“It’s a really life-changing thing that we’ve done. It feels like we’ve been altered, in a really good way.”
Joe McFadden is musing on his Strictly experience before he steps on to the dance floor for the last time during the show’s grand final at 18:30 GMT on BBC One on Saturday.
“It’s made me so much braver and more adventurous than I was before,” he says, talking about the 13-week roller coaster that’s taken him from ballroom beginner to debonair dancer.
Adventurous is one word for the daring cantilever move he and professional dance partner Katya Jones executed in the semi-final.
Jones hoisted the former Holby City actor to his feet in a tricky balance during their Argentine Tango which McFadden jokes has seen “doctors’ appointments go up 300%”, because of fans attempting it.
“We’re beyond thrilled,” he beams, speaking ahead of the finalists’ press conference on their last day of rehearsals. “It’s fantastic to still be here. It’s lovely to have that hard work recognised.”
He’s not the only one of the four finalists to be pinching themselves at getting through – and to feel that the show is life-changing.
Actress and radio host Gemma Atkinson, singer Alexandra Burke and presenter Debbie McGee are also in the final four.
Former X Factor winner Burke recalls that when she found out she was to be on Strictly, she screamed so much she lost her voice – and she was appearing in a show in Cardiff that night.
The singer has perhaps has had to cope with more than most, as her mother Melissa Bell died shortly after it was announced she was appearing on the show.
“At the time I was going through so much, and then of course, as soon as we started, that was a very hard time for me,” she says.
“But to have this as an amazing distraction, a blessing in disguise, something I’ve been able to focus on and also as well to get the most amazing friendship with Gorka out of it, has been absolutely out of this world.”
Burke says Strictly was her mum’s “favourite show”, and adds: “My mum was just the most amazing woman who gave me so much strength and she still does to this day. Everything I do is for my family, so I think she’d be proud.”
She admits to being “quite emotional” at reaching the final, adding: “My highlight has been meeting Gorka and making a friend.”
‘You’re a team’
Gemma Atkinson, the actress and radio presenter, says: “It’s been a lot more than I expected. I didn’t think it would be so mentally involved – I thought I would just learn to dance.
“Since meeting Aljaz [Skorjanec], and him being my dance partner, I feel like there’s a lot more to it. Every week, we’ve gone out wanting to do more than what you’re physically capable of, not letting him down. You feel like you’re a team. I never expected to be that involved in it.”
She adds: “Being on Strictly has just been one of the best, most enjoyable experiences of my life. Me and Aljaz were the first couple to dance on the Strictly dance floor of 2017. The pressure was on to start the series with a bang. At the end of the dance, I remember he whispered in my ear – ‘you’ve done it kid, first one down’.
“I’ve never danced in my life. I never did stage school or drama school. Putting on a show every Saturday is new to me. I hope I inspire other women to think, ‘if she can do it, I can do it and all’.”
‘I lost who I was’
And McGee says that her experience has brought her “nothing but happiness”.
“I’ve loved everything about it – mostly because of Giovanni [Pernice, her dance partner],” she explains. “He’s taught me a lot more than just learning to dance. He has nurtured me through such a lot. I couldn’t imagine having done it without having him as a partner.
“After [husband] Paul [Daniels] died, I kind of lost who I was. And I think Strictly has given me my confidence back. I’ll remember my Strictly experience as being a time that brought happiness back into my life.”
She describes Strictly as “a family” – and that any negative press or social media comments “is not even 1%” of the overall experience.
“Everything else is so positive and happy that it doesn’t affect you much. Everything about Strictly is a happy experience.”
They all say they hope to carry on dancing after the final – even though of course, only one of them can lift the glitterball trophy on Saturday night.