Oti Mabuse had a stellar end to 2020, making history as the first professional dancer to win Strictly Come Dancing two years in a row, with her partner Bill Bailey.
She was riding high, but as England went back into lockdown a day later, she came crashing down quite abruptly. “That was hard,” the 30-year-old dancer admits. “To be honest, you can’t really say it was hard when there are people in the frontline who have found it even harder, and there are people who haven’t even been outside and have to stay in and shield… But I came back from this completely incredible experience, I did something I didn’t think anybody would do, and then went into lockdown.”
Mabuse admits to finding both the first and third lockdowns a struggle. “It was a shock to the system,” she says. “For the longest time, I would say that for me, my work, my work ethic, and my job was something that gave me a sense of value. And then all of a sudden, that got taken away, and you’re put in a position where you have to search within and find out who you are.”
Mabuse started hosting free dance classes on social media back in March 2020, saying: “Waking up in the morning and having something to do, that routine – that gave me a sense of light. I felt alive again, I felt light again, from just simply waking up… It made me feel better because I was staying active; my brain was working, my creativity was working – that kept me safe.”
And after going from the “extreme high to extreme nothing” of winning Strictly and cruising straight into lockdown again, Mabuse turned to dancing once more. “It’s how I give back, it’s my way of giving back to the community of the country,” she explains. “And again, we went back to the same thing that we did in the first lockdown – giving the dance classes – and it gave me a sense of worthiness.”
Dancing isn’t the only way Mabuse has kept her mental health in check though; she also credits her close friendships with women like Karen Hauer from Strictly for keeping her level. She’s also been reading a book called Badass Habits by Jen Sincero (£14.99, Hachette), which she says is “about cultivating awareness of your mental health, and doing everyday little things to make you feel like you’re on top of it. It’ll give you tasks like – today, drink more water or go for an extra long walk. It’s really exciting, and it teaches you how to stick to the habit.”
Mabuse isn’t new to taking care of her mental wellbeing, saying: “When you’re in the limelight and in my position, you have to. I wasn’t aware of it before, because I thought I was fine. But the more you do and the more people see, the more opinions people have about you: what you look like, your hair, how loud I laugh, how loud I speak, how I speak, my body, all of that. And I guess it takes a toll on you. It makes you look at yourself like, ‘Wait, I love the way I laugh’ – I never considered that it’s a thing.”
Since joining Strictly in 2015, she says: “I’ve realised that whenever I tried to change to please other people, I lost who I was. I just do me now, and then I try my hardest to always stay positive – focus on the good things and work on the bad, because I’m not perfect. I know that much – I’m definitely not perfect, but I will keep working on the things that I’d like to change.”
Even when talking about serious subjects like mental health, Mabuse is always putting a positive spin on things and struggles to finish more than a few sentences without giggling. And yet she doesn’t see herself as a naturally sunny person, saying: “I strive to be positive. My husband is so positive, he sees the beauty and positivity in everything” – and her husband Marius Lepure’s ears must have been burning, because at this point he walks into the background of Mabuse’s screen (we’re chatting via video!).
Mabuse is unfazed and continues: “Everything is perspective, everything is what you make out of it. I’ve learned that from being with him – what you see is a choice. It’s easy to choose what’s not nice, so you have to be conscious of even though that’s not nice, be positive about it.”
The dancer has won legions of fans for her smooth moves and bubbly personality, but underneath is a steely interior. Super driven, she credits this to her upbringing. “I don’t think I had a choice,” she confesses. “I came from a dancing world, where I started competing at the age of four, and my whole family are competitive dancers. We were quite a driven family, just by nature.”
And born in Pretoria, Mabuse adds: “Drive wasn’t really a choice, if I was going to dance and get myself out of South Africa. That’s what I needed, because dancing was the only way that we could leave the country, we could see the world and come to England. If I was doing this for fun, it would never have worked, and I needed to be driven for a better life.”
Oti Mabuse has partnered with Avon to launch a global story and image gallery to connect women around the world. Find out more at watchmenow.avon.com.