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Strictly judge Shirley Ballas on her Liverpool Empire panto debut

“When I told my son I was going to do panto, he went ‘oh lordy, Liverpool – hold on to your hats!’” laughs Shirley Ballas.

Strictly’s head judge is about to step out from behind the desk and take to the floor to make her stage debut in pantomime at home this Christmas.

She will be playing Mother Nature in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Empire over the festive season, and it’s going to be a busy time for the 58-year-old.

Not only do rehearsals take place while the current series of Strictly is still running, but the panto opens on December 14 – 24 hours before the grand final of the BBC’s Saturday night ratings winner.

Ballas will dash back to London to see who wins the Glitterball, and then be back in costume the next day at the Lime Street theatre.

“I’m going to make sure that I’m really well-rehearsed,” she says when I catch up with her for a chat. “I’ve asked to get the script way ahead of time, because I’m a perfectionist and I like to make sure I know what I’m doing, so I don’t let anybody down and don’t let myself down.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been on stage. But Strictly was the first time on TV, and then there are all these other little things I’ve then done, and I thought – why not?

“And what better could I ask for than to do it in Liverpool, where it all started for me when I was seven-years-old? It’s come full circle.”

Shirley Ballas and her mum (right) at the Liverpool ONE Christmas launch. Below: Strictly judges

The future ‘Queen of Latin’ was born Shirley Rich in Wallasey in 1960 and began dancing when she was seven.

Her professional career may have taken her all over the world, including the US where she and her former husband and dance partner, Corky Ballas, settled, but she can’t wait to spend the festive season at ‘home’.

“A normal Christmas for me is to go to my ex-husband’s home in Houston with all his family and our son Mark,” she says. “That wasn’t the case last Christmas, but generally it’s a family time.

“This year it’s going to be completely different. Obviously you have this panto that’s going on at lunchtimes and evenings. But then just the sheer fact that I’m going to be able to spend five or six weeks here plus rehearsal time, staying with my mother, is a gift really.”

Ballas’ mother Audrey was by her side when her famous daughter took part in the Liverpool ONE Christmas launch earlier this month.

“I got a couple of offers in different places in the country,” Ballas reveals of her decision to join the panto cast. “And I just looked at her little face and she went ‘please take Liverpool’. Because of course I get to live with her for the whole run.”

Does that mean she’ll be doing your washing I ask?

Ballas laughs again: “Oh she does my washing anyway. She takes care of me. She’s 80 but she’s amazing. Who needs a man when you’ve got a mother like mine?!”

Shirley is now well in to her second series of Strictly after replacing Len Goodman on the judging panel for the first time in 2017.

“It was definitely a rollercoaster,” she says of her first series. “The weeks go by so quickly. I enjoyed everybody’s journey.

“Meeting Craig and Bruno and Darcey, it was spectacular. They couldn’t make me feel any more welcome. I felt that Darcey felt like she had a partner in crime. It was lovely.”

All four judges will be together in Liverpool in the New Year when the Strictly Come Dancing Live tour comes to the Echo Arena.

In the meantime, what is she looking forward to most about panto?

She considers: “I think it’s tapping my magic wand and just making everybody forget any part of their life at the moment and enjoy that couple of hours when we can all be together and just go in to a different world. That kind of appeals to me.

“And also, I’m very good at laughing at myself. I recently did Celebrity Juice with Keith Lemon and people were a bit worried about me going on there, but I just got it. I’m just in the moment – whatever the moment is.”

Jack and the Beanstalk is at the Liverpool Empire from December 14 to January 6. Tickets from the website HERE

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