I won't be the little wife in the background anymore: Debbie McGee opens up about widowhood, grief and showstopping splits on Strictly
Debbie McGee at home in Wargrave,?Berkshire
Early morning down on the Thames, in a lush crook of the river where stockbroker belt meets the golden girdle of showbusiness and homes cost ￡3million and more, the lovely Debbie McGee is limbering up to face another day.
'I can bend over and put my nose on my knees. Look. I can touch my toes and put my palms on the floor without a warm up,' she says in her kitchen. 'Kicking my legs is a different thing. I need to stretch for that. I need my Giovanni for that.'
For the past five weeks, the 58-year-old magician's assistant has been wowing the nation on Strictly Come Dancing along with her professional partner, Giovanni Pernice.
In week one, Debbie did the splits for the finale of her paso doble. Oof! Last week, she went one better and did the standing splits at the end of her cha cha cha — which is a dance, not a body part, to avoid confusion.
It was a hamstring-defying, knicker-flashing feat that many dancers half her age could not accomplish without the aid of a hoist. The judges duly raved about her flexibility and stamina. 'You are very, very, very bendy,' she was told — testament to years of keeping fit with yoga and Pilates.
So hurrah for Debs, even if some fans of the show have complained about her taking part because she once trained as a professional dancer. But, hey, come on, so have a great number of the show's so-called amateurs.
Anyway, to be fair, the last time Debbie McGee did the splits was when dinosaurs roamed the earth, or at least 22 years ago. And her age is a formidable handicap in the television ballroom of broken dreams, where the rigidity of her ballet training often works against her.
In Latin dancing it is all about the hips, baby. In ballet it is all about keeping them rigid, trapped in a hip cage, totally unyielding. And there are other technical issues, too.
'Ballet dancers walk through their feet, toe to heel. In Strictly you have to walk heel to toe,' says McGee. Please, no one tell host Tess Daly this, or she will be walking around in confused circles all day.
Appearing on Strictly Come Dancing has been 'a dream come true' for Debbie, but it has also served as a kind of therapy. For she is still grieving the death of Paul Daniels, the man she describes as 'the legend I was lucky enough to have as my husband'.
The famous magician died 19 months ago, just five weeks after being diagnosed with a massive brain tumour. Debbie nursed him through that final month here in their riverside home, having breakfast under the weeping willows in the garden, eating ice creams together while they watched television, never letting him see her cry.
A very supple Debbie Mcgee and her dance partner Giovanni Pernice
'I don't know how I did it. I had to dig deep but I have always been a strong person, sometimes even stronger than Paul.
'I decided I couldn't let him spend the last days of his life looking at me weeping away, because I would have felt terrible about that after he had gone.'
With Strictly training four days a week, plus rehearsals and show times, there is no time to go under the 'waves of grief' that can suddenly capsize her. Now there is no time to think about anything except dancing, dancing, dancing.
Debbie is desperate for sleep and has lost 4lb, even after carb-loading by eating two dinners every night — and allowing herself a brace of gin and tonics after the Saturday night show.
Yet she is still teensy-weensy; a dress size 8, with elfin, size 3 feet and knees like little crab apples. 'As Craig the judge said last week, I am a Barbie doll,' she giggles.
At the moment, she is getting ready for her close-up, with a head full of rollers and the careful application of her favourite Rimmel Coral In Gold lipstick.
Debbie with her husband Paul Daniels
Her hair is the most startling and marvellous shade of buttery blonde I think I've ever seen.
'It is not natural,' says Debbie, though I think we might have all guessed. 'I went back to nature a few years ago, but I hated myself as a brunette.'
When the rollers come out, thick stands of her hair are left still wrapped around them, like little bales of neon hay.
For someone who spent much of her life being sawn in half by her husband for one of his tricks, she is in tremendous shape. A new line of salsa muscle blooms along her hip — and I don't need to whip out my cellulite-spotting magnifying glass to see that her thighs are as smooth as glaciers.
In her sexy cocktail dress and heels, Debbie may look fragile, but she exerts a tiny matador's authority over the milling crowd in her home this morning.
'I need everybody to KEEP QUIET or I can't concentrate,' she bellows randomly at the BBC crew, here filming inserts for tonight's show. Meanwhile, the make-up artist affixes broom-size false eyelashes to Debbie's tangerine face and Giovanni, who's arrived in a taxi in his rehearsal sweats, sulks around the kitchen in a musky cloud of ferocious aftershave.
Mmmm, what is that lovely smell? 'Issa secret. I need to keep something for myself,' he says, in his thick Italian accent. I thought he was joking, but no, dearie me, he is deadly serious.
He and Debbie double-darling one another ('Darling, did you sleep well darling?') and check for signs of muscle fatigue or ligament wear and tear, like two mountaineers about to rope themselves together to make a life-or-death dash to the summit. Which, in its way, is entirely accurate.
This week, they are throwing themselves upon the mercy of the rumba, another four-to-the-beat challenge on her stiff hips and classical background.
'I am not very good at letting him lead me,' she says. 'Giovanni always tells me: 'Hold back, stop rushing.' But I always go for it, don't I darling?'
Debbie McGee strikes a pose on Strictly Come Dancing
The couple clearly have a professional and affectionate chemistry, but few fans would be ready for a Strictly-style rehearsal-room romance between them — after all, he is more than three decades her junior.
Still, that hasn't stopped the racy nature of some of their Latin routines, prompting excitable entertainment reports hinting at a romantic rapport.
There has also been much discussion of McGee's libido, as if it were a long-defunct volcano that has suddenly erupted back into life. 'Why do we need to talk about my libido?' she says, a sudden edge creeping into her voice.
Bit of fun? I suggest lamely.
'Everything I am doing on Strictly is fun. Dancing with Giovanni is fun. But if I had been with Kevin [Clifton] or any of the other dancers, I still would be having fun.'
Giovanni! Close your sweetly scented ears, Mummy is having a moment!
'It is like being in a movie,' she goes on. 'Giovanni is my leading man. If I were an actress playing a love scene, you wouldn't be asking me about my libido, would you?'
'No, you would just accept that I am playing a character. Nothing to do with anything else.
'I am the sort of person who always has a joie de vivre. I have always felt young and frisky.'
A shopkeeper's daughter from Kingston upon Thames, dancer Debbie met Paul Daniels in 1979 when she was hired for his stage show. They married in 1988, following his divorce from his first wife.
Paul Daniels & Debbie McGee on television programme Box Jumpers
The couple remained together, deliriously happy, making a mockery of spoof chat-show host Mrs Merton's famous inquiry: 'What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?'
'Ha! When I met Paul he wasn't a millionaire for a start. Plus I owned my own flat and was really successful. I didn't need his money.'
The strange thing is that here, today, in their cream-painted Berkshire home, it feels like Paul Daniels is not dead at all, but has merely performed a vanishing trick. Any minute now, he might step out from behind the curtain and we might like that, but not a lot.
His car is still in the driveway, his clothes are still in the cupboards, his props are still scattered around the home — including his three white rabbits in the hallway, ready to be pulled from a top hat.
Debbie is not living in a mausoleum by any means, but one can see that she likes the comfort of the familiar.
'I would advise other widows to throw out nothing for the first year. You don't know what you are doing, you might regret it later,' she says.
'All the birthdays and anniversaries are awful, painful, horrendous, but you get through them somehow. Then it becomes more real because the shock goes. Now I realise that Paul is really not coming back, and that is hard.'
For the past five weeks, the 58-year-old magician's assistant has been wowing the nation on Strictly Come Dancing
She tries to focus on the life they enjoyed together, as husband and wife, magician and assistant. She now performs magic herself, has appeared on reality television shows and hosts a regular radio show.
'I like to keep busy,' she says, 'and that is why when Strictly came along I said yes straight away. It was something I'd always wanted to go on.' For years, she was dwarfed by her husband's success.
'Paul had such a big personality, he was The One, not me. On television shows they always held me back because I was the little assistant in a box, I was always the little wife, edited out.
'You know, I haven't just suddenly developed a personality for Strictly because Paul has died. I have always been cheeky and bubbly and a joker, but the public never really got to see me like that.'
Wasn't it frustrating, then, forever being in his shadow?
'No, no, never ever. Paul was a really special person, he had that charisma that people like Frank Sinatra have. I always knew he had something far more than I had, so I was always happy in his shadow,' she says.
She knew there was something wrong with him before he did. After appearing in a panto over the Christmas of 2015, she noticed that he was quiet and withdrawn at home.
'He had lost his sparkle. I had known him for 38 years, but never seen him like this,' she says.
Magician Paul Daniels with Debbie McGee
Doctors first thought it was an underactive thyroid, then decided upon pernicious pneumonia. On the morning of February 12 last year, Daniels was violently sick after breakfast. Debbie called an ambulance, and in hospital following a scan, they found the tumour.
'Within two hours, they told me he had two months, and he lasted a month and five days,' she says.
She researched everything and sought second opinions, but soon came to understand that 'nothing was worth trying'.
Instead, she brought her husband to die in the home they had made together, and which he loved. She plastered on a smile and made the most of the time they had left.
'He didn't quite understand what was going on, but he was still the same old Paul, laughing and joking. It was only in the last week that he weakened, but even then his spirit wouldn't give in.'
She cries when she says that the hardest part after he died was 'just getting up every morning and he wasn't there'. Then she throws back her head, not for dramatic effect, but so she doesn't ruin her television make-up — I would expect nothing less from a woman with pure showbiz running through her veins.
'I was just lucky,' she says, 'to find somebody I loved so much and worked with so well.'
So one can see why so much solace has come in the form of Strictly, which she has always adored. 'I have loved all the funny ones, like Jeremy Vine and Ed Balls and Susan Calman this year. Not Ann Widdecombe, because she didn't really try, did she?'
She doesn't know how far she can go in the series, where dancers are eliminated each week and everyone pushes themselves to the limit. However, isn't it fabulous seeing an older woman tearing up the dancefloor in her chiffon and gold heels?
Debbie McGee is also a widow, which is never easy, no matter who you are or how famous you might be. But there she is, twirling under the spotlight, stretching every single sinew every week.
She is a bendy Barbie, she is Giovanni's girl, but most of all, she is a survivor.?
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