'I'm not a man-eater': Strictly star Laura Whitmore on partnering up with her best friend's former lover
As a star on this year’s Strictly, TV presenter Laura Whitmore is fulfilling a long-held dream. But it’s not just about dancing the perfect jive; she is also hoping to quickstep away those ‘man-eater’ rumours
Laura Whitmore is a woman with a remarkable reputation. The star of Strictly and former MTV presenter has been romantically linked to Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio, rock star Paolo Nutini, One Direction’s Niall Horan, DJ Calvin Harris and supermodel David Gandy – and these are just a few of the famous men (there are many more) that the Bardoesque blonde has hit the headlines with.
She was the first star to kick off this season’s Strictly, with a red hot cha cha that prompted even more headlines than Judge Rinder flashing his bare chest; she clearly knows how to attract attention.
Performing on Strictly has been a lifelong dream for Laura
Even before any celebrity feet had hit the floor on this year’s show, it was Laura who made the news when it was announced that she had been partnered with the sloe-eyed Sicilian Giovanni Pernice – who happens to be the very recent ex of one of her best friends, the actress Georgia May Foote. (Georgia’s own love affair with the professional dancer began when he swept her off her feet – and into the finals – during last year’s Strictly.)
The day we meet, the gossip columns are still bristling with speculation that Georgia was devastated by the coupling and feared her ex would fall for her friend.
Headlines dramatically trumpeted a ‘Strictly Love Triangle’ and, despite a supportive tweet from Georgia to her 300,000 or so Twitter followers (‘Please don’t believe the c*** you read. [Laura’s] a beautiful person’), speculation is rife of a new curse (Georgia’s split) and a new Strictly romance (for Laura).
You might imagine that Irish-born Laura – whose career as a presenter on MTV and host of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! NOW! has been boosted by the seemingly endless public appetite for the celebrity press – would welcome such a controversial baptism into Saturday night’s top-rating entertainment show.
Laura on the red carpet for the launch of Strictly 2016
You would, however, be wrong. On the surface, the 31-year-old television presenter is all smiles as she talks exclusively to YOU about her Strictly debut.
She shows me several huge bruises on her slim calves, talks about her surprising friendship with Ed Balls (‘He’s a lovely man’), Strictly girls’ nights in the dressing rooms where she, Louise Redknapp, Lesley Joseph and co raid Daisy Lowe’s snack drawer (‘She has crisps, chocolate and all sorts of goodies’) and tells me how she had to ask a member of the costume department to go to the bathroom with her minutes before the first show was recorded.
‘One of my worries was that the costumes would slip off. Then I realised they were immovable. You get sewn into them. I had a panic because I needed to go to the loo and had to ask one of the ladies to come with me to loosen my dress.’
But it is clear something is amiss. As we talk, Laura pulls her denim jacket around herself protectively. She bites her lower lip and there is unmistakable anxiety in her pale blue eyes. For a woman who is meant to be such a man-eater that she’d happily snatch away her best friend’s ex, she is certainly not acting the part of the cool blonde rock chick.
She tells me some time later that Judge Rinder has told her she needs to toughen up. ‘He says I’m too nice about everything and I shouldn’t be. He gives me £10 every time I say something nasty. I have £40 for saying nasty things about him.’
First she addresses, hesitantly, the Strictly rumour mill – but midway through explaining how ‘I’m just trying to ignore it’ she has to stop to halt the tears that are freely falling. She apologises and shakes her head. She is, she says, ‘mortified’ about the sobbing, which doesn’t let up.
Laura photographed with her Strictly partner Giovanni Pernice
In the past, Laura made a decision not to comment on speculation about her love life but now she has had enough. ‘I’m just so upset about it. My problem is that people have no idea who I am. To them I’m this TV presenter with blonde hair who gets linked to every single man I interview or stand next to.’
It is clear from her distress that Laura is nothing like the woman she has been painted to be by the tabloids. Having split in March from her boyfriend of eight months, Sunset Sons rocker Rory Williams, she says: ‘Break-ups are hard. It has happened to me and it’s devastating. When my friends go through a split I feel their pain, too. That is the woman I am.’
Part of the reason behind doing Strictly was, she explains, to try to change the perception of her as a TV sex kitten. ‘I wanted to do Strictly because it’s a family audience – there will be a lot of people who don’t know anything about me. It’s the one show where people get a chance to see you for who you are.
'And then this whole thing with Giovanni blew up in my face. I couldn’t believe it could all go so wrong, so fast. Georgia – who is a good friend of mine – has been lovely but I felt things had been spoilt before I’d even got a chance to start.
‘I do care what people think about me. My relationship with Giovanni is completely professional. That’s all I ever want it to be. When all this happened he called me and told me not to let any of it get to me, to ignore it and get on with the show. To be honest he’s far too young for me and even though I’m single I’m still going on a couple of dates when I have the time – but not with Giovanni.’
'Going out on the Strictly dancefloor was the most terrifying thing I've done,' says Laura
When we talk again a few weeks later – soon after the first show airs – the pressure on Laura hasn’t let up, with reports that Georgia May Foote ‘unfollowed’ her on Instagram and acres of description of her ‘very steamy’ first dance with the Italian.
‘It has definitely affected my dancing,’ she confesses. ‘I’m so self-conscious I haven’t allowed myself to develop a proper partnership with Giovanni.
‘He’s aware of it and so am I but I keep holding back. We were the first out on the floor on the first show and I was so nervous I couldn’t feel my legs. But I was fully aware I wasn’t letting myself go because of all the rumours about us.
'The other day we were made [by the BBC producers] to go out and bond. We climbed over the O2 building and then had a drink and it was brilliant fun. I’ve got to ignore all the stories and just be myself with Giovanni, but it hasn’t been easy.’
As for the story about her friend Georgia May unfollowing her, she shrugs. ‘She did. But she’s following me again now. It’s complicated. I understand she doesn’t want to see pictures of her ex. But everything gets blown out of all proportion.’
Much of the reason for Laura’s discomfort lies in her Irish background as the only child of her single mother Carmel; her convent-school education and upbringing in the tiny town of Bray, County Wicklow.
‘My mother brought me up to be a good girl. She wanted me to be strong and independent and to challenge myself. I was incredibly shy when I was young, so she took me to drama classes to push me out of myself. It was the best thing I ever did. After that I’d always make myself do things that scared me.’
In terms of comparing the fear factor on Strictly and I’m a Celebrity, Laura laughs. ‘There’s absolutely no contest. I would pretty much do any jungle trial – bar eating bugs – but going out on the Strictly dancefloor was the most terrifying thing I’ve done – more terrifying than jumping out of a plane or bungee jumping from a bridge.
As an MTV presenter Laura has interviewed stars from George Clooney to Rihanna
‘All the judges said my legs were too bent but I couldn’t feel them at any point during the dance. It was hands down the most scary thing I’ve ever done. But I still want to do more.’
At the age of 23, Laura was hurled full throttle from student life at Dublin City University into a career as a television rock chick when she beat 3,000 other contestants in a joint MTV/Myspace competition (Pick Me MTV) to become a TV presenter.
For Laura, who had a degree in journalism, it was, as she says, ‘a surreal daydream come true. The day after I left university I was on a plane to Los Angeles, on my way to cover the MTV Video Music Awards. I borrowed a Topshop skirt from a friend and my mum’s advice was to “fake it till you make it”. But I was completely out of my depth.
‘I remember standing waiting to interview Coldplay’s Chris Martin, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. Then the producer said to him, “This is her first day,” and my cool cover was blown. But from then on Chris has remembered me as the little Irish new girl and always comes over to talk to me.’
As a presenter for seven years on MTV, Laura gained access to the inner circle of stardom, interviewing everyone from George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez to Rihanna and Kanye West.
Young, pretty and unassuming (‘I won a competition to get the job; I always think I have something to prove,’ she says), Laura has a knack for disarming some of the most famous people in the business.
Laura with her I’m a Celebrity co-presenters David Morgan (left) and Joe Swash
Miley Cyrus offered to set her up on a date with a friend (‘I said no because my mum was in town and I wanted to spend time with her’); Davina McCall has taken it upon herself to become Laura’s unofficial mentor (‘Davina was the girl I wanted to be when I was growing up and we’ve become friends, but I still get starstruck around her which makes her laugh’), and Ed Sheeran and Katy Perry were ‘hanging out’ buddies ‘because I used to talk to them before they were famous,’ she says. Then she pauses: ‘Being Irish helps because you grow up used to anyone and everyone chatting around you. And the accent means you get away with a lot more.’
Has she ever, I ask, done drugs? She looks appalled. ‘Never. I’ll have a drink but never drugs. I’m not that sort of rock’n’roll.’ Her personal dream is, conventionally enough, ‘marriage, children and a happy life’. Can she see such a dream coexisting with the life she leads right now? She shrugs: ‘It’s true I do have a crazily busy life. But if I had children I’d take time off to be with them.’
Her parents were together for 12 years before her mother (now a retired civil servant) got pregnant. Three years later, her dad, businessman Sean McIvor, left. ‘They never married,’ she says. ‘But they remained good friends.’ Her father has since married and she has two half brothers, Adam, 21, and 17-year-old Johnny. Adam accompanied her to her first Strictly show.
‘I grew up an only child but every weekend I’d see my dad. We’d go to concerts and the theatre. My parents were delighted when I said I was doing Strictly. It’s a show we’ve always loved as a family and my mum and my aunts are fantastic jivers. My aunts have always tried to teach me how at weddings but I’ve never managed. When I found out I’d got the job on MTV, the first thing my mum said was: “Just think, you may get to go on Strictly Come Dancing.” For her this is a dream come true.’
'Strictly is a show we’ve always loved as a family,' says Laura
Tears aside, much has been written about Laura’s love life. It is, she says, time to set the record straight. Calvin Harris (he’s a friend of her flatmate, the photographer Conor McDonnell) ‘never happened’. Rapper Professor Green ‘is a friend, and Millie [Mackintosh, his ex-wife] is also a really good friend’.
As for the affair with Leonardo DiCaprio – they spent a night at a party in his hotel room after she hosted the red-carpet event at this year’s Baftas: ‘Nothing happened. And I’m so anti that whole celebrity hook-up thing. It’s not me. Yes, I love a party. I’m that girl who’s first on and last off the dancefloor. But I’m focusing on having a nice time and nothing else. I’m old-fashioned. I’d never go up to a guy myself. I can’t even flirt.’
It is, of course, hard to believe that a single girl has no interest in dating one of the world’s most eligible men – especially a single girl who looks like Laura. For the past five years, she has turned down offers from men’s magazines to pose on their covers. ‘I did one underwear shoot when I first started out but I insisted on wearing a big jacket over the top. And I’ve never done anything like that again.
‘I’ve only ever been out with four men. I had my first boyfriend at uni and since then I’ve had three proper relationships.’ In 2011 she began dating Irish singer Danny O’Reilly, from the band The Coronas. They split a year later when she was beginning her second year as presenter on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! NOW! (the ITV2 spin-off to Ant and Dec’s award-winning jungle series).
‘I was devastated,’ she says. ‘It was one of the worst times I went through. I was presenting a live TV show. I lost weight, I felt awful. My mum flew out to be with me. My dad was ringing me up worried. I’m not someone who takes relationships lightly and it took me a long time to get over it.
‘Self-help books helped. I read Empower Yourself by Miranda Kerr. You look at someone like her and think her life has been perfect: she’s beautiful, she’s successful, yet she’s had to deal with the death of a boyfriend [Miranda’s teenage sweetheart, model Christopher Middlebrook, died in a car accident when she was 16]. Everyone goes through difficult stuff.’
Laura with her mum Carmel
She explains that Miranda’s book is ‘about trying to learn from experiences and to stay positive’. She says that it has inspired her to start writing her own self-help-style book.
‘It’s early stages but I’m writing down some of the experiences I’ve gone through and saying what I’ve learnt. It always helps when you see how other people have dealt with things and how these experiences – heartbreak, feeling fear – apply to all of us.
'I wanted to do Strictly to go through the journey. I love dancing, I love that people get to know you, and it also terrifies me – you need to do things that scare you.’
Her closest ally on the show is Daisy Lowe, with whom she’s been friends for five years. ‘I live in Camden, very near Daisy. We both have dogs [Laura’s is a maltipoo called Mick, after Mick Jagger]. We meet up and talk boys, crystals (we’re both into alternative therapies) and family. We are both tall [Laura is 5ft 8in] and had the same worry that we needed to be with a partner who was able to lift us. I was conscious that I’m not a tiny thing and I’d be hard to lift. I didn’t realise how strong the dancers were. In my first practice with the professionals, Brendan Cole hoisted me into the air by my left buttock. I was stunned.’
There is an endearing sweetness to Laura. Despite years of working nonstop – she models (including campaigns for Pond’s and George at Asda), presents TV shows from the Baftas to the Brits, and in January will star in her first stage acting role in an adaptation of the Peter James detective novel Not Dead Enough – she has cleared her diary to dedicate herself to Strictly.
Her celebrity fans include Ant and Dec. ‘I love those guys,’ she says. ‘When you work with them you get to see how good they are. They are absolute masters at what they do. Ant’s wife Lisa [Armstrong] does the make-up at Strictly, so it is like having a bit of family with me.’
On Strictly Laura has ambitions to win. ‘I want to do whatever it takes,’ she says. ‘I got myself fully prepared. I asked everyone for advice. Brendan told me to get every foot lotion and to put on blister cream before the blisters start – so I walked into Boots and bought everything on the shelf.
‘My dressing room is next to Lesley Joseph, who I love. And I have a soft spot for Ed [Balls]. Lesley has set up a WhatsApp group for all of us. I think she is going to be a big contender. She’s very fit. Louise Redknapp is lovely.
'On my first day meeting everyone I was so nervous and Tess put me at my ease. She and Claudia have this way of catching your eye and asking, “Are you OK, love?”. I love being on a show with all these strong women.’
The aim for Laura – apart from ‘at least getting to Blackpool’ [week nine, when the remaining pairs perform at the famous Tower Ballroom] – is simple. ‘I want to learn to dance, to do my family proud and show the audience that I’m not the girl people think I am – and hopefully get to do a really good jive.’
- Strictly Come Dancing is on BBC One, Saturday and Sunday evenings