HER TV life may be all glitz and glamour, but behind the scenes Strictly judge Shirley Ballas is coming to terms with a family history of slavery, racism and domestic abuse.
In an extraordinary episode of BBC1 documentary Who Do You Think You Are?, the ballroom star discovers she has black heritage after learning her ancestors were snatched from Madagascar and sold as slaves.
Shirley Ballas was left shocked at the discovery her ancestors were slaves after researching her family tree[/caption]
In an intensely personal interview, Shirley, 57, tells The Sun: “It was heart-breaking, it was an emotional journey. There were a lot of tears.
“I’m quite a softie really. I go back and I try to imagine other people’s lives. It was nothing like how I set out on the journey.”
Shirley was brought up alongside older brother David by mum Audrey on a Merseyside council estate. Her dad George walked out on them when she was two.
Despite a distant relationship with her father, there was always a whisper that his own dad George Rich — an “olive skinned” bare-knuckle boxer — had black ancestry.
Shirley’s great-grandfather George Rich was mixed race[/caption]
Shirley says: “People used to call him not such a nice name, which I won’t say, but it referred to the fact he was perhaps black.
“There was all this sort of chat that nobody really paid too much attention to.”
It was these unknown roots that inspired Shirley to sign up for the show.
And the family tree trail sees her travel to South Africa to follow her great-grandfather’s footsteps.
Shirley’s great-grandmother Clara Sutton was forced to give up her three children after husband George died of cancer at 36[/caption]
Like Aussie Strictly colleague Craig Revel Horwood — who traced his roots last year and learnt one relative was a clog-dancing champion — Shirley hoped she would find a fun dance connection in her past.
Nothing could have prepared her for what she discovered.
While sifting through family death records, she learns her four-times-great-grandmother, Caroline Otto, arrived in South Africa in the early 19th century after being snatched from Madagascar as a child and sold as a slave.
Mum-of-one Shirley explains: “It was extremely emotional because the child was very young.
Shirley Ballas was left heartbroken after learning her family history of slavery, racism and domestic abuse[/caption]
“She also didn’t know the names of her parents. That meant she had been sold into slavery at a very young age. I have a son so it was really heartbreaking to imagine this child having to leave her family and be sold into the slave trade.”
The death record from 1848 also states that Caroline was “Malay” — a term that referred to all non-white Muslims. Further details show she was born in “Malagas”, referring to Madagascar.
After her arrival in Cape Town, Caroline went to work for the Otto family, whose name she took.
She went on to have three children, and though she stayed Muslim herself, she later converted them from Islam to Christianity.
Shirley says: “I thought it was fascinating that somewhere far back, four generations removed, we have a Muslim young lady and she also converted her children from Muslim to Christianity but she stayed as a Muslim herself.
“I think whatever gave her strength to get through the time was just fantastic.”
One of those children went on to have a daughter, who eventually had Shirley’s great-grandfather, also called George Rich, who was mixed race.
Caroline’s story was not the only sobering discovery during the show.
People used to call my grandfather a not very nice name, which I won’t say, but it referred to the fact he was perhaps black.
While following up on another rumour — this time about her “party girl” great-grandmother Clara Sutton on her mum’s side — she discovers another tragic tale. The team learn that Clara was forced to give up her three children after husband George died of cancer at just 36 — and left his entire will to his mother Elizabeth.
As she was now without the means to care for them, the children moved in with their grandmother.
Clara went on to marry second husband Arthur in 1919. Three months later the pair emigrated to Boston and adopted a daughter, Dorothy.
After nine years of marriage Clara filed for divorce, citing domestic abuse. Legal papers reveal the problem started shortly after they had said their vows and refer to Arthur’s heavy boozing, physical attacks and affairs.
Shirley was aware of a whisper that her ‘olive-skinned’ grandfather, also called George Rich, had black ancestry[/caption]
Shirley’s grandmother Daisy alongside her brother Jack[/caption]
Clara went on to spend 17 years at a psychiatric unit and died in 1947, aged 66, after contracting a brain condition as a result of syphilis.
Welling up, Shirley explains how she wishes she could have told her grandmother Daisy the truth about her mum Clara before she passed away. Shirley says: “Obviously she’d been pumped all her life with the lie that she was a party girl.
“So my nanny died thinking that her mother was a party girl when in fact I don’t believe she was.
“Clara had this horrific life where she adopted this other child then she had to fight to get a divorce.
Shirley was hoping to find a fun dance connection in her ancestry just like Craig Revel Horwood[/caption]
“And then she was beaten and battered and wounded and feared for her life.”
The story about Clara’s journey to America particularly struck a chord with Shirley.
At the age of 23 she decided to split from her husband of five years — dance partner Sammy Stopford — and move to Texas to make it in the States.
She says: “It was scary to move to the US. I met my first dance partner when I was about 17 or 18 and we were married by the time we were 18 or 19, I don’t remember the exact date, and everything was dance, dance, dance. Then there came just a short space of time where I was wondering whether I was missing out on anything.
Shirley says she can only ‘sit here and imagine how her ancestors felt’[/caption]
“Back then when you danced, everybody married their dance partner. What do you really know at 18?”
While in America she met second husband Corky Ballas and the pair had son Mark, 32, before moving back to the UK.
It was not until last year that Shirley, who split from Corky in 2007, got her first telly job — as head judge on Strictly.
She hopes that the new documentary, which airs in two weeks, will show fans of the show a different side of her.
Shirley Ballas was inspired to sign up for Who Do You Think You Are? due to her unknown roots[/caption]
She says: “Everything was a bit of an uphill battle for me. I know people look at you on that glitzy and glamorous show, which is amazing.
“But I don’t think anybody realises the path you have to travel, and for females, even today, and particularly for me growing up.”
At school, Shirley was a target for bullies, who picked on her for being poor and having no dad.
She says: “I just remember one girl really getting me on the field and beating the holy crap out of me. I never to this day know why.
Shirley’s quest to discover her family tree saw her travel to South Africa to follow her great-grandfather’s footsteps[/caption]
“And then people used to be funny because we were on welfare. People used to make fun of you. But I used to get school dinners so I thought it was great, I got a hot meal every day. The school could cook, it was amazing.”
Shirley, who does now have a relationship with her dad, found salvation through her Saturday morning dance classes, but her brother David — who took his own life in December 2003 after a battle with depression — found it harder to cope.
Shirley went on to raise his ten-year-old daughter Mary.
It was only last year that the family celebrated Christmas for the first time since 2003 because of the timing of David’s death.
Shirley Ballas was raised by mum Audrey on a Merseyside council estate after her dad walked out when she was two[/caption]
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Shirley, who has come a long way from her roots, might have had hard times but she knows that life could have been far worse.
She says: “I’m in a male-dominated industry in the ballroom world and it’s difficult for any woman, particularly a single woman.
“So I can only possibly sit there and imagine how my ancestors felt. It is truly heart-breaking.”
- Shirley’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, BBC1, Monday, July 30, 9pm.