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Juliet Dunlop: Strictly speaking, we are the ones who are facing a challenge

Juliet Dunlop

Juliet Dunlop

BUMPING into a household name is always a little surreal. In the workplace it is especially strange, but at the BBC’s Television Centre, the one place where you’d think it might happen all the time, it was surprisingly uncommon.

News was housed in a glass-fronted tower – long and winding corridors separated the television and radio folk from the glitter-strewn parts where the fun stuff was made – but occasionally, a bewildered celeb would stray into the newsroom. When cornerstones of light entertainment did appear, uninterest would be feigned and they’d be left to puzzle over their whereabouts. After a respectable amount of time had elapsed, someone would eventually direct them past the photocopier and on to The Palladium, The Ivy or The Priory.

Over the years I pointed a few in the right direction, but the funniest of the lot was Sir Bruce Forsyth. He was just plain Bruce then, and when I found him he was plain lost: “Excuse me dear, but how do I get out of here?” Without hesitation I led him to the lifts and to freedom. And yes, we did go through his “Higher! Lower!” routine as the doors slid shut. Since then, I’ve been a fan. The jokes may be as threadbare as a second-hand toupée, but he’s the best thing about Strictly Come Dancing. For old times’ sake you might say, I always tune in.

The show hinges on a simple formula; the mild humiliation of soap stars, pop stars, sports people, television presenters, token older women and men, and the inevitable comedy contestant. In previous years, the larger-than-life no-hoper role has been filled by John Sergeant, Ann Widdecombe and Russell Grant – big shoes indeed – but this year, the job has fallen to actress Lisa Riley, all 18 stones of her.

Now Riley, by her own admission, specialises in playing overweight, unattractive characters. She says those are the only parts she’s offered. So one must assume that she has agreed to take part in a programme that is packed with honed and toned mahogany sprites, to prove a point. She says she’s doing it for “all the chubbers out there”, and that if she encourages just one woman to dance, she’ll be pleased.

You could argue that all the contestants have been picked because the producers have decided they tick a particular box, but I can’t help but feel that Riley has been selected for one reason only: because she’s fat. She is Funny Fat Girl. No fat jokes will be made of course, unless Riley makes them herself, but when judge Craig Revel Horwood told her through gritted teeth “You can dance!”, I couldn’t help but think that what he really meant was “Not bad for a fat woman”.

Riley, who says she is happy with how she looks, may well change attitudes over the coming weeks, but only if it’s not all about her size. Neither will she want votes which are rooted in sympathy or cruelty. She might have started off as the joke contestant, but she is a woman first and foremost, and presumably one with feelings as well as sequins.

Riley isn’t the only one challenging the way we think about body image. This week, an American newsreader became an internet hit after she received an e-mail from a viewer telling her she was setting a bad example to young girls by being overweight. Jennifer Livingston could have hit “delete” but instead she broadcast a heart-felt statement: “You could call me fat and yes, even obese, on a doctor’s chart. But you don’t know me. I am so much more than a number on a scale.” Livingston has since turned up on talk shows to discuss America’s obesity crisis and the debate about so-called “fat-shaming”.

So, between them, it would seem Jennifer Livingston and Lisa Riley are taking on the bullies, dieters and doubters; the people who feel they have the right to judge them because of their weight. Livingston wasn’t shamed into silence, and Riley hasn’t been shamed into hiding. As positive, female role models they have every right to grace our screens. Now it’s down to us to see past our prejudices.

 

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