WHEN Zara McDermott puts her mind to doing something, she won’t stop until she achieves it – which is precisely why she made history as the first Love Island contestant to compete on Strictly Come Dancing.
The 26 year old couldn’t keep the smile from her face as she was matched with her partner Graziano Di Prima, 29, for this year’s series, which also stars Angela Rippon, Annabel Croft and Les Dennis.
Zara McDermott has made history as the first Love Island contestant to compete on Strictly Come DancingCredit: Euan Danks
Zara says: ‘My background of reality TV isn’t something I’m ashamed of at all – I’m proud of where I’ve come from’Credit: Euan Danks
Talking about being dumped from Love Island, Zara, left, says: ‘It was the biggest blessing, because it allowed me to take a step away and forge my own path’
Pretty impressive, considering she was dumped from the Love Island villa just 10 days after she entered as a bombshell in 2018.
After feeling like the “least successful person” from her Love Island year, Zara’s career has since gone from strength to strength – and continues to climb.
“It was a really proud moment for me,” she says.
“That feeling of being the first-ever Love Islander to do Strictly.
“I wasn’t in the show for very long, and I feel like my career has definitely moved on.
“Going on Strictly has made me realise how far I’ve come from those days in Love Island.
“When I got dumped from the island, I was quite shocked.
“I thought I would be in there the whole time.
“When I came out, I definitely felt inferior to the other girls who were landing huge fashion deals.
“I felt really gutted about how my journey had gone.”
‘Being dumped from Love Island was the biggest blessing’
Despite being disappointed at the time, Zara is now glad that she didn’t get the more “traditional” opportunities, as it forced her career in a different direction – as a BBC documentary maker she’s tackled subjects including rape culture and disordered eating.
She says: “It was the biggest blessing, because it allowed me to take a step away and forge my own path.
“I thought about what I wanted to do with my life, and I was allowed that breathing space to really decide.
“So, as disappointed as I felt during that year, it meant that other doors opened for me.
“If you had told me then, when I was just completely overwhelmed by the experience, that five years on I’d be doing Strictly, I simply wouldn’t have believed you.
“My background of reality TV isn’t something I’m ashamed of at all – I’m proud of where I’ve come from.
“There is some stigma around reality television, and I’ve never quite understood it.
“You should never judge a young person for grabbing an opportunity.
“It was amazing and all those experiences have brought me to this point.
“I’ve worked hard to get where I am.
“Ten days on Love Island doesn’t compare to the documentaries that have taken years and years to make.
“I definitely feel like I’ve proven myself.”
Most people use Strictly Come Dancing as a springboard to resurrect their career or propel themselves into the mainstream, but Zara’s reasons for taking part are much closer to home.
“For me, it was not necessarily about my career, but because I’ve watched the show since I was seven years old with my nanny,” she explains.
“I am doing my dream job right now.
“This is about learning something new, and throwing myself wholeheartedly into it.
“I remember during series one, trying to dance the waltz around the living room with her – we both loved the beautiful costumes.
“I’m hoping to bring her and my grandad, who are both in their 90s, to watch me perform.
“I wanted to do it for nostalgic reasons – not just for myself, but also for my family.”
Family is at the centre of everything Zara does, and she’s determined to make her parents, Alan and Karen, proud, even warning boyfriend – former Made In Chelsea star Sam Thompson, 31 – that they have first dibs on any tickets.
“I have the best, most supportive parents in the whole universe,” she says.
“I just got a tattoo with the initials of my parents and brother Brad on my finger, so I can remind myself of my family.
“We are honestly like four best friends.
“My parents are going to be in the audience every week.
“Them being there is my priority.
“Imagine watching your daughter do something as incredible as a show like this?
“They are my biggest fans and are so proud of me.
“I’m dreaming about the moment when I finish my first dance and I look into the audience and see them – that is going to be one of the best moments of my life.”
Every year, there’s outrage from Strictly fans about the celebrity contestants’ previous dance experience, but Zara is keen to set the record straight.
She laughs: “I went to Coopers’ in Upminster and you had to do a PE option for GCSE.
“I chose dance and just about scraped a C grade.
“I’m pretty sure it was a pity pass.
“I understood all the dance theory, but I could not put it into practice.
“I remember looking at the girls and thinking: ‘Why can’t I move like that?’
“So that is my dance experience – extremely limited and I can barely remember it.
“I’m not an actual dancer.
“I’m not a performer at all, so this is the most out of my comfort zone I’ve ever been.”
Zara’s just-shy-of 500k TikTok followers will be familiar with her moves from when she performs dance routines with Sam, who she has been with since 2019.
“Sam always tells me that I have rhythm, but that I look like a bit of a noodle,” she admits.
“He is definitely a better dancer than me.
“We have to work for hours and hours just for me to learn a 15-second routine.
“I’m definitely not the best.
“I put a lot of effort into those.”
As for the infamous Strictly Curse, which has caused numerous couples to split while taking part in the competition, Zara isn’t concerned.
That’s despite the fact the pair had a brief break during lockdown when she admitted to being unfaithful with a music exec in the early days of their relationship.
“No [we aren’t worried about the Strictly Curse],” she says.
“We’ve never had to have that conversation, because we both work in very intense environments on TV shows.
“It’s just been pure excitement from every perspective.”
But doesn’t the idea of her being up close and personal with a hunky dance professional leave Sam shuddering?
She shakes her head: “He is so proud.
“He always knew this has been a dream of mine for years and that is part of it.
“He’s never questioned me or looked at it in that way.
“He sees positives rather than negatives.
“If the roles were reversed, I’d 100% encourage him to do it, too.
“The beauty of our relationship is that we fundamentally understand each other.
“We would never hold each other back from doing anything.
“Neither of us are jealous people.”
‘Neither Sam or I are jealous people’
A self-confessed gym addict, who shed nearly 3st between 2019 and 2020, Zara is very much looking forward to the long days in dance rehearsals.
She says: “I’m really excited for the training, as I do love exercise, although I never used to.
“I don’t think I know what’s going to hit me.
“I’ve been trying to do a bit more cardio and stretching to warm myself up, because I know that it’s literally moving for something like 10 hours a day.
“And obviously, you can’t dance half-heartedly – you’ve got to really go for it each and every time.”
Despite her incredible figure, Zara wants to set the story straight on claims she wants to be “the sexiest contestant ever” in barely-there costumes.
She laughs: “Because I’m from a TV show, people think I love all that, but I film documentaries most of the time and I don’t wear make-up. I’m just not in that world any more.”
Zara speaks with such pride about what she’s achieved through her documentaries – and it’s no wonder.
Her first one for the BBC – Revenge Porn, which was nominated for a National Television Award – was based on her own experiences.
Aged just 14, she was pressured to send a boy from school a naked image.
He subsequently shared it around the class – but when teachers found out, it was Zara who was suspended instead of the boy.
She was a victim of revenge porn for a second time in 2018, when she discovered after leaving Love Island that an ex had circulated nude pictures of her online.
‘I’ve met the Princess of Wales three times. She’s amazing’
She explains: “My first documentary spoke a lot about the things I went through in school.
’And I’ll be honest, that really destroyed my confidence and my teenage years.
’I didn’t have that many friends from that revenge porn experience.
’I feel like it brought me back a bit socially, as I was quite isolated afterwards.
“Even when I was 18, I used to sit in school by myself.
’I didn’t even have the confidence to put my hand up in class, let alone stand in front of a camera and present a whole documentary – and never mind dance in front of millions of people every week on prime-time telly!”
Zara will be hoping to emulate another documentary maker’s Strictly success – Stacey Dooley, who won the show with her (now real-life) partner Kevin Clifton in 2018.
Zara says: “I’ve been a fan of Stacey since she did Blood, Sweat & T-Shirts in 2008.
“I’ve always loved her work and I used to watch her documentaries on iPlayer rather than doing my homework.
“And now I’m working in the same field as her.
“She is a really big inspiration to me.
“We’ve messaged over the years on social media, and I actually met her for the first time a couple of months ago.
“The way she made me feel was so lovely.
“She’s the most grounded, beautiful person I’ve ever met.
“She actually told me to do Strictly.
“She said: ‘If you ever get offered it, you need to do it.’
“I knew I was doing it, but I couldn’t tell her as I was still sworn to secrecy at that point!”
Stacey isn’t the only admirer of Zara’s work – she was chosen by Kate Middleton, Princess of Wales, to be part of her Shaping Us project, which aims to improve society’s understanding of the significance of early childhood in shaping adulthood and society as a whole.
She reveals: “She’s genuinely absolutely fantastic.
“I’ve met her three times now.
“When I was asked to be one of her ambassadors, I just couldn’t believe it.
“It felt like an amazing step for me.
“I actually took my mum to meet her and Prince William.
“It was one of the best days of my life, watching them chatting to her.
“Kate is so interested in what you are saying.
“She meets so many people every single day, but she makes you feel like you are her sole focus for that moment.
“It’s such a special feeling.
“She is incredible, hard-working and so passionate about her work.
“I have met royals before, such as the Queen, who was lovely, but I was just waiting in line to greet her, whereas with this I was actually working on an invested project with the Princess of Wales.
“It was so eye-opening.
“She asked a lot of questions.
“Just because she’s a princess doesn’t mean you can’t have an incredible conversation with her.
“I found her ability to talk at your level amazing.
“I just love her.”
‘I’m not in a major rush to take the next step with Sam’
With her career looking sorted, are marriage and babies on the cards for Zara?
“We are so focused on our careers right now,” she says.
“I think it’s only in the last couple of years that I have actually come into my own and realised the value of investing in yourself.
“So for me, right now, it’s important that we both have our own things going on.
“And we both encourage each other, saying things like: ‘If you need to go away and work for months and months, just do what is best for you.’
“We’re both incredibly supportive of each other.
“And I think that it’s so rare to have someone like that.
“I’m not in a major rush to take any next step.
“I want Sam to focus on him, and I want to focus on me.
The former reality star says neither her or boyfriend Sam, above, are jealous people
Zara was chosen by Kate Middleton to be part of her Shaping Us project, which aims to improve society’s understanding of the significance of early childhood in shaping adulthood and societyCredit: Instagram/Zara McDermott
“We don’t do that many projects together, because your relationship doesn’t need to become your identity.
“You are two separate people, and it’s so important to remember that.
“And you can have beautiful memories together and apart.
“It creates a very normal and healthy relationship where you can come home at the end of the day and talk about what you’ve done.
“I don’t want to be in a position where it’s too mixed up.
“I’m 26, I still feel young.
“I want to make the most of that and do things for me, because I do feel like I was a late bloomer in life.
“I’ve really come into my own and grown my own sense of competence and independence.
“I want to keep feeling that and keep going down that path.”
- Watch Strictly Come Dancing, Saturdays, BBC1, and on BBC iPlayer.
What are your skincare heroes?
L’Oréal Revitalift 1.5% Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum is a great budget serum.
Who’s your beauty icon?
Singer Madison Beer.
Any make-up bag essentials?
My Chanel Les Beige Bronzer.
What do you splurge on?
SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic Vitamin C Serum transformed my skin. I don’t treat myself to designer clothes, but I do invest in my skin.
Do you have any beauty tips?
Put powder on your brows before filling them in. The product will stick better.
Describe your make-up evolution…
At school, I hid behind a mask of too-dark foundation with thick black eyeliner. Horrendous!
- Hair and make-up: Joe Pickering-Taylor at Arch The Agency
- Styling: Nana Acheampong
- Zara wears in first picture: jacket, River Island; dress, Asos.com; earrings, Pilgrim; boots, Asos.com
- Zara wears in second picture: coat, Topshop at Asos.com; dress (just seen), Nastygal.com; earrings, as before