Cat Deeley Takes the Lead
by danielle nussbaum
If there’s one person who truly understands a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week town like Las Vegas, it’s Cat Deeley, a woman who barely has time in her schedule to sleep. Between juggling her job as the beloved host of So You Think You Can Dance, serving as a UNICEF ambassador, and finding time to see her new husband, who’s based in London, this star could use a holiday. But not today. Today she has to get all her errands done before welcoming her hubby back to town, after which she’ll hop on a party bus with a bunch of girlfriends to head to the Beyoncé concert. So, in addition to her Chanel clutch, she’s lugging a bunch of eco-friendly sacks for a supermarket run and a garment bag containing a gorgeous Etro dress she found at the outlets in Palm Springs to wear on SYTYCD, so she can stop and pick up jewelry to match. (Naturally, she’s her own stylist on the show as well.)
Multitasking is the new black for many television personalities, and Deeley handles it with the patience of a Zen master and a cheery-cum-laid-back demeanor. But it’s nothing novel for the 36-year-old native of Birmingham, England, who began her career as a model and spent almost a decade as a TV personality on the British variety show CD:UK. “When I was younger, I did a three-hour live show every single week, which was comedy sketches and competitions—and the third hour turned into a music show,” she says. “So I’d have bands on, do interviews, and bring 300 kids into the audience. I did that 52 weeks a year for eight years.”
But there’s busy and there’s “filming SYTYCD in Vegas” busy, which takes it to a whole different level. For the past nine years, Deeley has traveled to Las Vegas—from Los Angeles or New York or London—for the show’s most grueling week. For the contestants, it’s one of the most nail-biting parts of their tenure on the series, as the group is whittled down to the final 20, who go on to Hollywood to compete for the title. They have little time to blow off steam—in fact, for some it’s the steam that keeps them going, hoofing it from sunrise to sunset. Sometimes even sunrise to sunrise.
SYTYCD’s Vegas week is so important that the show’s permanent judges—Nigel Lythgoe and Mary Murphy—expanded the panel this season with a rotating cast of celebrity guests, who relish handing out dance’s equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket almost as much as the dancers love being chosen to move on to the next round. “When the kids win a ticket to Vegas, it feels right,” Deeley says. “It doesn’t feel like, Here’s a ticket to Pittsburgh. It’s taking people from all over America who maybe have never been to Vegas and making it all part of the experience. The entertainers who perform in the city are world-class, and it brings a level of gravitas to the show, and also to the kids who’ve made it that far.”
But the 24-hour-a-day work is not only for the performers; it’s equally grueling for the SYTYCD judges and host. So you can imagine what it’s like when these big personalities get a rare night off. During the current season’s Vegas week, Deeley took everyone to the Prince concert. “I love everything about him,” she says. “So I found out he was at the Rio. I got a big table for everybody. We had the best time! Everybody got up on the tables and then onto the stage and danced with him.”
While fellow reality-competition hosts Carson Daly and Ryan Seacrest may have cornered the market on boyish charm, Deeley is the only hostess out there whom the audience similarly adores. Mention Cat Deeley to most anyone—your best friend, your neighbor, even your super-cranky grandfather who doesn’t even watch TV—and he or she will immediately break into a grin. “I love her!” they’ll say, before launching into the story of how Deeley once bent down to fix a SYTYCD contestant’s shoe after a particularly rigorous dance routine, then immediately popped up and resumed the interview, and did it with grace, humor, and style.
“I don’t really take myself too seriously, because I can’t,” Deeley says. “I’m never going to be that sophisticated woman who’s so put together that her bra and knickers always match. I’ve reached the grand old age of 36, and I’m fully embracing the fact that I’m not perfect, I’m a bit klutzy, my nose bends one way, and I don’t have any boobs. I’m quite fun to hang out with and to go and have cocktails with—and I think perfection is really boring, actually.”
Deeley’s relatability isn’t calculated. She has a self-deprecating charm that comes across as authentic only in someone who genuinely isn’t afraid to embarrass herself. “So many women on American TV look the same and have a similar style, but I do my own thing,” she says. “I bamboozled people for a little while,” she adds, laughing. But it worked. “Now I’ve kind of grown on them. I know what it takes to listen properly to people, which means quite often before the show, I’ll really practice things so I’m not thinking about, Are they in the right spot? What’s my next camera? I worked all that out so I can just listen to people and talk to them.”
Even her boss, SYTYCD’s cocreator, executive producer, and resident judge Nigel Lythgoe, shares in the love, which is truly saying something, given his reputation as the panel’s most critical member. “It’s the honesty with which she conducts herself that helps her to not take herself too seriously,” he says. “You believe she’s interested, unlike many presenters, who have got the next question ready before you even answer. She’s interested in what makes it so hard to be a dancer. She gets the best out of them. And she’s willing to talk to them.”
After earning her third Emmy nomination this year (the awards are September 22) as well as her first Teen Choice Award nomination, Deeley knows that her appeal transcends demographics. “You can make edgy jokes, but do it in a smart way,” she says. “It’s like a Disney movie—it can be watched by anybody. Because you just do it with a twinkle in your eye, and adults get the twinkle, and the people who shouldn’t get the twinkle don’t get the twinkle.”
With her packed schedule and all the preparation that goes into hosting the show, you might think that in her free time, Deeley would want to take a little break. Not so. In fact, for a while she turned that preparation into a show of its own, the weekly Web series In the Dressing Room, in which she picked out her outfit, gave hair and makeup tips, and welcomed famous friends. Most celebrities won’t go on camera for a hair or makeup tutorial without putting on a full face of makeup first. But vanity is not Deeley’s strong suit.
“I didn’t want to continue this myth that everybody’s perfect,” she says. “I just don’t think it’s very healthy for young women who don’t know the industry. It’s taken a village of people to make me look like that. Some of the best magazines are so creative and the images are pieces of art, but I think it should be made very clear that that’s not reality. It’s important that women aren’t faced with this idea of perfection and trying to aim for something that’s absolutely unattainable.”
Her fashion choices are similarly accessible. As her own stylist for the show, Deeley mixes high and low fashion quite comfortably. Says good friend and high-end designer Matthew Williamson, “I have always been drawn to a very down-to-earth and effortless glamour. Cat represents this so perfectly.” On her last In the Dressing Room webisode, Deeley chose a Topshop dress over a Marc Jacobs sheath.
“I buy things that I think, Oh my God. That’s a great piece and I’m going to love it forever and it’s a little piece of history and a work of art,” she says. “But if it’s a super fashion moment and you know everybody’s had them, I’ll do it from Zara. I always think how you feel on a day depends on what you put on. I felt quite girly today, and a bit hot and bothered, so I put on this little vintage dress. Some days you can rock a black leather minidress because you’re feeling like Debbie Harry.”
When she’s not hosting or shopping or tweeting or hanging out with choreographer, director, and sometime SYTYCD judge Adam Shankman (“We’re proper geeks about it,” she says. “We drink wine and order takeaway and give critiques. We went around to his house recently, and there was us and a couple of my friends, and Julianne Hough came over as well”), Deeley is traveling back to London to spend time with her husband, comedian and television personality Patrick Kielty, whom she married in September of last year. Long distance can be tough, but as with all the other facets of her busy life, Deeley handles it with ease.
“We have an absolutely lovely time when we’re together, because we’re like, ‘Oh, I have to go again in a minute.’ All my friends are really jealous of it, weirdly,” Deeley says. “They’re like, ‘What I wouldn’t give to have my husband get out of my hair sometimes for eight days!’”
Deeley calls SYTYCD “ the little train that could” and says the show really benefited from not starting out in the reality TV spotlight. “We were left alone to do our own thing for so long, but we found our niche,” she says. “I never feel terrified. I feel excited and my adrenaline goes and I love it. The audience likes when people mess up, because every single person does in every day of their lives, but it’s how you handle it when you fall over or when you drop the mike. If you handle it with a bit of charm, the audience loves it.”
Seems like this glamorous charmer is handling it all just fine.
photography by brian bowen smith