Words: Thomas Stichbury; Photography: Dean Ryan McDaid
Strictly Come Dancing stars John Whaite and Johannes Radebe are making all the right moves as they open up about pushing the boundaries of representation as the show’s first same-sex male partnership.
Taking the lead on the front cover of the Attitude December issue – out now to download and to order globally – the pair share that they had serious reservations about tripping the light fantastic together.
Johannes wears tank top by Sunspel, jeans by Lee; John wears tank top by Rufskin, jeans by Calvin Klein, necklace by Pawnshop London for the Attitude December issue (Photography: Dean Ryan McDaid; Fashion director: Joseph Kocharian)
“I was honoured, of course, because not only had I wanted to do Strictly ever since I saw it when I was a little boy… but also, as soon as I found out, I felt a little bit anxious,” John begins.
“I knew that it was an important thing to do, that it was hopefully going to change the way TV is, change the way that children feel when they watch TV – it’s massive – but I was expecting to get a lot of hate, like [people] sliding into the DMs and saying, ‘You’re disgusting’ and that kind of thing.”
He goes on: "At first, I said, 'Can you put me with a straight partner?' because I [believed] that that would be the only way it would be accepted, and then, about a month before we were partnered up, me and you, I [thought], actually, I want it to be Johannes; it has to be Johannes, because it’s such an important thing for both of us, it would be wrong for it to be anyone but Johannes.
"The fear in my wanting to please people got in the way and let me say, 'Can you put me with a straight man?'."
Professional Johannes adds that he initially had second thoughts about the partnership too, having already felt the homophobic heat in the wake of his 2019 routine with fellow pro Graziano di Prima, which sparked nearly 200 complaints to Ofcom.
“I’ve always wanted to be a part of this, and I’ve always cheered same-sex partnerships, and I’ve done things to add to this moment, I would like to believe. But in that, there was criticism and fear and negativity that we received when I danced with Graziano, complaints and stuff like that. I didn’t want that again,” he says.
John wears tank top by Rufskin, jeans by Calvin Klein Jeans, necklace by Pawnshop London (Photography: Dean Ryan McDaid; Fashion director: Joseph Kocharian)
“Then I remember thinking, what if it’s successful? I realised that there’s people who want to see it, that would love to see it more than what I’m feeling.”
Former Great British Bake Off champ John, 32, from Wigan, admits he initially wanted to have a straight professional partner because he believed "that that would be the only way it would be accepted", and that he had fears of appearing “too gay” while dancing on the smash-hit BBC series.
“I don’t want to name anyone, but there were people in my life who would say to me, ‘Don’t be too gay.’ I was at a wedding once, for example, and I was dancing my little heart out, and this person said to me, 'Don’t be too camp, don’t be too gay', as though it was a bad thing. And so, I feel like I’ve had to mute that part of me, especially when it came from somebody I love,” he recalls.
“[When] we [Johannes and I] did the cha-cha… I just switched, and I smiled, and my hips were going. I felt alive, no one could touch me. You can say what you want, you can tell me not to be too camp, you can tell me not to be too flamboyant, but if I feel like being flamboyant and camp, if I want my peacock feathers up, I’ll do it.”
Johannes wears tank top by Sunspel, jeans by Lee; John wears tank top by Rufskin, jeans by Calvin Klein, necklace by Pawnshop London (Photography: Dean Ryan McDaid; Fashion director: Joseph Kocharian)
“At the end of the day, I’m not going to sit on my deathbed and think, 'I wish I hadn’t been too camp'. I’ll sit on my deathbed — well, lie gracefully on my deathbed being fanned by handsome men — saying, 'why did I listen to those voices, why did I listen to those people who weren’t supporting me, who were trying to hold me back, who were trying to stop me from being who I am?'”
Now feeling their oats as the frontrunners in the competition, with the Glitterball trophy in sight, John and Johannes, 34, who grew up in South Africa, reflect on the impact of their milestone moment in the TV spotlight, not only in terms of sexuality but race.
“I’ve always said, I’m Black and gay and you can’t separate the two. I belong and this is how every Black child [should] be brought up in their homes… I’m happy with the United Kingdom. I’m happy to be living in this country because I feel like it’s a very progressive society. Not to say that it’s perfect here. We are representing and I think this is the bit that we can do towards that fight,” Johannes explains.
Johannes wears jacket by Levi’s, tank-top by Sunspel, jeans by Lee (Photography: Dean Ryan McDaid; Fashion director: Joseph Kocharian)
John continues: “One of the most heart-breaking things that I read recently was about our partnership, and [how] if we were in America – I’m getting emotional for you on this – the outcry wouldn’t be because we were a gay couple, it’d be because you were Black, and I was white. This is the problem, isn’t it, we’re representing not only for our communities, [but] our personal cultures as well, and how when we collide beautiful things can happen.
"There is still so much hatred in the world for ethnic minorities and for gay people, so the fact we’re doing this as a gay couple but also as a biracial couple, it’s even more beautiful."
Don’t go calling the boys heroes, though.
“I feel uncomfortable when people message us and say, ‘You’re such role models, you’re such heroes,’ because I get it, what we’re doing is changing [people’s] outlooks, but we’ve got people helping us, we’re having fun, we have our hair and makeup done," explains John.
"We’re not heroes, we’re just lucky sons of b*tches. We’re getting to do what we love to do, at the same time as representing for our people.”
Asked by Johannes what he's learnt to embrace about himself, John replies: "The fact I'm vulnerable, like everyone else on this planet. I make mistakes."
He concludes with a laugh: "I've learnt to embrace that I am a big, rough gay man from Wigan who likes a bit of leather and loves a hairy bear."
Read the full interview in the Attitude December issue, out now.