Strictly the truth - Craig Revel Horwood interview

He plays the part of Mr Nasty in Strictly Come Dancing but Craig Revel Horwood is so disarmingly honest with himself that it's impossible to dislike him in person

I USED TO BE A RENT BOY!" NO THAT'S not a revelation or a confession, it's Craig Revel Horwood splitting his sides as he recalls a recent tabloid headline. Putting on his best drag queen drawl and laughing like a drain, Strictly Come Dancing's acid-tongued judge is remembering opening the paper to see a huge photograph of his one-time drag alter ego, Lavish, alongside the revelation that Revel Horwood, one of the country's leading theatrical director/choreographers, was once a "gay hooker". But that's not quite the whole story.

"Of course it's blown all out of proportion," he says, as we sit in the living room of his north London home. "Yes, there's a grain of truth in it, of course there is. But that's nothing compared with what's in the book, so I actually felt quite lucky it was just a double page."

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In an era of image management and PR power, Revel Horwood is a shock to the system. Famed for being brutally honest on Strictly Come Dancing (Natasha Kaplinsky was "dull, dull, dull", Jan Ravens was "embarrassing" and James Martin was "rigid") it turns out that even away from those scoring paddles he's not one for sparing blushes or mincing words. But what makes the difference with Revel Horwood, as opposed to, say, a Simon Cowell or the acerbic Jason Gardiner on Dancing on Ice, are two things: first, he really is passionate about dance and that leaves little room for ego-massaging; and second, he doesn't dish out what he can't take. "Anything people say about me I don't care. I really don't care. You read so much terrible stuff about yourself it sort of just ends up washing over. In fact, I try to laugh as much as I can and think how wonderful that is. The story with the photo of me as Lavish, I thought was just hilarious. I was in York that weekend and you should've seen the looks I was getting."

Revel Horwood laughs a lot. He giggles his way through stories, finding humour in the absurd and even the dark episodes of his life. There have been plenty of both and it's all captured in his autobiography, All Balls and Glitter.

Brought up in Ballarat, Victoria, an Australian backwater, there was an abusive, alcoholic fatherat home, relentless bullying at school ("I had long eyelashes and the other kids used to say I wore mascara") and the embryonic knowledge that he was gay, although he had plenty of girlfriends. There were also body-image issues – sitting opposite me on a long leather sofa, at 6ft 2in he seems much bigger than he looks behind the Strictly desk, but as a child he was short and overweight – and the persistent, ever-present sense that all he wanted to do was dance.

Born in 1965, Craig was the second child of Beverley and Philip Revel Horwood. Following his father's postings with the navy, his childhood with his three sisters (his brother Trent wasn't born until Craig was a teenager) was nomadic – including a stint in Fareham near Portsmouth and six years in Sydney, where he was taken under the wing of his music teacher. At the age of 13, though, it was back to Ballarat and the task of staying out of his father's way.

He made his bedroom a sanctuary, was close to his older sister Sue and dreamed of escape, leaving school as soon as he could, first to train as a chef ("it was awful – they treated you like a slave") and then to work at a TV station as a cable puller ("I wasn't amazing at that"), then as a sound recordist.

And now we get to the rent boy story. Enter "Mr X" (Revel Horwood still knows him and has granted him an alias), an older, well-known figure at the TV station and the "business deal" that changed his life. Here's how he tells it: at the age of 16 he met Mr X, who was 42. It was clear Mr X wanted to be more than friends and, having acknowledged his own gayness, Revel Horwood couldn't see the problem. The terms were that Mr X would take him around the world and pay for dance tuition in return for "certain things".

"Mr X said, 'OK, I'll push you off into this direction but we're going to have to come to some arrangement.' And I said, 'OK, well this is the arrangement, this is what I want and this is what I'll do. I'll only go this far, I won't do this and I won't do that.' It was more of a sugar daddy relationship than anything else.

"I knew what I was doing. I was quite grown up by then. I felt like an adult and I made an adult decision and that's how I got out of Ballarat. I didn't have any money and you need money so sometimes you have to do a favour or two. It was very upfront and clear and honest. Then it was signed, sealed and delivered.

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"It was the best thing that ever happened to me. He took me to the opening of Cats in New York; and Dream Girls had just opened on Broadway. I saw very clearly that I wanted to do that, that I wanted to be part of that life, and I'd do anything to get it."

Maybe such unflinching honesty comes from a childhood spent hiding things from an unpredictable, aggressive father who terrorised his wife and children. Or maybe it's his experience that concealing the truth only makes everything worse, that no matter how bad it seems, once it's out there, like a bad dance move, at least you can do something to improve it.

Maybe. But it's also why his celebrity friends (and his publishers) have been nervous about his book and it's the reason his father was on the phone from Australia earlier, he tells me, objecting to the no-holds-barred portrayal of his alcoholism. "I think he wants some kind of right to reply," Revel Horwood says with a wickedly raised eyebrow.

One of the reasons for writing the book is to explore the issues that have affected his life, so there would be no point in presenting a glossy, sanitised version. "Maybe by saying, 'Look, it's OK, you can get on with your life and get through a whole host of things,' it will actually help people who are in similar situations. There can be dramas in your life and you can get over them and become someone. You don't have to wallow in self-pity; you can actually use the experiences in your life to push yourself further and help others."

Revel Horwood's Strictly role has landed him with the tag "Mr Nasty", a slap from a disgruntled viewer and the boos of thousands of fans in arenas around the country. He loves the show and he's used to it now, he says, but it does take a toll. "I feel as though I'm constantly defending myself," he says. "I'm up against challengers from the ballroom world, from the dance world, people on the couch who hate what I'm saying about their favourite celebrity. Then you're up against the press, who will always want to put you in a box."

His stint on Masterchef was an attempt to change perceptions, which is also the aim of the book. On the cookery show, gone were the witty one-liners, replaced by crippling nerves, sweating and shaking. The only other episode in his life that had him trembling that much was when he married at 25. His bride was Jane Hallwood, whom he'd met in London. He'd started off as her lodger but they got on "like a house on fire" and then he thought, well, why not?

"At least my marriage lasted longer than most – two years – before it all went wrong. I was lying to myself really. There are a lot of gay guys who get married, have children and bring up their children with their wives. I have two very good friends in London who do that and one has just celebrated his 22nd year of marriage. They're very happy. I knew about them and I thought, you know, that might actually work for me, that it might be a solution. But of course, it wasn't. It was a big mistake. It taught me something, though – at least I knew who I was and that it wasn't me. And now she's happily married with a son who's 12, so it worked out for all of us, as life usually does."

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Strictly has changed his life but Revel Horwood had and still has a successful career as a director and choreographer. After landing his first professional role as a dancer in a Sydney production of West Side Story, he did everything from The Black and White Minstrel Show to touring with Danny La Rue (who came up with the name Lavish for his drag character), before heading to Paris to work at the Lido and eventually ending up in London. In the West End, he worked in countless shows, dancing in the chorus line alongside people like Ruthie Henshall. He missed out on the lead in Crazy for You to John Barrowman.

And while he worked hard, he partied hard too. Living in a shared house in Camden – dubbed the Heartbreak Hotel – they were wild and carefree times the way Revel Horwood tells it. At 29, however, he damaged his shoulder and had to ask himself whether he wanted to be "dancing in the back row of the chorus when I'm 40". The answer was no, so in true Revel Horwood style he vowed that would be his last show. And then he realised he had no money to pay the rent.

One art exhibition later – Revel Horwood turned his hand to sculpture (he tells me he'd always made things as a child) – he had money in his pocket, having sold all but one of the 20 pieces he made. Then the call came from New York asking him to teach the steps of Crazy for You in a new production before taking it on tour to Berlin and then South Africa. Overnight he went from dancer to choreographer. And a new chapter in his life began.

There are posters and production shots ("when I had cheekbones, darling") on the living room walls, including a huge image for his recent, critically acclaimed collaboration with the Ballet Boyz. A new flamenco show, directed and staged by him, opens in London this month. The keyboard behind the sofa makes me wonder how often Revel Horwood dips into his Whitney Houston songbook – Lavish would slide down a banister on to the stage to the opening strains of The Greatest Love of All. I bet he can still do it.

During the 1990s, as he steadily built his career and had a gay old time, he was in a relationship with Lloyd, his longest to date at 15 years, ending in 2005. Expecting to be with his partner for ever, the break-up was tough. "I love (being in a relationship], it suits me. It didn't suit me being out of one. I felt a bit off."

He has a new partner now; he's called Grant and is a pharmacist at a Harley Street clinic. Where did they meet? "On the internet," he says without hesitation. "People say, 'Oh my God, you're on the telly, how can you go on a site like that?' But everyone else is doing it. Just because I'm a judge on some BBC1 programme doesn't mean I can't go on the internet and meet someone in my private life."

What kind of partner is he? "Well, I would like to think that I'm very loving and generous. I generally give all of myself to that person. I like to trust them entirely. I like monogamous relationships. I don't want the person ever to be afraid to tell me anything, so I try to put a whole lot of trust and faith in people. I don't think I've lost that, although I thought I would have after my big bust-up. But then I related it back to other ones and I thought, well I got over those – I managed to get over the three-year one and the one-year one, so there's no reason I can't get over the 15-year one and start again. And that's what I did."

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He's a truly self-made man – self-taught from books "like a word a day" he giggles – not ever the most talented dancer but certainly the most committed. There's the tiniest hint of a chip on his shoulder when it comes to professional recognition, and given how Strictly has overwhelmed his other work, that's fair enough. If Strictly stops would it be awful for him?

"No, not at all. It's secondary to what I really love doing: directing and choreographing. If that was taken away from me I would be absolutely devastated. I think Strictly is great; it's wonderful and I'm fitting it in around the other work that I do. I'm getting into more ballet, I want to do film, there's loads of stuff I want to do that'll take me in a different direction. Strictly will not be here for ever and I won't be in it for ever, I know that. So I've got to plan other things."

My mug of tea drained and his phone beeping from messages that have been left as we've chatted, I spot a DVD of Hairspray under his TV. I saw the West End show last night, I tell him, and loved it. He tells me he loves it too and then he says something about the show which captures what Craig Revel Horwood is all about. "I think you've got to be brave in this world. Be bold." I'd give him a nine and a half for that.

• All Balls and Glitter: My Life by Craig Revel Horwood is published by Michael O'Mara Books, priced 18.99. Flamenco Flamen'ka opens at the Lyric Theatre in London on Thursday, 18 September. The new series of Strictly Come Dancing begins tonight at 6:30pm with a preview show on BBC1, the contest proper starting next week.