Well, it's finally happening. After quite literally years of calls for same-sex couples to be considered for a primetime TV dance series, ITV's Dancing On Ice is taking the plunge. And it didn't hurt a bit, did it?
The hit ice-skating competition, which returns for a new series next weekend (5 January), will break new ground for LGBTQ representation on British TV as Steps star Ian 'H' Watkins takes to the ice alongside professional skater Matt Evers.
Fans praised the pair's debut during last week's glittering Christmas special, but as anyone who follows Matt or Ian on social media will know, their partnership has also been met with a sadly predictable chorus of questions about 'why it matters'.
Well it does, henny. And as out and proud gay men, both Ian and Matt know first-hand the power of seeing yourself reflected on screen - and the crushing loneliness that comes with having your existence erased.
We caught up with Ian, 43, ahead of his competitive debut next week to find out why being paired with another man on the series was a make-or-break proviso, how he's looking forward to his twin sons watching hin dance with his own "prince" and - just as importantly - whether Steps will be heading back into the recording studio any time soon...
There have been calls for same-sex partners on Dancing on Ice and Strictly Come Dancing for years. How does it feel to be the first to do it?
I’m scared, I’m apprehensive, I’m excited. I try not to feel the pressure but I do! But Matt told me the skating speaks for itself. I don’t want it to be a thing. I don’t want us to be trailblazers, but I understand you have to make a big deal about something for it to become not a big deal. Then it just becomes very matter of fact and part of everyday life. So, maybe next year they will have two guys again and they will just fit in as part of the cast. [It's] guaranteed [that] Strictly will do two women next year, because obviously Dancing on Ice has done this first.
Was the idea that you would compete with a male partner always there when you signed on?
I auditioned for it in the summer and I actually said, ‘If you are considering me for this then I’d like to be partnered with a male partner’. If they had actually offered me a female partner I would have bowed out and said, ‘You know what, this is so important to me, so it’s not for me’. [Dancing On Ice] is one of my bucket list shows, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but for me, to have something so personal and recognised for my sexuality and for me, it’s ticking all those boxes. It’s an incredible thing.
Were the producers of the show on board with your idea?
I didn’t stipulate, it was a suggestion. I said this is what I want. I didn’t tell them that if I didn’t get it I wouldn’t do the show. If they had come back to me with the answer and paired me up with a female, at that point I would have said no. But they didn’t say anything at the time. I think they went away and thought about it, so there was no reaction to it. I didn’t even think I got the gig. You don’t hear for a good few months. They don’t confirm it until a few months down the line. But as soon as they get the green light – because it goes right up to the head executive at ITV. Luckily they were completely on board and I’m so proud to be part of this show on ITV that champions the LGBTQ community, it’s just incredible.
You wanted to do it for representation and you’re the first to do it, so there must be some added pressure?
All of those things come with the job – representation, equality, visibility – but for me to have the correct gender for my sexuality is paramount. That’s the thing that means the most to me. And for little young boys and girls, to see this on television, I didn’t have that growing up. If I had seen something like this, maybe I wouldn’t have been so screwed up, maybe I wouldn’t have grown up feeling so lonely and isolated. My children are going to be growing up watching their dad dancing with his prince, you know? It’s so important for visibility and all of those things, I think.
View this post on Instagram
How’s the training going so far?
I guess I have properly been learning for about six weeks. It’s a big ask that they are asking us to learn everything in a couple of months. So I have good days, and I have bad days but I feel like I am getting better every day. I just need to get better quicker! [laughs]
I interviewed Matt a couple of years ago and I feel like you are in safe hands.
He's been through this process numerous times but traditionally he has always been with a female partner. So he is learning as well, you know, what he can do with a guy. So, it’s all a different board game for him.
Presumably that means, whereas typically you’d expect the male partner to lift the female partner, you guys can switch it around a bit.
There are actually no rulebooks so there’s nothing stipulating that somebody has to lift somebody else. You don’t actually have to lift, it just looks good! So the things that we are doing are quite dynamic and strong. Think Cirque Du Soleil rather than Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. We are doing very different kinds of stuff. And in our first routine we are doing a lift that has never been done before. We're making it quite diverse and show people that it can actually be done.
Do you think you would more comfortable coming out had there been more LGBTQ representation when you were growing up?
Absolutely. Since I was little, I have always known I was gay. The only representation I had on television was Dale Winton, Are You Being Served? But they were very stereotypical gays. The world has so much more representation these days. One of my best friends is Gareth Thomas and he is an incredible activist and he shows he is strong and dynamic and diverse rather than being a certain stereotype, it’s incredible. I remember there being so a hoo-ha on EastEnders when they had the first gay kiss, so I guess this [Dancing on Ice] is the equivalent of that gay kiss. It’s the first time on television so, what Matt and I are doing is a landmark. And there are landmarks that define important parts of history and our gay history as well.
If there was more representation on TV when you were growing up, would it have changed when you decided to come out?
Definitely - because I wouldn’t have felt so lonely, and as well as educating me it would have educated all those bullies because they would have thought twice about being homophobic.
Strictly recently staged a same-sex dance between professionals Johannes Radebe and Graziano di Prima, which sparked nearly 200 Ofcom complaints. Do you think Dancing on Ice viewers are more open-minded?
They had 200 complaints out of millions of viewers and applauds. You’re never going to please everyone. People are entitled to their views and opinions. But it’s about visibility and to support the LGBTQ community. I don’t know [how this will go down] because it’s never been done before. I don’t know how they are going to react to Matt and I.
[Dancing On Ice judge] Christopher Dean recently said that you and Matt have a lot of responsibility as the show’s first same-sex pairing, does it feel like there is a lot of pressure being put on your shoulders?
It’s an Olympic sport I’m learning so I am enjoying that. I did have a little chuckle to myself earlier and thought, you know let’s enjoy it. And I do make sure I enjoy it every day. There’s going to be pressure, even for the other couples as well. I’m trying not to think of the pressure Matt and I have on our shoulders because I know we are representing a community but in the moment, I want to enjoy it, and that’s what we are going to do.
Your Steps bandmate Lisa [Scot-Lee] did pretty well on the show back in 2007, have you asked her for any advice?
Yeah, I saw her about a month ago and we went skating and she took to it like a fish in water. It was crazy. [laughs].
The music industry has changed considerably since the late 90s, and there are so many more out, queer singers now. Does that make you happy?
Everything has changed. When we started there was no social media or streaming and now artists are more flamboyant and sexuality is part of their music as well and I think that is an incredible thing.
Are there any Steps songs that you'd want to dance to while on Dancing on Ice?
There’ve been no choices yet. Let’s hopefully not dance to 'Tragedy' but the second one is '5,6,7,8', so maybe when we do a themed week. But these choices haven’t been made yet.
Do you have much say in the song choice?
Very much so. I give ideas and so does Matt as well. I can’t tell you my first song but it is all about representation and being inclusive and our whole theme is celebrating the LGBTQ community as well. It’s very tasteful in a clever way.
How are you finding the costumes?
[Laughs] thankfully the show has become more savvy. You know, it’s not stuck in the dark ages. We don’t wear lycra anymore. Strictly wears a lot more lycra but Dancing on Ice is more pedestrian which is great for skating.
View this post on Instagram
Little flashback from our @officialsteps #PartyOnTheDancefloor tour ! We had such a ball on this tour! It was incredible to see lots of familiar faces... and new ones too! Without a doubt, the highlight for me was at Wembley Arena when all of our children joined us on stage. I don’t think anything can ever top that for me!😍 What was your favourite part? #Steps #OfficialSteps #tearsonthedancefloor #Pop #popmusic #ArenaTour @fayetozersmith @clairerichardsofficial @llatchfordevans @lisascottlee1 xx
So it’s not bringing back any bad memories from your Steps days?
I don’t have any bad memories, what are you talking about! [laughs]
What does 2020 hold for you? Any new music from Steps?
Well, there might be! It’s going to be an exciting year for us...
Dancing On Ice premieres on Sunday, January 5 at 6pm on ITV.