Strictly favourite AJ Odudu’s ballroom blitz is down to sheer hard work says her biggest fan – super-proud mum Florence.
The TV host is enjoying a glorious ru n in the dance show after years of grafting in showbusiness.
AJ, 33, told the Sunday Mirror she and dance partner Kai Widdrington are having heaps of fun but they are working extra hard since being tipped to win the glitterball.
And beaming Florence – a massive Strictly fan long before AJ was touted as a contestant – today reveals how she instilled that fierce work ethic in her daughter.
The mum says: “Watching AJ on Strictly is incredible, it’s like I’ve won the lottery. I am so proud of her.”
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Florence, 66, traces the hard grafting back to her own days growing up in wartorn Nigeria in the late 1960s. She was raised in a small town called Sapele, in the Delta State, and recalls having to flee the family home one night.
As her pregnant mother carried their meagre belongings, Florence held the hand of her little brother as they trudged miles to the relative safety of Jesse Town.
And the effects of the civil war are still with Florence today.
She says: “It was a very hard time and it still hurts what me and my country went through.”
More than a million people perished in the civil war fought between the government of Nigeria and the Republic of Biafra, which had declared independence in 1967.
Some half a million died from a lack of medicine and famine – caused by blockades preventing food getting through. The war – during which haunting images of starving children were beamed around the world – ended in 1970.
Even for those who escaped the worst effects of the conflict, life was tough. Florence’s parents couldn’t afford to pay her school fees and education for girls was not a priority.
When she moved to Blackburn at the age of 18, in the 1970s, she had an arranged marriage .
She and James, her husband of 40 years, had eight children – including AJ. Florence made sure all of her kids were university educated and worked as hard as they could.
In 2018, as part of Channel 4 documentary Manhunting With My Mum, she took AJ to Nigeria in the hope of finding her a partner – but also to show how far the country had come since the war.
Of that experience, Florence explains: “I was glad for my children to see where I come from.
“When they were younger they complained that I said, ‘Work hard, work hard, work hard’. They would say, ‘Oh Mum, why are you telling me to work hard, I’m trying my best’.
“I think now that AJ saw my old life she maybe appreciates me more, she now knows why I pushed her and her brothers and sisters.
“Even though we had very little money, I feel she, her brothers and sisters still had the opportunities that I had wished for – access to education and free health care.”
When Florence arrived in Lancashire she took on multiple cleaning jobs to make ends meet and worked all hours.
She often took the children along and instilled in them the importance of working hard to succeed.
And she admits she would have loved to send AJ to dance classes, but couldn’t afford it. Yet she knew from a young age that AJ’s sparkling personality and determination would ensure she would go far.
Florence says: “I didn’t know AJ could dance, not the way she does now, no. She seemed to have something naturally and she has always liked performing at home.
“I would have loved to have sent her to dance lessons but we just didn’t have the money.”
It was when AJ was five that Florence began to see she was destined for stardom. “We had a cousin who came to stay,” she explains.
“And she loved make-up, she put it on AJ’s lips and she really liked posing for the photos.
“Then when she started school I always asked the teacher if she was reading, and learning, and the teacher always said, ‘No she is too busy socialising, but she will learn in time.’
“On her birthday she was the first of my children to ask me to make her a cake to go to school.
“So I had to learn and I made her a big simple sponge cake and she shared it with all her friends, and then everyone would come to our house for a party.
“We didn’t have a big house, there was not a lot of space but AJ would always have her friends over.”
In the Channel 4 documentary, AJ explained why she was seeking possible romance in Nigeria.
She said: “All my past relationships have gone wrong. Dating apps have failed to deliver. I’ve had loads of failed relationships. Sometimes I’m just too much for them, other times they are not enough for me – and a couple of times I’ve been cheated on.”
When she met a Nigerian prince, she said: “I don’t think I could kneel down to you. I would respect you but I don’t think I have to show that respect by kneeling down to you, especially if you weren’t bowing down to me.”
AJ didn’t find a husband in Nigeria. Meanwhile, rumours of a possible romance with her 26-year-old Strictly partner Kai abound.
Mum Florence won’t be drawn on the speculation – but she has met Kai and says she is impressed. She adds: “He seems lovely and I think he’s a good dancer… and I think he looks good.”
Talking to the Sunday Mirror, AJ didn’t deny she and Kai were in a relationship. She said: “Genuinely, me and Kai get on so well. It’s brilliant for people to see how much fun we are having.
“At the end of the day me and Kai are focused on the Strictly experience as a whole.
“One thing that is definitely for sure is we are doing a lot of dancing.”
The whole family is gripped by the show and AJ said even her nephew got jealous when Kai was paired with Nadya in the professional dance.
She also joked how she and Kai are so close that he paid for her dental bill.
AJ laughed: “I’ve had so many chocolates and sweets, one of my back teeth fell out and I had to go to dentist and I forgot my purse. I said, ‘Come on Kai, cough up and he sorted me right out’.”
Kai added: “We get on like a house on fire. I’m so consumed with…” “Me,” AJ fnished for him with a laugh.
Florence has visited the set most weeks and says she has always been a fan of the show.
She says: “If somebody told me that it would happen, I would have thought it was a prank.
“I have eight children and one year everyone had the same idea – they all bought me flowers and I had a house full of flowers. They were everywhere, which was lovely, but I told them they can’t all buy me flowers.
“They know I am a Strictly fan, so they bought me tickets to the Strictly tour.
“I’ve been twice now to watch at Manchester Arena and love it. But now I get to watch it live in the studio and to be so close is wonderful.”
Her favourite dance is AJ’s jive and she is desperate to see her daughter make it to musicals week.
Florence says: “It would be wonderful. I said to somebody at the BBC about it and they said soon I’d be on the dancefloor myself.
“I said don’t worry about it – if she gets to musicals week, once the music is on, it will cure my bad knees and I’ll be dancing!”