celebrity

Arlene Phillips says last year’s I’m A Celeb gang ‘still WhatsApp constantly’

Anyone wanting proof that age is just a number need only look at Dame Arlene Phillips. Six months ahead of her 80th birthday, the choreographer and former Strictly Come Dancing judge is as in demand as ever. And when she’s not dancing herself, she is usually lending her expertise to others as part of a hit West End show.

Last year, Arlene, who choreographed the recent London revival of Grease, made history when she became the oldest contestant to take part in I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! at the age of 78.

“You know, it had never been on my wish list,” she says. “I had been asked for so many years to go on that show and I was someone who would not only never dream of going on, but couldn’t even watch it. I couldn’t watch people surrounded by snakes or with cockroaches crawling down their backs or drinking an obnoxious-tasting potion. But, in a way, I got caught out. I’ve always been working at Christmas so it was very easy to say, ‘I’m not available.’ Suddenly, I had availability.”

Arlene joined TV presenter Richard Madeley, Emmerdale actor Danny Miller and musician Naughty Boy to brave the Welsh winter at Gwrych Castle last November.

Discussing her decision to go on the programme, Arlene credits her grandchildren with giving her the push to take part.

“Growing up, I couldn’t even look at a worm in the garden,” she says. “My kids followed the same path and then I thought, ‘I don’t want my grandchildren to do this.’ My little Lila, the eldest of my grandchildren, loves spiders and would want me to go in the garden and look at them with her. So I suddenly said, ‘Do it!’ It’s about bravery and challenges.”

A year on from her time in the castle, Arlene’s still in touch with many of her campmates and often finds herself chatting to Olympic diver Matty Lee and TV presenter Louise Minchin.

“Matty and I were WhatsApping this morning,” Arlene tells us. “We all have our WhatsApp group and we’re all still in touch. As many of us that could went to the National Television Awards together. You kind of live through an experience together and it doesn’t just fall apart or break away – there’s this constant coming together.”

While she wouldn’t be in any rush to return to camp, there appears to be no stopping Arlene, who tells us she hopes to be a “poster girl for older women”, encouraging them to get out there and do things they might not have done before – just like she did.

“I want to be able to inspire confidence in older women,” says Arlene, who’s been with her partner Angus Ion since they met on the set of a Freddie Mercury music video in 1985. “It’s very hard because you’re kind of dismissed at every level – and that is the truth. It isn’t fashionable to be older. It’s fashionable to be younger. Half of my time is spent helping young people. I love and admire them, but I don’t want the older woman to disappear.”

The threat of “disappearing” as you get older is a predicament Arlene has first-hand experience of. In 2009 she found herself at the centre of an ageism storm after she was dropped from the Strictly Come Dancing judging panel before the seventh series started. Although the BBC denied the decision to replace her had anything to do with age, many felt it must have been a contributing factor when the job went to former Strictly winner Alesha Dixon, who was 30 at the time.

While Arlene is still an avid viewer of Strictly, she’s realistic about the prospect of being asked to return to the panel. “You know, I’ve been asked that question so many times and the truth is they’re not going to ask me back,” she says. “So I think there’s no point in thinking about something that’s never going to happen. I love Strictly. I make no bones about that and I miss it. I loved, loved, loved being on the panel, but they’re not going to ask me back, so I get on with my life. I fulfil all the excitement and joy I need through what I’m doing.”

Despite everything that’s happened, Arlene is glued to the current series, just like many of us.

“I love Fleur [East]. She was a bit of a bull in the china shop, but now she’s contained,” says the choreographer, who rated Hamza Yassin’s dazzling salsa and is a big fan of Will Mellor. “It’s anybody’s win, isn’t it?”

Now, with her milestone 80th birthday next May drawing closer, the mum-of-two says she’s going to make sure it’s her biggest bash yet.

“I have to celebrate with a bang,” she says. “I’ll have the best birthday. I have so many people to thank for where I am – not
just agents and managers and those people that do all the work behind the scenes building my career – but the people who work with me, my assistants and associates that I have in my world.”

With such a busy career and family life, it’s unlikely Arlene ever feels lonely – but this is still a subject close to her heart. She teamed up with Wiltshire Farm Foods for its Wishlist Fund, which encouraged people to nominate someone over 55 to enjoy their bucket-list activities for free – the winner will be announced soon. Arlene supports the campaign because the company, which delivers meals across the country, uses local drivers who will “always stop for a chat”.

“I’m grateful for what they do to combat loneliness,” she says. “Loneliness is a form of disease and I like the fact that people can have their food delivered and spend time chatting to somebody. I find it such a touching thing for a company to give their time.”

Arlene’s personal bucket list is more focused on her family, particularly her granddaughters, three-year-old Lila and Emme, 23 months.

“My wish list is simple,” says Arlene. “I didn’t really grow up with a grandmother on either side of my family. I think my mother’s mother died when I was about seven or eight. My father’s stepmother we rarely saw or had any contact with. So my dream for my kids is that they have a loving grandmother to put their arms out and hug them and know them and have contact with them.”

For more information visit wiltshirefarmfoods.com.

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