FOR seven years she was the dancing darling of Strictly, beloved by its millions of fans.
Now Natalie Lowe has told iN10 of the hardest phone call of her life, the one to BBC bosses to tell them she wasn’t coming back for the new series which starts on Saturday.
But as she gets set to bring her new stage show Rip It Up to Scotland this week, she says she just had to quit for love and to fulfil her dream of having a family.
“I went away with my fiancé James (Knibbs) in February and that’s when I knew,” confides Australian-born Natalie. “I’ve just turned 37 and while people might think that’s still really young, I’m competing with time.
“Strictly is your life. It has to be absolutely everything and that’s how I’d want it to be. But this year I just knew in my heart I couldn’t commit fully like I have in the past.
“I didn’t want to be having that conversation with the executive producer because I feel like I’m 13 inside and my body doesn’t feel 37.
“I don’t like the word stress but Strictly is so high-pressured and such a massive chunk of the year. If I know I’m doing Strictly I don’t see my family or my friends and there’s not really a quality of life. I’ve been on the road for 15 years and . . . I’m done, that’s all.”
Natalie has been dancing since she was a toddler, her mum, dad and brother undertaking marathon 12-hour car journeys from their home in Sydney to get her to competitions.
And she had already spent years on the Australian version of Strictly, Dancing With The Stars, including winning it, before she even joined the BBC1 favourite.
“Strictly has been a massive part of my life,” says Natalie, tears welling up as the significance of the decision she’s made fully hits home.
“I only moved to this country to be on the show and I never in a million years thought I’d have had such an incredible time over here.
“It has given me the most amazing memories and made me a better dancer and a better person. I have got so much to thank it for.”
Natalie made the switch to the UK in 2009 and she says work, work, work was her focus.
But that all changed when a foot injury resulted in an enforced break from the show and she found herself on a train to the north of England rather than factoring in another 18-hour Strictly day.
“I collapsed to the floor and found I had six broken metatarsals. I thought my world, my career had ended. But I think everything happens for a reason. Had I not broken my foot I wouldn’t have been on the train and I wouldn’t have met my fiancé.”
Natalie was signing autographs for a couple of fans sharing the same table when James, who hadn’t realised who she was, took the remaining seat.
“It was such a nice way to be forced to meet someone,” she says quietly.
“I just thought that life isn’t all about work. I needed to get my head up, open my eyes and find that life, otherwise I was going to be a very lonely woman.
“A few weeks beforehand I’d realised that I was done being alone and that if someone came along I shouldn’t shy away from it. It was a really natural thing, chatting away and a couple of weeks later we went on a date.”
Former Strictly professionals Aliona Kavanagh and Kristina Rihanoff have had babies recently and Natalie says family is very much on her mind, too.
“Of course I want to be a mum,” she confesses. “I love dance and everything it does for me. I need it in my life and I hate the thought of that stopping.
“But – and I don’t care what anyone says – my body clock is ticking. You hear of people having children at 40 or 44 and that’s great.
“You also hear of people taking six years to fall pregnant, though, and I’m thinking that I could be one of those people.
“I don’t want to focus on it too much because if you do then it’s not going to happen.
“But I definitely want to be a mum. When, I don’t know – I’d really like to get married first!
“Nature just has to take its course and it can’t do that when I’m in such a high-pressured, intense working environment when I don’t see my fiancé for six months of the year.
“If I was 27 or even 30 there is absolutely no way I would have left Strictly. It’s the best job in the world and I’m not giving it up lightly.”
While the “Strictly family” – the fellow dancers, make-up, costume, cameras, producers et al – will be very much missed by Natalie, taking a celebrity novice from “zero to hero” will be just as big a loss.
Ricky Whittle, Scott Maslen and Greg Rutherford are just three of her partners taught moves they never knew they had.
But she’s not hanging up her dancing shoes just yet and the Strictly connection is continuing with this latest show.
Rip It Up will see her take to the stage alongside two former champs, gymnast Louis Smith and The Wanted’s Jay McGuiness.
The tour starts in Aberdeen tomorrow before moving on to Inverness on Tuesday, Glasgow on Wednesday and Gateshead on Thursday before dates all over the UK.
It is a celebration of dance set to the soundtrack of the ’50s and Natalie says selling it to her was the easiest thing ever.
“I’ve been a beauty therapist for 10 years and I was so intending to do that and other things after Strictly when I heard about Rip It Up.
“I was looking to have a dance break – until they told me it was 1950s and I knew right that instant I was their girl.
“I love the era, the fashion, the cars – my dad’s a mechanic and I’ve always been a real petrolhead.
“My parents brought me up on the music and when I heard Jay and Louis were doing it that just sealed the deal.”
The tour schedule includes Saturday dates which means that, for the first time, she’ll have to catch up on Strictly afterwards during this series.
But it will always be close to her heart and she is certain the show will continue to flourish with Len Goodman’s replacement Shirley Ballas now in the head judge’s chair.
“I had a lesson from her when I was younger and I used to watch her on video all the time,” adds Natalie.
“She’s a fantastic teacher. She’s a very classy woman who was so powerful on the dance floor.
“She has produced so many champions over the years and is a real go-getter who knows what she wants.
“I know we’re definitely going to be in good hands with her as a judge. Her expertise is top notch and I’m expecting her to be really technical and to want to be wowed by everyone.
“She’s going to have high expectations and everyone really needs to be creative.”
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