing with my pals since I started dancing at the age of seven – there were never enough girls around, so me and my pal would always dance around the floor!” he laughed.

There is no question that Strictly has done wonders for acceptance and progression with these recent year partnerships. 

“We have removed the stigma and the barriers, Strictly has been very comprehensive in their way of bringing visibility,” says Johannes, speaking with me after a day of rehearsals for the Strictly tour, “I am so grateful to Sarah James who is the producer of the show – ever since she has taken over there has been change. Strictly is beyond dancing now. 

“To use that tool to change minds, and to educate… I can’t thank her enough.”

Our interviewee is so warm that talking with him feels like summer. He is of a decidedly sunny disposition and a real laugh; an all-round charming fella. 

Johannes has a huge fanbase, but his biggest supporters are his family. Did their approval help with confidence when you were younger?

“Absolutely – I never had to go into the world and seek validation,” he agrees, “The whole community has always been behind my dancing career and encouraged it.

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for my family back home. Family is everything and the older I get the more I realise it. I miss them a lot, and I want to bring mum over as frequently as possible. I have to thank that woman, she has obviously contributed to my confidence… 

“Before I left home and went on the road, she would make me pray and remind me who I am.

“Home is always home, and you can always come back, and I always approach things like that.”

What advice would you give to anyone dealing with sexuality issues, or struggling with anything else for that matter?

“Be courageous, and be yourself,” he says with meaning, “It is important that you do that, because the world will adjust, and you do get older and life gets easier.

“Find your tribe, that’s the most important thing. And that doesn’t have to mean family, there will always be someone who will be willing to listen to you and your story, and they will help.

“Surround yourself with those people that love you unconditionally, because then you can never go wrong.”

The support garnered by Johannes and John took them all the way to the Strictly Grand Final, alongside Giovanni Pernice and Rose Ayling-Ellis. 

At the final hurdle, our interviewee and his pupil were forced into second place. But they were winners regardless.

“Let me tell you something, after I’d done my three dances with John I was bawling my eyes out. I remember we looked at each other

before we went to the floor and John said, ‘I have had the most amazing time with you,’ and he said he loved every minute of Strictly with me, and that’s more than I ever needed to hear.

 

Strictly Come Dancing Live cast for 2022
Johannes and dance partner John feature in the Strictly Come Dancing Live cast for 2022.jpg

 

“I made a friend for life; someone who knows me when I’m angry, when I’m grumpy, when I’m hungry, he knows everything about me!

“We are still in contact and he has become my friend in the United Kingdom. I am really, really grateful.”

When we speak with Johannes he is mere days away from the opening of the aforementioned Strictly tour: “We are going to feel like rockstars in a couple of days!” he tells me, and the show will give him his creative fix too: “When Strictly finishes and there is absolutely nothing, there is such a terrible comedown,” he admits, “This tour really allows us to spend time to get to know each other, without the pressure that comes with the show; to be able to enjoy some of the routines that we’ve done in the show.

“Me and John are doing the Paso Doblo again, and it has never felt more glorious,” he says, excited at the prospect of hitting up arenas around the country.

“The nicest thing about it is having to sit down at the dinner table with Craig-Revel Horwood and hearing him laugh. I think that is the best thing that has happened so far!”

The first time dance made an impression on Johannes, he was watching a couple demonstrate Ballroom and Latin. It was a moment that would change his life, and it was all about the bling!

“The gentleman had a silver sequinned tailcoat on, and that’s when I knew I wanted to do it…” he remembers.

Did they learn that they inspired you?

“They definitely know. We lost the man unfortunately, but the woman is still there: Ben and Mpho.”

Johannes tells me that Mpho means gift, which seems particularly accurate. And, with Strictly not back on our screens until the end of summer, Johannes is giving us a chance to enjoy more of his incredible moves by heading out on his first ever solo tour of the UK; Freedom visits Northampton Derngate on March 19.

For a man who has already made his love of sparkle a thing during this interview, the press image for the tour seems rather bland, we tease.

“Very bland? You’re wicked babe, you’re wicked!” he says, with much laughter, “My mother said it was like an African King with sparkles and diamonte!”

Freedom will take the audience on his personal journey, from growing up in South Africa (Johannes was born in the township Zamdela Sasolburg) to touring the world, becoming an international dance champion and landing the biggest gig on TV.

Johannes Radebe starring in Freedom
Johannes Radebe starring in Freedom

That costume featured in that press image (pictured above) is inspired by his heritage. Everything has meaning.

“The way I grew up, when you turn 21 your family all comes together with a big celebration, and I really wanted to catch that moment of coming of age and being dressed in my African attire, in a world where people can understand it and see how far we’ve come,” he explained, “Also because these type of stories have never been in theatre, I really wanted to bring a little bit of home back…” 

It goes without saying that Johannes is thrilled beyond belief to get the opportunity to deliver his own show: “To be able to tell my story and dance to my music is like a dream come true,” he agrees, “It is just so beautiful that I get to dance to my own tune, to music that has influenced me as a dancer, and because I do have a following, I am excited to share that with them. 

“Because I’ve toured in the UK, I know the audiences are there and how it goes down, and it is the most beautiful thing.” 

Freedom will take ticket-holders from African fusion to fiery Latin and let’s face it, it will be sensational viewing. It will also have quite the finale too, our interviewee promises: “It is going to be a big, big party; a big celebration of rainbow colours, in a pair of heels and dancing in those aisles to songs like We Are Family by Sister Sledge…”

With lots more ‘exciting projects coming up,’ the sparkle is set to continue; he is also signed up as a guest judge on an upcoming episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race: UK Versus the World.

There is a big intake of breath before he gushes, “You know when they say ‘the stars are aligned’? I have watched the show since its inception in 2009. I remember my friend introducing me to it and I said, ‘Surely this cannot be on TV? It’s not going to last’. We laughed about it, but we enjoyed the first season so much, and ever since then I have been glued to it!” he says, with the emphasis on the word glue.

I dare to admit that I’ve never seen a single episode, before Johannes urges me to check in.

“You will absolutely just fall in love with it…”

Much like the Strictly massive and beyond have fallen in love with him.

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