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Craig Revel Horwood: "I don't care what people say about me"

Strictly's My Nasty is the pantomime villain we are learning to love. By Simon Evans

He is Strictly’s pantomime villain, the judge the audiences love to hate, and was once memorably described, by Julian Clary, as “a vindictive old queen”, but Craig Revel Horwood rather enjoys playing the baddie in the long-running Saturday night staple.

And it is important to remember that Craig is a distinguished director and choreographer, and when acidly dismissing some poor unfortunate who has taken a tumble on the dance floor it is because he expects the highest possible standards from everyone he works with.

Craig’s CV, including extensive West End and international credits and Olivier Award nominations as a choreographer, as well as directing the opening ceremony of the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, speaks for itself.

“When I’m watching something I’m being professional about it,” he told The Independent. “I’m not there to have a good time... I’m there to judge a competition.”

Earlier this year Craig directed and choreographed a stage production of Sister Act and the Dusty Springfield musical Son of a Preacher Man, which is currently on tour, and in September took over Miranda Hart’s role as the vindictive orphanage boss in the West End production of Annie. And, despite this heavy workload, he also found time to have hip-replacement surgery. (He is a patron of the National Osteoporosis Society and has struck up a friendship with Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, whose mother, like his, was afflicted with the bone disease). Then there were the traditional Strictly cruises, which Craig particularly enjoys

“I judge onboard passenger competitions – and I’m vile, because they expect me to be, and there’s so much to complain about because they’re terrible, but it’s good fun and they love it.”

Over Christmas he will once again be in panto, hopelessly typecast as the Wicked Queen in a production of Snow White at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, but for the moment the current series of Strictly is occupying all his attention.

“I’m not there to have a good time... I’m there to judge a competition”

At six foot two he is taller than you might think (fellow judges Darcey Bussell and Bruno Tonioli have to sit on cushions so the judges’ eyelines are all on the same level) and Craig’s Australian accent is also well hidden, but his verbal tic of sometimes drawing out his vowels, ‘Disaaaaaster, darling’, simply came out of necessity

“That happened out of time limitation. They come to me last on the panel, so Bruno might be going on... you know, endlessly... and they might say ‘You’ve got ten seconds... we need one word’, so I have to say something... and sometimes I have to stretch it out to three syllables.” In an age when criticism often has to be softened with a spoonful of sugar to avoid offence, Craig’s candour is refreshing. And actorly types are often the worst at being told their performance is not very good, hence Clary’s barb during an early series of Strictly. And during the 2006 series, actress Jan Ravens’ husband shoved Craig repeatedly in the chest in the bar after a show in which the judge had been less than complimentary about her performance.

“Actors take everything too hard,” Craig says, “their talent is at stake... their persona is at stake. I’m not being as hard as any of my dance teachers... my dance teachers were nightmares. They had a stick and hit you to get your leg higher.”

Craig was born in the Australian city of Ballarat in 1965, the second child of Beverley and Philip Revel Horwood.

Because of his father’s postings with the Australian navy, his childhood with his three sisters (he also has a brother, Trent, who was born when Craig was a teenager) involved a lot of moving around the world – including a stint in Fareham near Portsmouth and six years in Sydney.

When the family ended up back in Ballarat, Craig became desperate to escape his home city, mainly because of the difficulty of living with his alcoholic father, who died in 2015.

“Living with an alcoholic is a nightmare – just a lot of shouting and the kicking of furniture and burning things. Friends could never come back to your house, it was too embarrassing.”

To make matters worse, Craig was also bullied for being overweight, blighted throughout his adolescence by prominent ‘man boobs’. Craig tried to get rid of them through dance and exercise, but eventually had to resort to surgery.

In his first volume of autobiography, All Balls and Glitter, Craig revealed that, when he was 16, an unnamed celebrity sugar-daddy took him round the world and paid for his dance tuition; “it was just a business deal, but I don’t actually know if he saw it that way. I didn’t actually ask. I didn’t want to know.”

He had met his mystery benefactor while working for a television station.

“I knew what I was doing. I was quite grown up by then. I felt like an adult and I made an adult decision and that’s how I got out of Ballarat.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me. He took me to the opening of Cats in New York; and Dream Girls had just opened on Broadway. I saw very clearly that I wanted to do that, that I wanted to be part of that life, and I’d do anything to get it.” Not only was Craig attracted to the world of dance and musical theatre, he had already discovered he was rather good at it, too.

After training in Melbourne, Craig moved to Sydney to perform in a production of La Cage aux Folles

Frustrated at just being part of the chorus line, and to help make ends meet he started performing in clubs as a drag queen act, going by the name of Lavish. “I used to go to clubs and sing as myself but people weren’t interested. And then I turned up as a woman and suddenly everyone was interested.

“Thankfully, in the Eighties, big hair and shoulder pads were in... Joan Collins wore more make-up than I ever did.” Craig eventually killed off Lavish, (“she was becoming just too popular and taking over my life”) but says he uses elements of her character when he plays the Wicked Queen in panto.

At the age of 22 Craig travelled to Paris to perform at the Lido cabaret on the Champs Elysées and then, in 1989, he moved onto London, where he has lived ever since, finally gaining British citizenship in 2011.

He started out touring with the Danny La Rue Show, before winning West End roles in Miss Saigon and Crazy for You and then moving into direction and production. It was while he was appearing in Miss Saigon that Craig married his then-flatmate, Jane.

“We resided in a one-bedroom flat in Crouch End, which was very romantic – a bit like Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park. I loved her zany qualities, her appreciation for the arts, her outgoing nature, her ability to converse with anybody, her strength, her passion – even her Welsh accent.”

He admits proposing was an impulse decision that had not been thought through.

“There was no getting down on one knee. I blurted it out one evening after dinner at our local Greek restaurant.”

However, just before the couple’s second anniversary Craig discovered Jane was having an affair with a mutual friend and they divorced soon after.

“It was just a big mistake. I thought I could have everything – the wife, the kids, the boys – but I was immature and needed this lesson to grow up and be true to myself.”

He is still friends with Jane and her second husband, who says of Craig, “he is a lovely fella. Despite his demeanour on TV, that’s not the Craig we know.”

Craig suffered more heartache last year when he split up with his partner of three years, Damon Scott. Before that he had been in a relationship with Harley Street chemist Grant MacPherson for five years. Shortly after divorcing Jane, Craig gave up performing. At the time he was enjoying a wild and carefree life in a shared house in Camden – known as the Heartbreak Hotel – but then he damaged his shoulder and had to ask himself whether he wanted to be “dancing in the back row of the chorus when I’m 40”.

He tried his hand at sculpture, before getting a call from New York asking him to teach the steps of Crazy for You in a new production before taking it on tour to Berlin and then South Africa. And so he made the life-changing transition from dancer to choreographer.

He says being shouted at, and even assaulted, in the street by angry Strictly fans, does not bother him, although his stint on Masterchef in 2007 did help to change the public perception of him as a self-absorbed Mr Nasty. Gone were the acerbic put-downs, and instead there was Craig displaying crippling nerves, sweating and shaking.

Regarding Strictly, however, he remains bullish. “I don’t care what people say about me,” he says. “You read so much terrible stuff about yourself it sort of just ends up washing over. In fact, I try to laugh as much as I can, and think how wonderful that is.”

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