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John Whaite on why memoir is a ‘love letter’ to fiancé Paul: ‘He’s my biggest cheerleader’

Exclusive: "When you speak about somebody else's truth as well, you have to have permission"

By Charlotte Manning

John Whaite and Paul Atkins
John Whaite alongside graphic designer fiance Paul Atkins (Image: Supplied/Instagram/@john_whaite)

It’s hard to believe it’s been over 10 years since John Whaite first arrived on our screens all the way back in 2012. He went on to win that year’s series of The Great British Bake Off after weeks of incredible showstoppers and intricately crafted technical bakes. 

A haul of recipe books and appearances as a regular chef across ITV daytime followed. But it was his slot on Steph McGovern’s (now BAFTA-winning) lunchtime show Steph’s Packed Lunch that helped launch him well and truly back into the public eye

Strictly Come Dancing bosses snapped him up in 2021 after impressing on the Channel 4 show. There John made history, becoming part of the show’s first-ever all-male competing couple, alongside Johannes Radebe. The pair ultimately finished as runners-up.

Nearly two years on, John has just put out his very personal memoir Dancing On Eggshells: Kitchen, ballroom & the messy inbetween (a title his book agent came up with in the shower) into the world.

We meet in the bar of a trendy King’s Cross hotel. John’s just finishing off a previous interview, while picking at some fried chicken. Happy to dive straight in, he quickly admits to “mixed feelings” about the person who managed to win the Bake Off crown. “I feel like I look so different and I’m a different person. I look back at that lad, with mixed feelings, a little bit of shame, but also a lot of pride. It’s bizarre,” he begins. 

“I look back at that lad, with mixed feelings. A little bit of shame, but also a lot of pride” – John Whaite

So why did he decide to put himself out there and go for Bake Off in the first place? “I call it my fuck it switch. I get an obsession and I follow it through to the end, sometimes. Part of that is impulsivity, part of that is a really strong competitive streak, and part of that is being a thrill seeker. I am a dopamine junkie who likes to seek thrills.”

But it was mostly just his incredible passion for food that made it such an attractive prospect. “Food, for me, offered a great deal of solace. It presented itself as an opportunity. I didn’t go into the vehicle thinking, ‘I’m going to be like Jamie Oliver’. If anything I wanted to be more like Nigella!”

Plans to return to his law degree and banking career aspirations soon became a thing of the past, he explains. “The book deal came through and television, and it became its own beast. “I went into Bake Off because I enjoyed the show. You can tell when someone goes into a show like Bake Off for the wrong reasons,” and says, “he wouldn’t drink as much” and “get a better night’s sleep” if he could do it all again. 

John Whaite
John Whaite winning Bake Off in 2012 (Image: BBC)

John has been vocal about a decision to go sober in recent months, with the help of his sister Victoria. She was already on a sobriety journey of her own. “I kept messing up!” he answers very honestly on why he decided to give up alcohol. “I kept allowing that behaviour to become destructive, I almost lost my relationship and everything I’ve worked hard for because of that impulsive streak. 

“There’s a time when it’s just not cute anymore to be a sloppy mess. Relationships become more strained, people want to spend less time with you. Ultimately, it meant that I wasn’t respecting myself… It’s about holding yourself accountable, having discipline. That is what self discipline is: respect. It’s also about forgiveness for yourself, discipline, and boundaries.”

“I almost lost my relationship and everything I’ve worked hard for because of that impulsive streak”

He adds: “I got there in the end. It might have taken a little bit longer than it usually would, but I had to give up the booze. The booze meant I was waking up in my car in Manchester at 5 o’clock in the morning, and that’s not who I am.”

Having Victoria alongside him throughout was “essential” to the TV star, and believes he would’ve “fallen back off the wagon” if it weren’t for her constant support. “Her empathy, her ability to say ‘I understand what you feel, let me tell you that this will happen if you indulge that desire’. For me to trust that in her because I’ve seen it, was essential. I’m so grateful to her. Not only did she pull herself out of that place, but she helped lift me up out of that place as well.”

John has also spoken openly online about receiving a “life-changing” diagnosis for ADHD. This was remarkably realised by a friend when he sent a copy of his memoir to look over. “She didn’t get back to me for a while. I was thinking ‘it’s bad, right?’ She was like, ‘No it’s great! What I’m worried about, and I don’t want to upset you, but I feel like this is a textbook diary of somebody with an ADHD brain.’ “That was the kick up the arse I needed to go through the diagnosis process.” It’s clearly had quite the impact, as he adds: “Everything makes sense now.”

To critics who think he’s using the diagnosis as an “excuse”, he details how it’s quite the opposite. ”I’m not. I know now, because of my ADHD, I am prone to this behaviour. It is on me, absolutely, to hold myself accountable. The diagnosis is not absolution for behaviour. It is an opportunity for you to be even more accountable and self-disciplined.” John dubs his medication “fricking amazing” and “life-changing.”

These massive shifts may all have happened in the aftermath of his Strictly Come Dancing journey, but there was some initial reluctance to take part when told he’d be auditioning with a man. John feared featuring in Strictly’s first all-male couple would end in “disaster”.

He was approached by producers who were impressed by his regular lunchtime slot on Steph’s Packed Lunch. “My agent rang and said, ‘Do you want to go and audition? It would be to dance with a man,’” he began. John wasn’t sold straight away, continuing: “At first, I was like, ‘I don’t think I can’. There would be too much flak, this would be a disaster, we’d just get voted out. It wasn’t about staying in the competition, but I felt like it would be horrible for queer kids to see the ridicule that would definitely come with me dancing with a man,” he explains. 

John Whaite and Johannes Radebe dance on Strictly
John Whaite and Strictly dance partner Johannes Radebe (Image: BBC)

Of course, that’s far from what happened. John and Johannes won the hearts of the nation immediately with their infectious partnership. “On the final [Strictly spin-off] It Takes Two, they said, ‘do you want to win?’ I said, ‘I don’t care about the Glitterball [trophy]. I don’t care if we win, I knew at that time that we wouldn’t win, but we did win. We won for our community and for ourselves. We achieved more than we ever thought we would.”

Alongside the outpouring of love and support from the general public, the pair did suffer from online abuse, particularly Johannes, who found himself on the receiving end of some horrific racist trolling: “It wasn’t plain sailing, but we bloody well got there. We’ll always have to be proud of ourselves for it. Mostly grateful to society at large, for putting us in that place, keeping us in that competition, seeing past the fact that we were two men dancing.”

John also references the death of O’Shae Sibley, a gay dancer who was killed in a homophobic attack in Brooklyn just a few weeks ago. It only further demonstrates why moves like this are so vital. “People are still persecuted and murdered because of the sexuality in this world,” he went on. “The moment we take our eye off the ball, somebody wants to revoke all the rights and liberties that we have achieved.

“We had to remind ourselves everyday that Strictly wasn’t just about John and Johannes. It wasn’t even about John and Johannes. It was about those kids at night who needed to see this on television, so their existence and reality is validated.”

A very close bond was formed through the pair’s few months of dancing. John spoke in a recent interview with The Times of “falling in love” with Johannes. He tells me finding someone like Johannes was a “transcendent, beautiful” experience. “I don’t get to dance anymore every day. I got torn away from him and my heart got split into two and I’m happy to have had that. That’s life.”

Addressing the close connection with his former dance partner, John went on: “People go through life thinking you fall in love with one person and then that’s it you marry them and that’s it. We’re humans, we are vulnerable, we’re messed up, we’re flaky, we fall apart sometimes. That’s what it is to be human. I’m happy to speak about that honestly because that was a difficult thing to navigate in my relationships and with my friends. We all navigate that together. Because you know, you can’t do anything alone. I do miss him. I miss the socks off him.”

“[Paul] knows how terrified I am. I am petrified of this book coming out now that I’ve written it” – John Whaite

In his interview with The Times, the Strictly star also clarified he discussed things “all the way through” with his partner of 15 years, Paul Atkins, with the pair spending some time apart after the madness of Strictly. They soon reconciled after Whaite realised he couldn’t throw his relationship with Atkins away. He also said that he and Radebe still speak, however not as frequently. This, he told the publication, was a “sacrifice” he was willing to make for Atkins’s comfort. I ask John how Paul feels about some of the very personal revelations made in his book. 

“He’s so supportive. There are bits in there that he’s uncomfortable about, not that he would not want me to write about them, but there are bits we obviously had discussions over whether they would be included. When you speak about somebody else’s truth as well, you have to have that permission. I didn’t want to exploit that,” he explains, adding Paul is “wholly supportive” of the book. “He knows how terrified I am. I am petrified of this book coming out now that I’ve written it and it’s in black and white. Paul keeps reassuring me saying, ‘you’ve done your best,’ and he will always be my biggest cheerleader.”

Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies observed the book was a clear “love letter” to John’s fiance after reading the manuscript. “And it is,” John confirmed. “What I want people to derive from the book when they read the story of me and Paul, is it conflicts that relationships aren’t about ownership. They’re not about control. They’re about freedom, and they’re about space. The queer community gets that.”

Dancing On Eggshells: Kitchen, ballroom & the messy inbetween is out now.