Motsi Mabuse: The moment I realised I wasn't in love with my husband any more

In an extract from her new memoir, the Strictly judge recounts the lead up to leaving her first husband – and falling for her dance partner

Motsi Mabuse: ‘It weighed down on me that my partner was holding me back but I had a strong sense of responsibility towards our marriage’ Credit: Sallyhateswing

At the end of 2009, after a year of longed-for victories – when my husband and dance partner, Timo Kulczak, and I won the German Championships – you’d expect me to be basking in happiness. Unfortunately not.

Before then, I had been completely focused on winning. But now, instead of riding a wave of confidence and joy, I was struggling because all I could think about was the possibility of losing; I was looking at my back the whole time, thinking: Who’s coming up behind us? 

At the World Championships in Slovenia in November, Timo and I were pretty happy with coming ninth. However, my perspective changed when a German couple, who had always been behind us, unexpectedly placed eighth. It came as a shock, especially when I saw people flocking around, congratulating them. Wasn’t I the one everybody was cheering on, for all these years? It broke me to see that. 

Then the real breakdown came.

I lay down on the couch and couldn’t get up; I couldn’t stop crying. ‘You need a change of scene,’ Timo suggested. We took a trip to New York to the opening of the Dream Girls musical on Broadway. I started to feel better. ‘What’s our next step?’ I asked Timo, ‘Win the German championships for a second time perhaps and then switch to the pros?’ Timo and I had spent a decade in the amateurs; going professional now would be logical. But he wasn’t convinced. ‘It’ll be even harder there,’ he replied. ‘And I’m quite happy with what we’ve got.’

There was an imbalance between us, although if I were honest, it didn’t only extend to our drive to win. Our relationship had been breaking down for a while, but because the goal was always to dance, we hadn’t dealt with it. Now that we’d realised our dream, I found myself thinking: What is left in my life? 

Motsi: ‘I was forced to draw a line under certain relationships’ Credit: Sallyhateswing

My girlfriends were all talking about dating and I had never done that. I’d married the first boy I met! I had also missed out on so many stages of my life because of my passion for dancing. [So] a few weeks later, I decided that I was going to stop competing. Time to move on.

‘Let’s start a family,’ I said to Timo, thinking it would bring us closer. But Timo had things to do before we had children, so I agreed to give it another couple of years. 

‘I’ve always wanted to open a dance school; let’s do that instead,’ I suggested, but he wasn’t keen on this idea at all. I’d have to think of something else to fill the gap, the emptiness.

When I broke the news that I wanted to stop dancing to Olga, our coach, she shook her head. ‘That’s not how champions leave. You can stop, but you have to dance in the next German Championships. You need to defend your title.

For my career, it was the right advice; but mentally, I was paralysed, gripped by fear that we might lose, beaten by the same couple from the World Championships. I had to face my fears.

Timo and I practised hard. I lost a lot of weight and became very thin, and although I was very muscular, I remember holding my hands up in front of me one day and thinking they weighed a tonne: a reflection of the pressure I was under and the disassociation between my mind and body.

To my relief, we won the German Championships for a second time. I was only 28, so I could have continued to be German champion, maybe [gone to] the World Championships. But I knew I couldn’t go to the next level with Timo.

It weighed down on me that my partner was holding me back but I had a strong sense of responsibility towards our marriage. And yet I also had the painful realisation that I wasn’t in love with Timo any more, and hadn’t been for quite a while. It was an incredibly confusing time.

The third series of Let’s Dance saved me. I agreed to appear on there, a dance competition on German TV, as a professional dancer, even though I didn’t want to do it. ‘You have to do it!’ Timo insisted. He kept on until I agreed – but with a caveat.

‘I’m moving to Berlin to do the show, as you wanted,’ I said. ‘But I’d rather you didn’t come with me… Let me live on my own for a while.’ This was my chance to see how I could survive without my husband. 

My dance partner on the show had just lost his mum and was going through the worst time of his life. He didn’t want to practise; I hung around, not knowing how to help. Is this it? Is this what freedom looks like? I thought. My days felt empty and sad. I spent long hours agonising over my future. [By the time I finished the show] I’d come to the realisation that I wanted a break from my husband.

It hadn’t bothered me too much in the early days of our relationship that Timo was quite old-fashioned in some respects: he had the bank accounts; he made many of the decisions; and when I taught dance, or appeared on television, my earnings went through his account and he gave me an allowance. But as time went on, I lobbied for change. I can see now that it was probably difficult for him, though. Right from the beginning, Timo had always wanted to look after me. I was his princess.

We had a lot of very intense conversations but we never seemed to get anywhere. So although I enlisted the help of my friends and asked them to intervene and support my case, when he refused to let me go, I gave in and accepted it. It felt as if nothing would change his mind.

‘I could have continued to be German champion, maybe [gone to] the World Championships. But I knew I couldn’t go to the next level with Timo’ Credit: Sallyhateswing

I wasn’t sure what my next move should be after Let’s Dance – but Timo had obviously been thinking about the future and one day he announced, ‘I’m going to start flying with Lufthansa, as chief flight attendant.’ I had to hand it to Timo: he was genuinely content with what he had achieved in his dance career and had bowed out on a high. Now he was flying around the world, having a fun time; I was supposed to sit at home?

I asked him one final time, ‘Can we have a baby now?’ When he said he still wasn’t ready, I said, ‘Fine, then I’m going to dance again. I’m going to find a partner to go to the next level with.’ 

Cautiously, I asked if would bother him if I was spending time training with another man? ’You’ll just be unhappy if you don’t give it a go,’ he replied. ‘And I don’t want you to be unhappy.’

I started looking for a new partner and in November, I had a trial with a Ukrainian dancer called Evgenij Voznyuk, who, like Timo, had pale skin and dark hair. That was where the similarity ended. Not only was Evgenij a famous dancer, he was also really talented.

We clicked instantly. We had a similar rhythm in our blood. ‘This try-out has been great,’ he said, after we had finished dancing. ‘I want to dance with you.’ ‘OK. Let’s do it!’ I said. As I looked him in the eye, I noticed that he had beautiful eyelashes. Uh-oh. 

My heart was pounding as I sat in my car afterwards; my clothes were drenched in sweat. Is this really happening? I thought. I could feel my engine starting again. 

Members of the jury Jorge Gonzalez, Motsi Mabuse and Joachim Llambi during the 12th season of Let's Dance in 2019 Credit: Getty

Evgenij and I danced and danced, and it was a wonderful feeling. We had managed to do what had taken Timo and me nine years in just a year and a half – in 2013 we became German champions in Latin dance as pros.

I think by then, Evgenij and I had fallen in love. But I did everything in my power to fight my feelings, which caused friction between us. I was going against something very strong.

Meanwhile, Timo and I went on arguing. Even though he was away flying with Lufthansa and I was dancing, I didn’t feel independent. My husband had the bank account. He booked our holidays. Sometimes he even decided what we would eat. I wasn’t happy and I felt that Timo had started to try to guide my career more. 

I vividly remember the moment when I decided it wasn’t working for me and that the marriage was over. We were at an airport and Timo was trying to persuade me to accept an offer to take part in the TV show Come Dine With Me. There were many reasons why I didn’t want to do it, and I remember thinking: I’m done talking. This is over. Still he wouldn’t listen. Even when I said, ‘I’m leaving,’ he refused to believe me. 

Around this time, I appeared as a judge on Let’s Dance – and my sudden television exposure was a big problem for some of my friends. They started keeping their distance, dropped out of my life. Somehow, it felt like an attack on their ego, even though I hadn’t done anything except be the bold, big-mouthed Motsi that I am in private anyway. 

I was forced to draw a line under certain relationships, and strengthened the contact I had with the people I knew from my childhood and teenage years in South Africa. They had no problem with a loud Motsi – I didn’t feel I had to justify myself. 

As a judge, I came in for my own share of criticism as well, of course. Because people of colour are a minority on German television, I got to hear comments referencing this from all possible sides.

Evgenij wasn’t all that interested in my TV career. He just wanted me to practise more. He was also pressing me to admit that we were in love. ‘What about the two of us?’ he kept asking.

I switched on and then I switched off. So I said, ‘Yes, I have feelings for you. OK, I’m going to leave. I’m going to speak to everyone.’ But then I couldn’t do it, even though I’d been sleeping on the couch at home for a year. 

[But it finally all came to a head when I started thinking about my future beyond dancing.] I was 32 now, and I calculated that the earliest I could reach the very top and become a world champion, based on our current rate of progress, would be at 38, or maybe 36. I was getting on a bit, particularly if you started thinking about having something to fall back on. Something meaningful, not just a dance school.

Suddenly, I was thinking about having a child as if it were the most urgent thing in the world. With the wisdom of age, I had learned something: if you win a tournament, people can’t get enough of you; but the next time, when you don’t win, those people won’t give you the time of day. In contrast, your family will always be your family.

I spent a lot of time on my own while I thought this over, and I decided: Maybe this is a good time to leave everything behind – Timo, my marriage, my dance career and Evgenij too.

My last tournament was the European championships in Kiev, on 15 December 2013. I danced with Evgenij and it was a particularly difficult farewell. It was letting something go. In the two weeks before the tournament, we trained until we dropped; we screamed ourselves hoarse. The emotions had almost overcome us.

We came tenth, but that didn’t really matter, because the points that we collected had no meaning for me any more.

Afterwards Timo and I went to Thailand, and I told him, once and for all, that I was leaving. Thailand had been our first holiday destination, and now it was our last. We fought every day, but I refused to back down this time. ‘I’ve said what I needed to say. I’m done.’

Two weeks later, while he was on a trip with Lufthansa, I packed my bags, stuffed everything in my small BMW and left. I didn’t leave Timo my new address. I didn’t take a single item of furniture. 

I rented an unfurnished flat and took myself off to Ikea. When I’d finished decorating, the flat looked like a safari resort. It made me laugh. I looked around me and thought: Oh my God, I’ve created the Kruger National Park in my first flat!

I was alone, just me, for the first time in my life. That apartment was a haven, especially when someone I had confided in leaked to a German newspaper that Timo and I had split up. I was a very private person, plunged into a public mess. 

I called my sister Oti, who was living in Germany, and by the time she arrived at my house, I was shaking. Timo was in South Africa on a business trip with Lufthansa, and happened to be at my parents’ house when I phoned him. I filled him in on the story and asked him to put my parents on the phone; [they had no idea I had left Timo]. ‘How could you do this?’ Papa and Dudu asked me angrily. ‘You’re crazy!’

Next, I went to tell Timo’s parents, and as I walked into their house, they thought I was coming to tell them that I was pregnant. Instead, I told them: ‘We’re getting divorced.’ I could see the tears in their eyes.

‘I’ve been living in another flat for almost a year,’ I went on, shaking with emotion and sadness. ‘We’ve been going through this for years now, but he didn’t want to tell you.’

As I left their house, I paused. OK, I thought. Either I go back to Timo and we fix it, for everyone. Or this is the moment, this is my chance to be free. This is it.

And I kept walking.

Finding My Own Rhythm: My Story, by Motsi Mabuse (Ebury, £20) is available from  for £20

Go to Telegraph Magazine for an exclusive interview with Motsi