Lunchtime, in a rehearsal room with big windows overlooking south London life several floors below. When his mind should be on Strictly Come Dancing’s cha-cha-cha, or this week’s salsa, Layton Williams might be found getting distracted by something outside. “I’ll be, ‘Oh, look at the kids having fun in the playground, look at that bird,’ and then Nikita’s, like, ‘Hello? Back in the room!’” To be fair, Williams also works very hard, and it shows. His quickstep in week two of Strictly earned him and his professional partner, Nikita Kuzmin, a mammoth 36 points – a dance so ridiculously fun, fast and joyous, I felt a dopamine hit just watching it. The week after, Williams performed a Viennese waltz, looking beautiful in a long skirt. This Sunday, his disco cha-cha-cha brought the highest score so far.
It has been suggested that Williams, who came to prominence in the BBC comedy Bad Education, but began his career at the age of 12 in the stage version of Billy Elliot, has an unfair advantage – he’s a star of musicals, and went to theatre school. “I’ve taken it on the chin; I get what everyone’s saying,” he says of the criticism. “But if you could be a fly on the wall in this rehearsal room, it’s not easy for me.” Kuzmin’s choreography is challenging because he knows Williams will attempt it, and Williams suspects the judges score him with his musical theatre background in mind. “I’m not sad about that – I want to rise to the challenge.”
Strictly has had same-sex couples since 2020, but there is still something fresh about the relationship between the 29-year-old Williams, who is gay, and Kuzmin, his straight pro dancer. It’s a male dynamic that’s not often seen on mainstream TV (not since, perhaps, last year’s competition, when the radio presenter Richie Anderson was paired with the dancer Giovanni Pernice). “It’s nice to celebrate the fact that a straight man and a gay man can be best of friends – it’s love and respect for each other,” says Williams. “That’s beautiful. More of those relationships, I say.” In terms of each dance, “At the beginning of the week, we think: what’s the concept of the dance? Are we platonic? Are we bros? Are we falling in love? I think it’s a nice dynamic. I could go home [after the show] and already feel like I’ve won in the sense that if I’ve caused a shift in just a few people’s hearts, then boom, thank you, and I’m so glad I said yes to Strictly.”
Wearing a skirt, as Rizzo from Grease, was part of that. “If I’m being Rizzo, I want to dress up as Rizzo. I went out there, I felt beautiful – that was one thing I wanted to feel – and I wanted to feel in character. It’s all down to the concept – I’m not just whacking on a skirt and wig.”
Still, with wearying predictability, the pairing – and Williams in drag – ramped up the abuse online. “I’ve been trying to protect myself and not read as much, and truly think about the bigger picture,” he says. He has loved the messages he got, particularly from parents “with young effeminate boys, who say, ‘They’ve watched your performance.’” The abuse did get him down the other week, he says, “but then I saw this message from this young boy’s mum who said, ‘He’s been wearing his fairy wings; he’s been loving the performances.’ It warms my heart that we’re on mainstream TV to 8 million people a week, just us being happy.”
Williams is a joy to watch – funny, self-aware, puppyish. In person, his takeaway soup and sandwich lunch lying forgotten by the side, he is warm and talks fast. He seems completely at ease with himself, which I think explains why he is so likable. “I think people can see authenticity,” he says, later. “You can smell it if it’s a bit off, or feels a bit forced. I really hope no one’s ever looked at me and thought, ‘He’s just doing it for attention.’”
He likes to say that he feels he was “destined to be rolled in glitter”, and there is something of that inevitability. As a child, he loved performing. “I was always quite out there, a bit extra, putting on shows or doing more than was necessary,” he says. It was more “class clown-type vibes. I wouldn’t say I was that camp as a kid, though I’m sure my mum would disagree. On my estate, you had to be pretty tough. I’d hang around with the lads – it’s not like I had my girlfriend clique until high school.”
Williams grew up in Bury, raised by his white English mother, mostly as a single parent; his father is of Jamaican heritage, and though his parents split up when Williams was small, his father was present. It was a big, loving but chaotic family – between his parents, he has seven brothers and one sister – with step-parents who would be in and out of his life. Williams knew he was gay from a young age, as far as he understood his feelings, but also felt it was something to be hidden. “As a queer kid, you do have to box yourself in; when I grew up anyway – I hope it’s getting better for kids now. Although it’s a scary time for our community [in terms of anti-LGBTQ+ feeling], so I’m sure for some, it’s not.”
There was nobody he could compare himself to. “It wasn’t until I moved to London, and started to meet other queer people.” He remembers meeting teachers who were openly gay and in happy relationships. “It’s seeing people thriving and happy, that’s a great representation. You’re like, ‘Oh, so we don’t have to be sad and hide ourselves. Why don’t I try that?’”
His career was as meteoric as it was fairytale. When Williams was about 10, he started going to a theatre group, and six months later he saw an advert for an audition for the stage musical version of Billy Elliot. He remembers being three hours late to the audition because his auntie had driven him and, bewildered by London traffic, he’d got lost. In parallel to the story – Billy is the northern boy who dreams of getting to London to become a ballet dancer – Williams got the role. For a while, his mother would take him to Leeds each weekend to rehearse, then when he was about 12, he moved to London, without her.
Was it hard to move away from his family at such a young age? “I really hate saying it, but it wasn’t. I got to a point where if that didn’t happen, I would have been a miserable child, potentially. Moving to London gave me that confidence to go, ‘This is who I am.’”
Although it was hard for his mother to let him go, he says she could see the “greater picture and greater good”. Did it change their relationship? It’s still as strong as ever, he says, and she sacrificed a lot for him: “I hold her in my heart in everything I do. And now I’m on her favourite TV show, she is the proudest mum in the world. I literally say, under my breath, ‘I love you, Mum,’ and I just go out there and do it.”
Back then, Williams was more intrigued than intimidated by the disparities between him and some of his new middle-class friends. “I was just shocked to go to a house that had more than one toilet,” he laughs. He was living in a big house with other children in the cast – the other Billys, as well as those playing other roles – looked after by chaperones. He remembers it being huge fun – lots of likeminded new friends, all living together. “I was just so wowed by everything.”
It was also hard work – he had got a place at the Sylvia Young theatre school, so he had to keep up with academic work as well as performing. In 2009, when he was 13, and his run with Billy Elliot ended, he played the young Michael Jackson in Thriller Live, and was cast in the BBC comedy Beautiful People. “I was a child that had been plucked from my estate, thrown on to the West End, thrown into this TV show, and everyone was just saying yes to me,” he says. “I wouldn’t say my head was big, but I was an excitable, erratic child, a bit of a class clown.” At Sylvia Young, he was, he says, “causing a lot of pointless attention and drama”. He was asked to leave.
Around the same time, he lost his job on Thriller Live because his voice was breaking. Almost as quickly as his flight to the West End, he found himself back in Bury, moving in with his grandfather. Going home was difficult, “trying to fit back in, because I hadn’t really grown up with my siblings”. Did it feel like that part of his life was over? “Chopped,” he says. “The worst thing about it was I had myself to blame – if I was not as mischievous, not as yappy, and just shut up and listened to my teachers, I could still have been in London.” He had a nice encounter recently when a Strictly rehearsal room was booked at the Sylvia Young school. Initially, Williams didn’t want to go, but then Young popped in and, he says, it was a “beautiful moment. She was so lovely, saying how proud she is of everything I’ve become.”
Back in Bury, there was “no way” he was going to be out at school: “It was tough. I had to hide again. It was just the saddest thing.” But he experienced homophobic bullying anyway when Beautiful People – in which he plays one of two camp young boys who dream of escaping their dull lives for London – aired. “They gave up after a while, because I did have thick skin,” he says. “But it was hard.”
He had a natural confidence, probably from being part of a big family. “You had to have some kind of balls about you because, otherwise, you will be a pushover.” But it was tested. One boy would taunt him, saying his career was over, that he wasn’t a “star” any more. “I started to believe him, because I didn’t feel I was,” says Williams. “Me and my granddad would email [stage] schools to see if I could get scholarships.” He was given a second chance with the second series of Beautiful People. “I remember saying to my granddad, ‘When I get back to London, I’m staying. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to knock on all of them schools and say, ‘Help me.’”
Second time around, Williams didn’t squander his talent. He got into the Italia Conti stage school, and gave himself a talking to: “It’s time to concentrate, grow up and realise that not everything revolves around you. You just had a couple of years of people calling you a star, and of course, it’s going to get to your head a little bit.” This year, there’s Strictly, he’s filmed the fifth season of Bad Education, for which he’s also written two episodes, and has signed with a big agency in LA.
A producer on Beautiful People (and her wife) took Williams in, and didn’t, he says, ask his mother for any money. “It was the most generous thing ever,” he says. “From the age of 14, I lived in a queer household.” He only moved out last year. “So they basically brought me up throughout my teenage years. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is to grow up as a queer teenager in a household where it’s normal. They just let me be me, and I think that’s a big reason why I’m the confident gay man I am now.” He loves his parents, and his family, he stresses, but he would have had a different experience had he remained at home.
Williams has talent, charisma by the ton and has worked hard, but he also acknowledges his luck – Billy Elliot was his first audition and it changed his life. Would it be harder, now, for someone from his background to make it in the industry? “I think it’s a bit harder,” he says. It’s one reason he set up a performing arts academy, Slay Club, to give children “opportunities to be in a space where they feel accepted, where they feel like they can be expressive, where they can learn from pros. Every month, I send some of my friends or colleagues, and just give them an amazing experience.” It runs in London and Bury, and Williams hopes it can grow.
He says he used to think he “escaped” to London, in search of something suitably fabulous and glittery for someone as fabulous and glittery as he is, but he doesn’t feel like that any more. “I wouldn’t be the person I am if it wasn’t for growing up in Bury. Without the support system that I had there, I wouldn’t have been able to spread my wings. So, absolutely, I belong there, but I also belong here.”
Strictly Come Dancing is on Saturday evenings on BBC One and BBC iPlayer