DANCER Tony Irving has carved out a successful career as a television celebrity in Sweden — helped by a dollop of straight-talking Northern wit and humour.
The 48-year-old is celebrating 10 years as a judge on Let's Dance, the country’s version of Strictly Come Dancing, while looking forward to launching his own one-man show.
His career path is a far cry from the time he spent studying for a BTEC in hotel catering at Bolton Technical College, Manchester Road, when his ambition was to work in the hospitality industry.
But the talented professional ballroom dancer, teacher and choreographer says it is all thanks to being in the right place at the right time, as well as his Northern roots and gift of the gab.
Tony, who lived in Ainsworth and was known by his middle name of Spencer as a youngster, said: “People hated me. At the beginning, they said that I was the Swedish answer to Simon Cowell.
“I found that hilarious. I wish I had his money.
“In England, straight-talking and saying what you think and getting things off your chest — there’s no qualms about it.
“Here, people don’t directly say what they think.
“At the beginning, it was very hard. People thought I was very nasty and aggressive.
“It made me a hate object, to some degree, it still does.
“I’ve had quite a bit of hate mail which is part of the job. There are positives and negatives.”
Over the past decade, the top-rated show has featured a host of Swedish celebrities including crime writer Camilla Läckberg, former Liverpool FC footballer Glenn Hysén and ex-Olympic high jumper Patrik Sjöberg.
He said: “When I started, I was a young man who could dance.
“Now I’m just an old git.
“It’s interesting, it’s fun but it’s a job.
“It’s like any other job, you get yourself ready for the job, you come home.
“Right now, I’m about to put together my own one-man show which will be on at the Stockholm Casino.”
For every negative comment Tony attracts, there are countless more people keen to meet and have their photograph taken with the TV star.
Tony, who went to Peel Sixth Form College, said: “To be honest with you, it doesn’t bother me. It’s a great ego trip.
“If you turn back the clock to when I left Bury Church High School, I had no idea my life would be the way it is.
“I thought I would see a bit of the world and then work in a hotel or restaurant which is what I wanted to do.
“I have a really good life.
“It depends on how you look at it, my private life is very limited because of being in the media but you can’t have everything. I made that choice and I was 38-years-old when I got this chance to go into TV.
“I was old enough to understand there is a consequence of putting your face in the camera.
“I can’t expect people to watch me on TV, buy my book or the product I have if I turn them down if they want a picture.”
Tony had lessons when he was a youngster at Tasker's dance school in Bury which led to a stint working at a dance studio in Manchester city centre.
At the age of 21, he took up the offer of a job in Los Angeles and ended up staying in the US until he was 27.
Tony, who used to work at the Pack Horse in Affetside, said: “I took some classes, mainly because my grandma loved to dance. She used to take me to Blackpool Tower with her and to the tea dances.
“When I started, it was hobby. It was not something I thought I would do for the rest of my life.
“I would be in Bury working in a restaurant and would be very happy but also I would never have found out those things I have found out about myself — that I am pretty good at what I do, that I have got a big mouth, I’m good at talking, being sarcastic and witty.
“If I was at home in Bury, I would be just like everyone else in the street but, in Sweden, that makes me different.”
After teaming up with a Swedish dance partner and winning the Swedish Championships in 1993, he moved to the country where he was able to live happily as an openly gay man.
Tony, who lives just outside of Stockholm with his partner, said: “It was a fantastic opportunity to live completely openly without having to hide and think will it affect my job, friends and family?
“It was just a society where your sexuality is part of who you are and, at the time in England, it was still living in the closet.”
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Sweden have been regarded as some of the most progressive in Europe and in the world.
In Sweden, same-sex relationships were legalised in 1944 whereas the law changed in England in 1967, in Scotland in 1981 and the following year in Northern Ireland.
Tony said: “The key difference in Sweden is the politicians make the decisions when they need to be made and society follows. In England, politicians wait for society to change and then they change the law.”
Tony also writes a column for a national newspaper and hosts a dance cruise on a ship on the Baltic Sea — watched by up to 2,000 people every night, with two live bands, performances and classes — which is popular with Swedes and Finns.
Although he loves Sweden, which he describes as ”clean, not over-populated, with fantastic countryside and four clear seasons” he regularly visits Bury where his parents still live.
The former Lowercroft Primary School pupil, who has a younger brother and sister, said: “They think it’s hilarious, they never expected this at all.”