Amy has made a documentary about her life with Crohn’s disease (Picture: BBC/David Fisher)
Pro dancer Amy Dowden will be starting work on her fifth series of Strictly Come Dancing later this month, and she has her sights set on winning.
It’s the one thing she has yet to tick off her Strictly bucket list, after just missing out with CBBC presenter Karim Zeroual in 2019, when they finished as runners-up.
‘Not that I’m competitive!’ she laughs. ‘But I guess the most important thing is if your celebrity loves their experiences and falls in love with dancing and made memories – tick. The job is done.’
Speaking to Metro.co.uk ahead of her documentary airing, Strictly Amy: Crohn’s and Me, the 31-year-old dancer is opening up about the chronic illness that has affected her since childhood to encourage other people to talk about it too.
Crohn’s disease is a lifelong condition where parts of the digestive system become inflamed, which can lead to severe stomach cramps, fatigue, diarrhoea, and weight loss. There is currently no cure, with patients offered medication to manage symptoms and often surgery to remove part of the digestive system.
Through her documentary, Amy met other sufferers of Crohn’s and Colitis (inflammation of the colon) and they now have a group chat, ‘Crohn’s Queens’, where they all ‘look out for each other’.
Crohn’s has impacted Amy since she was 11 (Picture: BBC)
‘Normally, I’m hoping I can help them but they’re helping me so much too and I’m learning from them. Talking doesn’t take the pain away, but [it helps] just to lift that weight off your shoulders, to talk to someone who’s willing to listen or understands.’
Coming to terms with the condition was something that took Amy a while as flare-ups could be debilitating and affect her fledgling dance career when she was younger.
‘My health dictated so much of my life from the age of 11 and I had these enormous plans for doing things, and I just wanted to get on with my life, just push it to one side and say, “I’m Amy the dancer, not Amy with Crohn’s disease.”’
But as she’s got older, she’s accepted it and reflects on the unexpected ways it might have changed her life: ‘It’s made me who I am and I’m not sure I’d have achieved what I have done if it wasn’t for my Crohn’s.’
Amy has faced a challenging past 18 months as the pandemic threw her live show, dance school, wedding plans and health into chaos last March, but she’s not here for sympathy, calling herself ‘lucky’ to have the support she has.
The documentary began filming ahead of lockdown, resulting in a revealing look into the difficulty of living with a condition like Crohn’s as the stress of the situation took its toll on Amy physically and she ended up in hospital with a major flare-up.
‘You know that you must be poorly if they’re keeping you in hospital during a global pandemic. It was certainly stressful – and scary. My body had been go, go, go, go, go, and to hit it with a sudden stop had a major impact.’
The Welsh dancer is a strong supporter of ‘the wonderful NHS’, and wants to raise awareness of the condition and help those who are struggling.
‘There are still people going too long without being diagnosed, people who are scared to go to the hospital or doctors because it’s not a pleasant topic to talk about and I want to help break down that stigma, get people talking.’
Amy speaks with Strictly judge Shirley Ballas and her niece Mary about Mary’s experience with Crohn’s (Picture: BBC)
Now she’s older Amy has learned to live with her condition – but she’s not a fan of being given any special treatment.
‘When I was younger, I used to get really frustrated when people would be like to my mum, “So how’s Amy? How’s her health?” I don’t want to be treated any differently to anyone else, that’s for sure. I don’t want any special treatment – if I think I’m getting that, then that will upset me. But I’m pretty open now, with conversations. I’ve learned to accept my condition.’
Strictly Come Dancing in 2020 saw major sacrifices made by cast and crew – many of whom had to self-isolate from family – to allow the show to go ahead, with strict Covid protocols in place. Bar Nicola and Katya’s early exit, it was a roaring success, and Amy describes the BBC as having gone ‘above and beyond’ to ensure everyone’s safety.
Last year also saw Amy paired with former Royal Marine turned Invictus Games athlete and TV presenter JJ Chalmers, who she describes as ‘like a brother’ to her.
‘We could relate in so many ways, waking up every day facing certain challenges, and both having had many hospital stays. But he said to me at the end of the show that this is better than any rehab, doing Strictly, and for me – that would be a standout moment. It really touched my heart.’
Amy and JJ came 6th in the last series of Strictly (Picture: BBC/Guy Levy)
She also credits him with having changed her as a person ‘for the better’ as she was inspired by his attitude towards life (JJ sustained severe injuries in an IED blast in Afghanistan, including the loss of two fingers and the disintegration of his right elbow).
‘It was never, “I can’t do that”, it was, “Let’s find our way of doing it.” Just watching the transformation every week from Monday morning to Saturday was honestly unbelievable. And I learnt so much from him and his outlook on life and the way he faces challenges. I genuinely think he changed me as a person for the better.’
Amy is engaged to her dance partner Ben Jones, with whom she became British National Latin Dance Champion in 2017. Although they’ve now had to postpone their big day twice, Amy shares that they are ‘willing to wait’ to have family members and international dance colleagues safely attend.
‘Our coach lives in America – we wouldn’t have won our title if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been on Strictly if it wasn’t for him, so for him to not be part of our big day would be a shame. For us, we do want the wedding we want, so if we have to wait a little bit longer, so be it. We’re not going anywhere!’
In Strictly Amy: Crohn’s and Me, snippets of young Amy, a mega-Strictly fan, are shared. Does she have any fond memories of the show as a keen viewer? As with many, Jill Halfpenny and Darren Bennett’s jive to Elton John’s I’m Still Standing in series two immediately springs to mind.
‘Me and my twin sister spent hours copying it – I can probably still remember the kick section now!’
She also lists news presenter Natasha Kaplinsky, cricketer Darren Gough and Olympian Colin Jackson as celebrities that really stood out for her as an aspiring professional dancer.
Next month brings big changes to the world of Strictly as original pro Anton Du Beke joins the judging panel for the full series and fellow pro Janette Manrara jumps over to spin-off show It Takes Two.
‘What’s lovely is Anton’s been in our shoes. He knows what it’s like if something goes wrong for the celebrity on the night, which they trained all week for, and just that one second’s gone slightly wrong. I’m delighted for him, I really am. And Jeanette on It Takes Two – she’s always worked so hard and that’s been a dream of hers, to become a presenter. Obviously, I’m going to miss them in pro rehearsals!’
Four new dancers will also be making their way onto the Strictly dancefloor: Kai Widdrington, Nikita Kuzmin, Cameron Lombard and Jowita Przystal. How does Amy feel about the exciting new additions?
‘I hope they’re ready to join our crazy yet loving family! They’re certainly only going to bring even more sparkle and joy to the show.’
Strictly Amy: Crohn’s and Me airs on 27 August at 7pm on BBC One. Strictly Come Dancing will start on BBC One in September.