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Daily Mirror
Daily Mirror
Emily Retter

'I'm ready to jump out of a plane to help people like my brother', says Shirley Ballas

Shirley Ballas pauses to wrench open a bottle of olive oil for her 86-year-old mum, Audrey. The pair live together, and Mrs Rich is cooking a roast. But despite the Strictly judge’s pleas, she doesn’t stick around.

“Don’t tempt providence,” is all she utters, before exiting to the kitchen. “She’s not over it, is she?” the dancing legend laughs.

“It” is the eye-watering “skyathlon” Shirley, who is afraid of heights, is bracing to perform within the week of August 7 – a heady trio of zip line, wing walk, and 15,000ft skydive.

Audrey has a point... Why on earth would Strictly’s head judge, who will become a grandmother for the first time during this year’s series, put herself through it?

Because, although terrified, she is driven by a deeply personal motive. Her challenge will be in memory of her brother David, who took his life 20 years ago, and to raise funds for the suicide prevention charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm).

“Mum said, ‘I’m 86 and I don’t think I can see my 63-year-old daughter jump out of a plane’. She won’t come with me,” Shirley sighs.

“But sometimes in life you have to take risks and that’s what I’m prepared to do for this charity. David would probably want to do it with me and I think I’ll have to take a little bit of him with me for the ride, a little necklace he bought me. I think he’d be immensely proud.”

She points behind her to a photograph of a smiling man fishing. This is David. Then she explains a dance student of hers has also taken her life, aged 38, in the past fortnight. This shocking tragedy “brings it all back again”. Some 125 lives in the UK are lost to suicide every week and 75% are male.

“This is happening as we speak,” she says. “It has no face, it is not young, it’s not old, it’s not rich, it’s not poor; suicide is across the board, ­everywhere.”

But today, Shirley tells me, is a good day. She is nursing great news. She is going to become a ­grandmother, as her son Mark, 37, and his wife, singer BC Jean, 36, who live in the States, have revealed they are expecting.

“I’m trying to find myself a name,” she grins broadly. “I quite like Nanny Sparkle. I’m very, very excited for my son and his wife. They FaceTime daily or every other day and we get to see the progression of the tummy growing and all the pictures. The 3D scans, you can see it doing this and that… and basketball and football and lords knows what!” she giggles.

Shirley with her mum Audrey Rich (Alpha Press)
Shirley at home in London as she prepares to take on the Skyathlon challenge (PA)

“This is going to be ­beautiful. I think I might be doing Strictly,” she adds of the due date. “But you can fly anywhere ­nowadays overnight.”

But Shirley is candid enough to admit not all days are good. The long-standing ambassador for Calm has her own mental health struggles.

She has received counselling off and on for years, but during the last series of Strictly she came in for the most relentless backlash of online trolling, accused of marking ­celebrities including Fleur East unfairly.

This pushed her to an “all-time low”. “An all- time low is when you don’t want to get out of bed and you think you don’t want to deal with that day,” Shirley explains.

“I had a few moments there, but fortunately I have my mother with me and she would come in and sit on the edge of the bed and say, ‘Let’s go, let’s get up, let’s have some coffee, let’s have a chat’. She’s a good person to bounce off.

“But she’s 86 and I don’t like to worry her with my thoughts of how I feel when she has already had a son who has gone through what he’s gone through.”

She received “nasty, evil and also awful sexual messages”, and thought twice about rejoining Strictly. But her partner of four years, Danny Taylor, 50, was by her side.

“He is a person who likes to talk about mental health ­struggles and has definitely been one of the people I can count on one hand who has been there for me,” she says.

And Shirley has now hired someone to filter her social media. “I will feel a little more that I won’t be looking over my back when I go out my front door worried somebody is going to do something,” she admits. “I’m doing the show again because people wanted it and requested it, and I have people in place for me.”

Shirley adds: “I’ve had regular ­counselling over the years. But I used to hide it. Now I realise there’s nothing wrong with it.”

Her brother was not so candid. She describes David as a replacement father after theirs left when she was two, leaving Audrey to bring them up on a council estate in Wallasey, in Merseyside. “He was my friend, my go-to person, my protector,” she says.

When Shirley discovered ballroom dancing as a child, he encouraged her to pursue her dream and get away. But she still carries guilt she did not protect him. In December 2003, when he took his life aged 44, Audrey, who he was living with, had come to stay with Shirley for a visit. Police arrived on the doorstep to reveal he had been found.

Shirley says she did not realise how low he was. She says: “Twenty years ago I didn’t see the signs. I wasn’t educated, I didn’t know what to look for, my mother didn’t know what to look for.

“I should have got in my car and gone up with my mother and I should have been there with him. So I have to live with that guilt all the time and I don’t want anyone else to live with that guilt. If I knew then what I know now I think he’d still be alive.”

Shirley is quick to emotion, but quick to laugh, too. She is not Nanny Sparkle for nothing. Quick as a flash, she is back to ­planning with pizzazz her dance with danger, the skyathlon.

“My target is £200,000 but I’d like to think we could get to a million,” she says, jauntier than a quickstep. “Maybe Giovanni [Pernice] might come with me on one challenge – it’s a possibility! I think the Strictly boys and girls will get behind me.”

And after that it won’t be long until Strictly. Has she a wish list this year? “I’d love to see Tom Jones – or Mark Tindall or his wife Zara!” she says. She would love a tribute dance to her pal Len Goodman, who died this year. “We miss him dearly,” she smiles.

If he could see what she was up to, it would surely be less a case of “Severn!” and more “Heavens!”.

For practical support and advice or to donate to Shirley’s Skyathlon head to

If you're struggling and need to talk, the Samaritans operate a free helpline open 24/7 on 116 123.

Alternatively, you can email or visit their site to find your local branch.

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