Strictly Come Dancing semi-finalist Rhys Stephenson is currently travelling around the UK with the show’s live tour along with fellow contestants from the 2021 series and so far is loving the experience – and there’s no fear of being voted out by the public.
Stephenson is best known for being a presenter on CBBC, something he started not long after he won a national award during his time at university for being a presenter for his uni news show, and the rest is history.
The 28-year-old spoke about what it was like to receive the ‘Strictly call’, explained how he feels about using his platform for good, notably for normalising mental health, and revealed what projects he has coming up which might excite fans of a certain BBC show.
How is the Strictly live tour going so far?
The Strictly tour is going really well, it’s a lot of fun actually. It’s so nice, because everyone says, the main thing about it is that you don’t go home so everyone knows that they’re going to be in it for the long run, so everyone can actually form bonds and relationships. And after we can have fun and we go back to the hotel, and we see the fans there which is such a boost. Then we can all just debrief what happened, laugh about what went wrong, celebrate what went right – it’s such a great experience. It is a bit of a rock star feeling touring the country.
How did it feel to be approached to do Strictly Come Dancing and then what was the whole experience like for you?
I got the call when I’d finished doing CBBC and I was leaving for the day, and my management called me when I was walking down the stairs and they were like, ‘are you alone?’ I was like 'yes?' and then they said it ‘you’re on Strictly!’ I just screamed then remembered there might still be people around, so I covered my mouth but at that point it was echoing throughout the building.
I quickly ran to my car, and we talked about it, it was so exciting. It was so cool, because I wanted to go all the way. And then when you do the show and realise how difficult it is, it was like 'oh my gosh, will I go all the way?', because it wasn’t just about dancing, it’s personality as well, way better dancers have gone home quicker not because of their dancing ability but because the audience just didn’t connect with them which adds a whole different level of difficulty to the competition because you can’t try and change yourself to just appeal to people, you’ve just got to hope that people like who you are.
It was incredible, honestly it was a fantastic journey that – ah, journey is a trigger word – but it just was. You start at one point, and you come out the other end and the metamorphosis is just ridiculous, you really do change.
How did presenting at CBBC come about and what have the past five years there been like for you?
CBBC was a happy accident really. I was in university and I actually wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to be a surgeon, I got the grades at A-Level for it, so I thought I’ll go to uni and I’ll do human and medical science, which is human biology basically, I’ll get a 2:1 or higher, then go on and do graduate medicine. Then midway through my time, like in my second year, I realised I didn’t want it because I wanted the title of Dr more than actually the work. I thought, 'oh my gosh if I actually become a doctor the studying never stops, I have to keep studying and keep doing this and keep doing exams' and it just sounded horrible, just not really what I wanted.
That tied up with it being such a competitive thing and I thought, well I’m not enjoying that, and I thought if I want to do something that’s really competitive and really difficult to get into, I might as well enjoy it and love it so that even if I spend the rest of my life trying to get there, at least I like it. Like someone says, I’d rather do something that I love and terrible at than do something that I’m really good at but hate.
So that was when I was like 'nah, I don’t want this'. By that point I was doing drama and musical theatre in uni and I was loving it and I thought this is what I want to do, even if it’s just to make ends meet, at least I’m happy.
Then I started doing presenting in uni for a news show for our student channel, and that was just a hobby really, I’d never done presenting, I’d always done acting and performing and stuff like that. I did it for two years then they nominated me for a National Student Television Award. So, I was like, 'well I’m never going to win this, but sure I’ll go to the event and have fun'. We went up to Leeds, Leeds Uni where they were hosting it and it was really swanky like the NTAs, everyone was dressed dapper, but everyone was poor you know, because we’re students, don’t have money, so we pretend that we do.
It got to my part which is Best Onscreen Male and I remember sitting there and thinking, because our uni hadn’t won anything, I thought 'ah okay it’s not going to happen', and I thought I didn’t deserve to win anyway because I only did it as a hobby, I only had fun with it and you have to work hard to get an award. But then I sat there, and I thought, 'no, no, every week I came in, we looked over the script, we did it, we had fun' and I thought 'I want this, I should definitely deserve to have this'. I was like 'God listen, I want this, like if I’m meant to be anything in television, anything at all, let me win this award'. Then I felt embarrassed because I was like what a selfish thing to do and then I won, and I couldn’t believe it.
I ran to get the award, called my parents because they didn’t even know where I was as I didn’t tell them what I was doing because I didn’t think I’d ever win it. I was calling them at midnight being like I just won this award! And they were like ‘where are you?’ After that I thought 'let me take this seriously, let me see what I can do if I actually put my mind to it'.
I made a showreel with friends, tried to get it out there, and then before I knew it CBBC messaged me out of the blue and were like we’d love you to audition for this show. I auditioned for it and I didn’t get it at first, then I did another job and they came back to me. And the rest is history, it just led on from there and CBBC has just been the chapter of my life that I’m living now.
You work with Place2Be, so how important is raising the awareness of mental health to you?
Place2Be and mental health have become such a big thing in my conversation, and it never was before, and it wasn’t like I never liked it, but I was always like 'yeah, thinking positive is always an important thing', I always thought it was a given. Then obviously this new wave in this era of mental health has become such a thing where everyone is more conscious of it to the point of both physical and mental health, and I think that’s a really wonderful thing.
I think I’ve always got to be careful as well because especially in the celebrity world some people have taken mental health and made it a bit into a brand, and I think that really irks me a bit. I’m not saying all of them do it, but you might get an influencer who comes on and talks about prioritising mental health and I’m like, 'did they suffer from mental health or are they just sad?' We have to understand there is a difference between being a little bit low and then feeling low to the point where you need professional help.
I’m a big advocate for it but for me I don’t go about constantly preaching it, but I bring it into those conversations, I think it should be an everyday kind of thing in the same way like in Strictly for example, so many times my arms and body is hurting so I go and see the physio. I think that’s how I treat mental health; I might just go I’m feeling quite low today and I don’t really know why; I think I might take a day for myself, and that’s what it needs to be, it needs to be that normal. Apparently in New Zealand you can just call up your work and go I want to take a mental health day and they’re like ‘chill, bye, have fun.’ Like that’s it, and that’s crazy. Over here if you call your boss and say you’re taking the day off they’d go ‘get out of here and get into work.’
It’s super important and for me because Place2Be is about the mental health of children, I’m quite passionate about that. When you work for CBBC, children becomes your life really in that way, you interact with kids quite a lot and when you do, you do realise they have their own mental health struggles to deal with. And why wouldn’t they? They don’t know what this world is, some of them have only been on this planet for seven years, it’s overwhelming still, they’re learning things every single day and some of these kids have tragedies put upon them that you couldn’t even imagine.
The fact that Place2Be exists to kind of alleviate that for these kids is a beautiful thing and I love that I can be a part of that.
How does it feel to be using your platform for good and to help others?
It’s really important, the reality is that people will take what I say a bit more seriously because of Strictly and let it affect them which is kind of cool but sometimes a bit worrying because it’s not like I’ve written a paper on mental health and got qualifications – all I did was go out and dance a little bit and lift a woman on my shoulders a few times, and now all these people want to hear my opinions on other things which is a really strange part of celebrity culture. But that’s the responsibility I have. I’m aware of that and I want to use that for good, so yeah it is very, very important.
Do I deserve to have that kind of attention? I don’t think so, but it’s there. I remember going to an event with my little sister and they had a seminar on mental health, and it was a popular one because it had all these really big YouTubers and my sister wanted to go and I was like, 'ugh whatever'. I sat there and I remember being dishevelled by it because, I don’t want to challenge it because maybe their stories were true, but I was there, and it seemed a bit shallow to me.
Then one of YouTubers spoke out and said, 'look the thing is you guys are here listening to us talk but you shouldn’t be, you should be looking at therapists and psychologists and listen to what they’re saying, what we are saying cannot help you, all we’re doing is talking about our lives and you’re listening to it because of who we are but we’re not the qualified ones for this'. And I flipping love that person for saying that - he got more of my respect.
It’s so important with this platform to use it for good and yes of course there’s times when people are like, 'we’ll pay you lots of money for this', but at this point now I’ve got to be really protective over my integrity and go 'okay I’ll talk about that, no I won’t speak about that' because people watch you, so eagle-eyed now. It’s not my responsibility but some people are really passionate, and they’ll do anything you say and so I’m always trying to be mindful of that, and it’s a huge responsibility but it’s not one that I let keep me up at night.
Do you find it tough deciding what you want to say because of how it could influence other people?
I don’t think I find it tough, but I don’t take it lightly. I make sure that I’ve thought about it, and I think the thing is not speaking too quickly, like when someone asks a question, pause and think, 'do I want to speak about it?'
I think most of time I know whether I want to speak about it or not. The hard part is replying and saying 'no', I hate saying no and saying 'I don’t want to do this', and you feel awful, but I think in the moment you know if you do or not. Nine out of 10 people have been respectful of it, and they leave you alone but no, I don’t think it’s too tough.
You hosted Don't Hate The Debate for BBC Teach, so could you tell us about that experience?
That was a long time ago now, it was a really cool series of internet episodes talking about identity in the UK, so it was handling stuff like immigration and what it meant to be British basically. We were talking about what was British, but so many things we count as quintessentially British are actually taken from other things like apparently fish and chips is a Jewish meal that we adapted – I had no idea, it blew me away. And Chinese and Indian takeaways are quite British now, but it’s Indian, it’s Chinese, it’s all borrowed.
It was just talking about that and the idea of truly being British and we’re focusing on the wrong things of what it means to be in this culture. It was really cool, it was me and three other really cool people and we just had a chat and a debate about it, talking about the politics of it all. I loved that because I think that’s one of the first jobs I did whilst being on CBBC that wasn’t just kiddy, I really enjoyed doing something that was a bit more grown up and I hope to do more of that stuff.
I love CBBC to death and I’d do it until I was 100, but no-one wants a 100-year-old on television anyway. But when you get to do bits where you don’t have to be as bright, I love being bright but it’s also nice when you can be a bit more of yourself and have the conversation, still joke and still laugh, but talk about some more serious topics that sometimes people might find a bit uncomfortable but that’s what gets the reaction.
I really enjoyed Don’t Hate the Debate, it was a really cool series of films to do, and I wanted to do it because I found that topic really interesting and I found it really, really cool and as a Black man in the UK I found myself questioning my Britishness all the time like, 'am I allowed to be British? Am I allowed to be English? Is English just strictly for white people? What does that mean?' Because I think there are some people like that who are like 'you can be British, but you can’t be English', I can’t be an Englishman, so then it’s like why, because most of them were probably Viking, so how does that work?
It put all those questions into play. It was a very cool series, it was designed for BBC Teach so to get those conversations started in the classrooms rather than have teachers try and do it, just have the students watch it and start talking.
Do you have anything else coming up apart from the Strictly tour and CBBC work?
I’m casually sailing along a bit, but I’ve got some great things back at CBBC, like live lessons, so educational programmes that we do for children with maths, English and science – I always love doing that, it’s really cool, mostly because it reminds me of the stuff I don’t have to do anymore and it’s really nice.
There’s another kind of Strictly thing going on but it’s new so I’m kind of keeping it underwraps but that’s quite nice. Other than that, it’s just keeping on, trying to be polite to people and just taking whatever new thing comes. But right now, just enjoying the ride, it’s really cool.
Interview conducted and written by Lucy Roberts for Female First, who you can follow on Twitter, @Lucy_Roberts_72.