Johannes Radebe is the Strictly Come Dancing professional who’s captured the nation’s heart. Breaking boundaries in the ballroom, Johannes is shattering gender stereotypes and putting representation on the map. Yet the journey to embracing himself wasn’t always easy...
Of all the hello hugs shared with celebrities, rarely have I been as impressed as when Strictly Come Dancing pro Johannes Radebe arrives at Happiful’s south London studio, wrapped up against the January frost in a woollen pea coat and oversized scarf. A big grin is pursued by an even bigger, heartfelt embrace, and in 10 seconds flat, I’m sold.
After 22 years of dance training, the South African-born star possesses a body built of muscle, but his character is gentle and beautifully exposed. After sinking into a leather sofa at the rear of the studio, away from the hubbub of photoshoot preparations, the dancer and choreographer is instantly at ease. He underscores what he says with smiles aplenty – like when he expresses adoration for his “best friend”, fellow Strictly pro Graziano Di Prima, who he was with the night before, performing on the fourth night of the Strictly Come Dancing live tour.
“I spend every single day with him, mostly because his girlfriend isn’t with us. He hangs on to me for dear life but, the truth is, we need each other!” says Johannes, who joined Strictly in 2018, but enjoyed his first celebrity pairing in 2019 when he and former Coronation Street actress Catherine Tyldesley coupled up. They lit up the dance floor until week six.
Touring with the Strictly pros, enthuses Johannes, is “like being on holiday with your best mates” and even though many have secured lucrative gigs outside the hit BBC1 show – such as Oti Mabuse on The Greatest Dancer, and AJ Pritchard who joined RuPaul’s Drag Race UK as a dance coach – he insists there is never jealousy between the cast.
“The pie’s big enough for everybody. We don’t live in the competitive world anymore. Not to say that the competition isn’t rife when we come to Strictly, because we all want to win, but we’re all different. We all have our qualities. It’s so nice amongst the pros. They’re all kind. It’s been so great.”
Now 32, Johannes finds himself at a fascinating moment in his career, and has every reason to be cheerful. For one, he is finally at home in his own skin. Three months before we meet, a fortnight before he and Graziano danced in the show’s first same-sex routine, Johannes slayed a pro dance sequence, performing to ‘Fame’ in a pair of high-heeled PVC boots. It set the Twittersphere ablaze, with Strictly fans commending him for breaking the mould of gender stereotypes. It also, he says, attracted a flurry of praise from “older gay men” who “identified with the boldness and the confidence”.
I’m the change. Honestly, I see it like that. I’m the first gay black man on Strictly. I’m proud!
“That was my coming out party to the world,” grins Johannes, revealing that when show bosses proposed the idea he agreed, not to publicly shout about being openly gay, but to educate his extended family back home. While Johannes has “always known” he is gay and never hidden his sexuality, he says some relatives were still asking at family functions when he would “come home with a wife and kids”.
Johannes, who concedes that in Africa there is a generational gap of LGBTQ+ education and acceptance, sighs. “It’s a reality, but we live in such progressive times, and I realised there’s no need to hide any more,” he says. “The world has been ready, all I had to do was embrace who I am fully, fully, fully, because that was always my fear – that sense of rejection, that feeling of ‘if I do this, what if somebody mocks me? I don’t want to bring shame to my family.’ It took me 32 years to finally accept that and say, ‘Honestly, this is my life.’”
Johannes believes historically there’s been insufficient media representation of LGBTQ+ minorities, but has observed an improvement over the past two years. He was “inspired” by groundbreaking US series Pose, which delves into the New York City ballroom scene at the height of the AIDS crisis, and accepts credit for his own role in the acceptance of greater diversity within society.
“I’m the change. Honestly, I see it like that. I’m the first gay black man on Strictly. I just think, good for you Johannes. I’m proud!”
In the last series of the Danish version of Strictly, a male duo emerged victorious, and Steps singer Ian ‘H’ Watkins and pro skater Matt Evers were paired on this year’s Dancing On Ice. Surely it’s time for Strictly to regularly feature same sex couples, and to hell with the armchair critics (Johannes and Graziano’s dance attracted 189 complaints to Ofcom)?
“Out of how many million viewers?” says Johannes, instantly putting the protest into perspective. “It’s good that the BBC have started. Whenever they are ready to make that step, they should know there’s representation.”
For Johannes, who never thought he would “have a voice”, being a respected public figure is a responsibility he cherishes. He’s actively planning to align with a LGBTQ+ youth charity, and is intent on making a difference to vulnerable youngsters’ lives.
“I hope with my actions I’m breaking barriers, and bringing comfort and assurance that it’s OK,” he says. “Life gets better.”
Johannes will be appearing in the Strictly Professionals Tour from May 2020. Find him @johannesradebe on Instagram.