Debbie McGee has been impressing in this year’s series of Strictly
It was, as is so often the case these days, social media that highlighted a new phenomenon in our midst. Her name? None other than the lovely Debbie McGee.
“Your Viennese waltz with @pernicegiovann1 was exquisite!” gushed one admirer. “Keep doing it for we more mature ladies.”
“Amazing beautiful a stunning performance,” swooned another (actually the actress Vicki Michelle of ’Allo ’Allo fame).
“Personally I thought this was exquisite,” sighed a third and so it went on: after decades of being best known for being attracted to the millionaire magician Paul Daniels, McGee is finally a star in her own right.
For her appearances on Strictly Come Dancing have been a revelation. Every year Strictly produces an unexpected star turn – think of John Sergeant and our very own Ann Widdecombe – and this time, for all the right reasons, it’s McGee.
Admittedly she’s a trained ballerina, who won a place at the Royal Ballet School aged 16 and danced with the Iranian National Ballet before fleeing the country in the wake of the revolution – she caught the last flight out.
But that was getting on for 40 years ago. Nor was it the kind of dance she is being called upon to perform now. Rather, the daughter of shopkeepers who grew up in the south-west London suburb of Tolworth has been defined by her relationship with Daniels, who she met in 1979 when acting as his assistant in Great Yarmouth and married nine years later.
Despite that rather cruel jibe from the late comedian Caroline Aherne as Mrs Merton (“What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”) it was clearly a love match: McGee was poleaxed by her husband’s death at the age of 77 of brain cancer in March last year.
Debbie McGee backstage at the musical Annie with Craig Revel Horwood
Debbie has revealed that even when Paul was dying she never let him see her cry
“We told each other we loved each other every 10 minutes,” she recently recalled somewhat sadly. “He was romantic every day. He said about three years ago, ‘I wish I’d never married you and then we could do it all over again’.”
But marry they did, despite a 20-year age difference and Paul’s prescient warning that his new wife would be accused of being a gold-digger and, after 38 years as a couple, McGee found herself alone.
An unseemly spat with her eldest stepson Paul Jr followed, in which he accused her of denying him a multi-million pound inheritance but the rest of the family, including Paul’s two younger sons, sided with her.
McGee is nothing if not an old trooper: she has revealed that even when Paul was dying she never let him see her cry, always appeared in full make-up and kept the show on the road.
Daniels would have thoroughly approved of that kiss, she told This Morning
It was only after she lost him that her world really fell apart. There were a few TV outings but then along came Strictly, which her late husband also appeared on in 2010. This is not the first time the programme has helped someone struggling with bereavement.
The television presenter Gloria Hunniford recently revealed that it was instrumental in helping her deal with her terrible grief after the untimely death of her daughter Caron. But McGee was initially a little reticent: at 58 she is the oldest contestant and has called herself the “grandma” of the show.
She also revealed that she was “nervous” about getting close to a man again. She has overcome those reservations, though: she and her 27-year old professional dance partner Giovanni Bernice have been getting along famously.
After sharing a kiss while performing the Paso Doble last week, they have been spotted hugging in the street after rehearsals.
Daniels would have thoroughly approved of that kiss, she told This Morning: “He would have loved it,” she said.
“And the fact that I have caused – or seem to have caused – this furore with the kiss on Saturday night, he just loved show business and that was real show business.”
And the fact remains that McGee has stayed in remarkably good nick. She says she had to maintain a slim figure because, as a magician’s assistant, she was constantly crawling in and out of boxes but other factors also seem to have been at play.
“Gardening keeps me trim, as does Pilates and yoga three to four times a week,” she has confided. But while she was slim, McGee did not, apparently, have a great deal of cardio fitness and so Bernice packed her off to the gym for 15 minutes a day.
It’s certainly all done the trick: even the judges’ jaws dropped when McGee and her handsome partner’s rendition of the Paso Doble involved a very high kick up to the ear, Debbie sinking into the splits and finally that kiss.
The two of them scored 30 points out of 40, while the bookies slashed the odds of them winning from 20/1 and made them one of the favourites.
And so now of course the big question is not just whether McGee will win Strictly but will she find another love? For all the obvious chemistry between her and Bernice, the 31-year age gap makes that one a little unlikely.
(Though Joan Collins is 34 years older than her longest-lasting husband, so you never know.)
But whatever happens next, McGee is firmly in the limelight, on her own terms this time rather than on the back of her husband’s fame. And it seems she likes it. Not a lot, perhaps. But we haven’t seen the last of her yet.