Strictly's Erin Boag on Kingston life, cycling by the Thames and shopping in Guildford
The only female professional dancer to have appeared in every series of BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing, Erin Boag is thrilled to be back on our screens again this autumn. Here, the Kingston resident chats to Sarah Peters about life away from the cameras in her home county of Surrey – from cycle rides along the Thames to shopping on the cobbled streets of Guildford and visits to her local market
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2011
When Strictly Come Dancing star Erin Boag first moved to Surrey from her home in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1996, it wasn’t our historic towns and villages, the beautiful countryside or even the ease of getting into London that attracted her to the area – but watching episodes of The Good Life!
“I knew I was possibly going to be a nanny in Esher, so I looked in an A-Z at the WHSmith at the airport and the only name I recognised was Surbiton, from seeing The Good Life as a child, so I rented my first place there!” laughs Erin, as we chat over a cup of tea at her Kingston home. “It was only a few years ago I was told that it wasn’t really filmed there at all. Funnily enough, I met Felicity Kendal on last year’s Strictly and told her my story!”
Little could she have guessed when she first arrived in the UK, armed with just two suitcases and a box, and hopes of furthering her dance career, that she would go on to become a household name herself. But 15 years later, she is the only female professional to have appeared in every series of BBC1’s smash hit show Strictly Come Dancing. It’s a testament to the popularity of the down-to-earth New Zealander, who says she couldn’t be happier to be back again in the new series, in which she’s been partnered with impressionist and comedian Rory Bremner. Having a ball “Strictly Come Dancing has become a huge part of my life, and it’s great to be back again this year,” says the 36-year-old, whose celebrity partners have included comedian Julian Clary, athlete Colin Jackson and rugby player Austin Healey, among others. “I would have been very disappointed if I hadn’t been asked, but I’d have got over it. I believe that when one door closes another one usually opens, so I would have wished them well and moved on.
“I know how lucky I am to have been involved since day one. The show has been bigger than we ever imagined and so many opportunities have arisen because of it. I am incredibly fortunate and am very aware of it.”
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One of the world’s leading ballroom dancers, Erin has been dancing since she was a tiny tot. From the age of three, she attended dance classes in Auckland and by the age of 18 was New Zealand’s amateur champion. She went on to win a whole host of international awards and competitions, and in 2004 was invited to join the inaugural series of Strictly Come Dancing; the rest, as they say, is history.
Since the success of the show, Erin’s diary has been busier than ever, with TV interviews, promotional appearances and then her own popular dance classes in Kingston (more of which later). And once the current series comes to an end, she and her professional dance partner Anton Du Beke, another of the Strictly professionals, will then be off on a tour of their own dance show spanning the first few months of next year.
But despite all the spangly costumes, the glitz and the glamour and the celebrity status, she admits she is never happier than when she is relaxing at home in Kingston, where she has lived for the last five years, sharing an apartment on the river with her husband, business consultant Peter O’Dowd, who she married in June 2009.
“I do so much travelling, so it’s just lovely to spend time at home sometimes,” she says. “I love being near water – it reminds me of my childhood back in New Zealand. Sitting on the balcony in the warm morning sunshine is the best thing in the world – I just love the view from up here.
“The first thing I do every morning is to open the balcony doors, get some lovely fresh air and make a cup of tea to drink as I look out over the Thames! It’s amazing how long you can sit here and just watch the world go by.
“I have some little wagtails that have taken up residence too. They make the most beautiful noises when they sing, although they have no idea about when the day begins. They sometimes start at 4am and don’t care about how unsociable that really is!”
Life on the river Although she loved living in Surbiton, and subsequently in nearby Raynes Park and then Sutton, she says she was drawn to Kingston for a variety of reasons.
“To be honest, I had my sights on Richmond originally,” she says, “but I am so pleased I opted for Kingston instead. It has so much to offer – everything you could want.
“The beautiful thing about Kingston is that it doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer for it to be an enjoyable place to visit or to live in. There is always something going on around the river, whether it’s the ducks splashing about, the swans gliding by, rowers wearing themselves out in their boats or pleasure cruisers floating by.
“Occasionally, there’s the odd person swimming, which I personally find rather amazing. I don’t know why they do it, but they do!”
She has also come to appreciate one of the big highlights in the Kingston calendar, the annual regatta, which takes place in July. “We love the regatta because we get such a brilliant view!” she says. “The finish line is right outside our house. We normally have a Champagne day where we watch the racing and just sip Champagne all day. It’s great!”
Erin also makes good use of the towpaths and goes biking along the river towards Twickenham, Richmond and Hampton Court.
“We enjoy a nice ride then a good lunch in a pub somewhere before heading home; it’s ideal,” she says. “We often go in search of Donald, the only white duck on the Thames. He used to live near us and was a bit of a celebrity. The locals all fed him and kept an eye out for him. Then one day he disappeared. He obviously moved up towards Richmond as we spotted him there with some new friends a while back. If you call Donald, he will waddle over. He has not forgotten his humble origins!”
Stash of chocolate Not surprisingly, Erin says she adores her riverside apartment and has designed it to be both practical and homely as well.
“My home is very chic and modern and tidy,” she says. “People say you get more like your mother as you get older and it’s true! When I was young, I always got annoyed with my mum for telling me to put all my stuff away. She liked a very minimal home. Now I’m the same. It’s pretty chic but also the kind of place where friends feel welcome and can enjoy a glass of wine or two!”
She says she always has flowers in her home too. “I just love flowers, especially brightly coloured flowers. Tulips are a favourite but have such a short season in spring. Flowers just make me smile.” And you will usually find chocolate there as well. “Not just any chocolate; it has to be milk chocolate. I always have some stashed away somewhere in case of emergencies. I love Lindt the best. That’s all my secrets out now!”
Although she does admit to one more guilty secret: “Okay, yes, it’s true – I am addicted to property shows!” she laughs. “I watch home decorating programmes whenever I can. I think it’s because I once had nothing; just lots of dreams about the kind of properties I would like to have. So, I am really keen to learn all I can.”
When she first came to England, Erin had to juggle four jobs just to earn enough money to live, pay for dance lessons and enter competitions to build her career, so owning her own home was something she could only dream about. “I eventually bought an ex-council flat with a friend,” she explains. “We did it up and I sold my half four years later and did well out of it. I now have a small number of properties with my husband that we rent out, which are all in Surbiton.”
Kingston dance classes Back in her own hometown, every Monday Erin teaches at Kingston Dance Studio: “I love teaching,” she says. “It’s a drop-in class so people just come along when they want. I especially love the beginners’ class.
“They come in all nervous, saying they have two left feet, and are so thrilled when by the end of the night they have grasped a few steps. People get so much enjoyment from learning a waltz or a salsa.
“Ballroom dancing is very fashionable right now. It’s actually cool. Strictly has had so much to do with that. It means there are all sorts of age groups in my classes; it’s great!”
What with her popular dance classes, the success of Strictly and her lovely home in Kingston, she really does seem to have found her own slice of The Good Life here in Surrey: “It’s fate that we found this place and I am so very, very pleased about it,” she adds, looking out again towards the River Thames. “It’s my kind of town.”
My Favourite Surrey
Place to visit: Hampton Court Palace. Autumn is best when all the leaves begin to turn. View: From my balcony over the River Thames. Restaurant: Browns in Jerome Place, Kingston. It’s classy, it serves great food and they have a pianist some evenings, which I just love. Shop: Pie, and Pie 2 next door, at the Bentall Centre. I can pick up a cocktail dress, casual jeans or a pretty designer top. There is never too much of each item on the rack so it’s a bit exclusive. And if you go there and mention me you might get a discount! Place to shop for food: The market in the town square. I like to support local producers and think we should all try to shop locally. I love fresh leafy salads and fresh vegetables from the market.