When Strictly Come Dancing first aired in 2004, who could have predicted that 19 years later we’d have an openly gay couple in the final? The most watched show on the BBC has smashed barriers for the LGBTQ+ community when South African professional dancer, Johannes Radebe, and his dance partner - celeb-chef John Whaite, became the first same-sex dance duo to reach the finals of the show.
They lost out to Rose Ayling Ellis and Giovanni Pernice.
Johannes, 34, says this season has been one of his proudest moments. Acceptance towards gay people has come a long way in the last decade, and he has used his prime time platform to bring same-sex dance partnerships into the public eye.
He says: “I understand what we have just done in helping to change perceptions. I’m proud to work for an institution that champions same sex dance couples.”
It started in 2019, when he performed the first ever same-sex dance on the show with fellow professional Graziano di Prima.
And then in 2020 the BBC show allowed the first competition pairing between Katya Jones and Nicola Adams - the openly bisexual female boxer who won an Olympic gold medal in 2012.
Radebe came out at a young age. While his close family supported him, he was bullied for being different.
He has publicly spoken out about how dance helped him through some dark times when he received homophobic abuse from his peers.
The talented young dancer would hide himself away in the studio.
“I have always been a very proud black gay man walking this earth but truthfully we also shy away from the world because of how the world can treat us. That’s a reality.”
Johannes and John built a loyal following on the Saturday night entertainment show, but also had their share of hateful comments on social media and unwanted attention in the tabloid press.
He said: “But I was very disappointed that we were front page news every week just for being who we are. I hope we get to a point where that is no longer the case.”
Johannes moved to Britain in 2018, after doing two seasons of Strictly Come Dancing South Africa.
He started ballroom and Latin dancing at 11 - he followed his sister to a dance class in their village in Zamdela, South Africa and was hooked.
He showed natural talent which was nurtured at the school. His mother used to rally around the village with his dance coach to help fund lessons.
Mum, Jacobeth, raised him and his sister alone after dad died when he was 12. They were poor, and she instilled humble family values.
So when he met the Whaite family during the ‘big reveal’ in August 2021, it felt like home.
“There are lots of similarities - they are all very down to earth and I can relate to that. They’ve become my extended family now and they have invited me back to hang out.”
John was thrust into reality TV fame when he won The Great British Bake Off in 2012.
He then hosted a daytime cooking show on ITV - called Chopping Block, and wrote five cookery books, but the celeb chef still remains a Lancashire lad through and through.
He owns a baking school in Wrightington, just outside of Wigan - located on the farmland next to his family home.
Sisters Mary and Victoria have helped out at the school, called John Whaite’s Kitchen, which is now closed due to covid.
Radebe says: “I thought it was beautiful that you can still have mum's cup of coffee on a lunch break.”
So the first meeting was organised through Strictly - but the pro-dancer who joined the British cast in 2018 had no idea at that point who he would be paired up with.
“I find out at the same time as the public but the team never gets it wrong.
I like to leave it until that moment because I like getting excited. I really look forward to seeing who I get to turn into a dancer.
I’ve loved every partnership.”
Radebe had a glittering career before he hit our screens - he was two-time Professional Latin champion and three time Amateur Latin champion back in South Africa.
He was also part of the Afro Arimba Dance Company in Johannesburg, working his way up to choreographer and dance captain on the Costa Italian cruise liner.
And then he joined Dancing With The Stars in 2014.
But Johannes says it was watching two-time Strictly champion Oti Mabuse land her place on the show that made him feel like he could make Britain his home too.
So when he found out that his fellow South African colleague wouldn’t be returning to Strictly in 2022, he was ‘gutted’.
Oti announced she was quitting the show after 7 years on 22nd February 2022. She recently joined the judges panel on ITV’s Dancing On Ice.
The 31 year old has lifted the Glitterball trophy for two consecutive years.
“Every time I look at her it feels like home to me.
She’s like my sister, and I’m so gutted. I don’t know who is gonna laugh with me now? I mean, laugh out loud, belly laughs. She’ll definitely be missed.”
A glittering highlight of the Strictly calendar is the annual trip to Blackpool tower - it marks the halfway point of the competition. But Covid restrictions meant that the usual Tower Ballroom excursion couldn’t go ahead for the last two years.
But Johannes hopes they’ll be back in 2022.
“It's a date we all look forward to and it always turns out to be one of the best episodes because everything is extra.”
I’m always blown away by the love for the show. Blackpool is about the crowd and the cheer - there are always people with so much presence. The fandom is real.”
But Blackpool won’t have to wait until November to watch Radebe perform.
He hopes to test out the newly renovated ballroom floor very soon - when he visits the resort on his forthcoming debut tour - Freedom.
He will perform his Freedom show at the Winter Gardens’ newly renovated Opera House on 26th April 2022.
Alongside Johannes Radebe, the cast will feature Joe Atkinson, Lowri Evans, Elizabeth Fullalove, Gabriela Gregorian, Andilé Mabhena, Lee Pratt, Ben Rutter, Kamira Samuel, Jefferson Santos, Natasha Scrase, Hakeem Tinubu and Anelisa Lamola.
It will be a celebration of music and dance - a fusion of styles ranging from African rhythms to fiery Latin and elegant ballroom.
It promises to be filled with party anthems and explosive routines - a burst of energy, colour and everything fabulous!
“I want the audience to be standing on their feet by the end of the show, dancing and celebrating.
“I get to share a little bit of my life story and capture some of my African roots and things that have contributed to Johannes being a dancer and put it into a theatre setting for everyone to experience.”