Odudu Certainly Can Can

by Karen Shaw


 With her signature loud croaky, chokey (some may say dirty) laugh, she’s a fireball of fun, bounding joy and energising enthusiasm who also has bunions. “My feet are throbbing, my body’s aching, I’m knackered,” laughs AJ, “on my first week, I remember thinking, ‘am I on the right show here?’”

Anyone could be forgiven for believing she’s referring to her time on SAS: Who Dares Wins where she made it to the final… but, by the way she’s talking, it’s more SOS than SAS!

“I got sold all the glitz and glamour. It’s more like boot camp than Strictly,” laughs AJ. “I was in tears, on day two I was in physio! I’d hurt my knee; my bunions were crying and I was in so much pain.” There’s no indication of pain in her voice, but I reckon she can override the pain with her abundant amount of effervescent energy.

“One of the hardest things I find is the counting and the toe pointing. I find it all so difficult and complicated, but, I love it. I’m dedicated and committed to the cause.”

AJ and her partner Kai may both be Strictly virgins, but their lack of experience wasn’t evident when they wowed the judges and audience jiving their way to the top of the leaderboard on the debut show, scoring an impressive 34. But, did they both peak too soon?

“That’s a thing I’ve never been ‘on board’ with.” That’s me told.

She continues, “You know, like you’re meant to start off rubbish and then become better over the following weeks. Well, there’s no weeks guaranteed. It could be over at any time. It’s been my chance to put my best foot forward and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”

And that’s just what she does, week after week, she’s ‘cha, cha, charing’ her way to the top of the Strictly leaderboard.

“I want to do him proud,” she continues. “This is the only chance I’ll ever get to do this, so for the two newbies together it’s a nice feeling to know that someone is going through the same emotions as me. He still gets nervous. He’s still excited. His family are just as proud of him as my family are of me. The only difference is, he can actually dance and I can’t!”

AJ and Strictly partner Kai

Now, c’mon AJ, that’s just not true, and if you’ve seen her strut her stuff, you’d know that this Blackburn lass can bust moves better than Beyonce. It’s hard to believe that this natural-born dancer discovered her talent a matter of weeks ago.

And week on week AJ continues to do exactly that, she’s a ‘wuuker’ who believes that hard work is the key to success. “There’s no excuse not to do well with a bit of hard graft,” she says, “I’ve got a lot of my work ethic from my mum, she came to this country when she was a teenager and worked as a cleaner, and my dad as a joiner. I’ve only ever seen them work. I’ve got five brothers and two sisters and my mum did all the school runs, made all of our meals, and played games with us.”

When AJ’s parents were unable to afford a childminder, she would accompany her mum to work. “I feel lucky coming from a hardworking, strong, cultural background. It’s just me. It’s northern grit. My blood’s made of gravy!” she laughs, with that familiar roar.

Born and bred in Blackburn, she’s ‘as Lancashire’ as they come, she may be living in London, but her roots and heart are firmly embedded in northern soil. Throughout lockdown last year AJ was unable to see her family or visit her beloved Blackburn, but, ever the optimist AJ manages to see the positive in everything she undertakes.

“It was really hard, but SAS: Who Dares Wins set me up for it. That show made me mentally strong. It was about breaking you down to build you back up and seeing how you cope at rock bottom. I just focused on everything I did have, rather than all the things that I didn’t. I couldn’t see my family but I was healthy. I couldn’t go out but I was lucky enough to be able to sit in my garden and all of those things that you take for granted. I thought, you know, I grew up not having access to computers and mobile phones and now I can WhatsApp my mum, and focus on the positives and all the things I did have and that’s what saw me through.

“All of my dreams began in Blackburn. That’s where my aspiration of becoming a TV presenter began, and that’s what’s led to me doing all the amazing things I get to do now and that’s a strong part of me and my heritage. It’s my African spirit combined with northern grit. I am who I am and I’m proud of it.”

If performing on Strictly, and presenting her latest show, Married At First Sight UK: Afters, wasn’t enough, AJ has recently finished filming Emma and AJ Get To Work, working alongside fellow TV presenter Emma Willis. “We went to the Mumbles and helped a family-run pier, another family set up a pop-up shop and helped an adventure club. So many different people need that boost, we rolled up our sleeves and grafted. We became their employees for a few days and it was brilliant. “There’s tears, laughter, joy, and again hard graft.

“You might have these dreams but someone will say you can’t do it. I want to show people that your dreams are completely valid.”

“I’m loving every moment and trying to unleash my inner musical female icons that I want to channel because when will I ever get this opportunity again to feel like a pop star and a professional dancer at the same time?”

“The joy that you feel, the pride that I have and that I’m giving to my family. You get so many lovely messages from the public and it makes all the difference and the hard work worth it. I really hope that I’ll do the north proud.”

Win or lose, she’s already made us lot proud. AJ is what you get when you mix her African spirit, with hard graft, northern grit and of course, a dollop of gravy.