The children’s TV presenter and Strictly star says he’ll never be ashamed to talk about his Christian faith
When Rhys Stephenson joined Strictly Come Dancing, most people over the age of twelve would have been forgiven for not knowing who the CBBC presenter was. But the 28-year-old, who has spent the majority of his professional life interacting with a puppet dog called Hacker, would not remain unknown for long.
The 19th series of the popular Saturday night show broke plenty of new ground, with its first deaf dancer, Rose Ayling-Ellis, lifting the glitter ball trophy. But for Christians, it was Stephenson and his BBC colleague and fellow contestant, Dan Walker, who provided the season’s highlight. The friendship between the two, along with a clear communication of their shared Christian faith, was a gift to the Church.
Rhys’ dance partner Nancy Xu wasn’t the only one to join Stephenson and Walker in pre-show prayer sessions – other Strictly contestants were present too, he tells me when we speak. Video segments from his pastor and wider church family spurring him on was further evidence that Stephenson’s faith is the real deal. As we speak it becomes clear the young presenter feels strongly that Christianity often gets a bad rap in the media. He worries this has led many Christian young people – and adults – to feel embarrassed about expressing their faith. The star narrowly missed out on the final, but says if his Strictly journey helped others to “feel seen… feel represented”, that’s the real prize.
SO MANY THINGS IN MY LIFE HAVE CHANGED, BUT GOD NEVER HAS
He describes his childhood as “pretty sweet”, but growing up, he had few Christian friends his own age and often felt like an anomaly. After being “forced” by his mum to attend a local drama group, he quickly fell in love with the stage, yet for young Rhys, the world of acting felt wildly out of reach. After initially pursuing a career in medicine, he rediscovered theatre at university (“It became such a lifeline for me, it was so joyous”). From there followed an accidental sidestep into presenting and a miraculous answer to prayer. The rest, as they say, is history.
What was young Rhys’ life like?
My mum would take my sisters and [me] to church every Sunday, and so church has always been a big part of our lives. The idea of life without church seems really foreign to me. Right now, I’ve gone a number of weeks without going [because of the Strictly Come Dancing live tour]. I don’t enjoy it.
I went to a comprehensive school, and then a Christian sixth form. Suddenly, most of the kids had the same background as me, which was so weird. It was a huge culture shift. I was used to being a minority. Every time I mentioned church, I would do so sheepishly, but then someone would hear and fire questions at me like: “You went to church on Sunday? You didn’t sleep in?” And I’d say: “No, I didn’t, because that’s not what we do.”
Young Rhys’ life was as great a childhood as you could have. I feel like I was one of the few kids who never wanted to grow up. I’m still upset that it’s happened now. I knew that growing up meant bills and responsibilities and I wanted none of that.
Is that why you love CBBC?
Yes, probably! You do just get to perpetually be a child, and you get paid for it. So it’s perfect. I found my life hack.
Was your Christian faith always strong, or was there a point where it became real for you?
I don’t think it ever wavered for me, even in my teenage years. When people [said]: “Really, you can believe that there’s some man in the sky who created all this?” part of me would entertain it for a bit, but then I’d think: Really, you think this came from an explosion that happened from nothing? God makes way more sense to me than anything else.
What really helped me was my church youth group. You have no idea how strange it is when you’re a Christian, and you’ve been in non Christian schools your whole life, and then suddenly, you go to this youth club where there’s all these other kids who are really cool, playing football, and they all come from the same background as you. Sometimes they’re kids that you know – there’s so many secret Christians around – it was such an eye-opening thing for me.
Do you find the responsibility of being a young Christian man in the public eye a pressure or an encouragement?
There was the initial pressure because, again, it’s like school. In the celebrity world, there are a lot more Christians than we realise. There are people who have come up to me – CBBC presenters – and said: “I’m a Christian too!” And they haven’t said: “Don’t say anything to anyone,” but the way they said it to me [suggested they didn’t want to] shout it from the rooftops. I don’t think it’s shame, it’s more that the minute you say it, suddenly you become the Christian Celebrity – which is not a bad thing, but it brings so much scrutiny. Why is he doing that? Why is he playing this kind of a character if he’s a Christian? Sometimes it’s good, because it keeps you checking yourself.
It’s always the biggest encouragement when a kid finds out I’m a Christian – the way their face lights up is so precious. It’s how I would have felt. When you didn’t have that as a child, the next best thing you can do is be that for someone else.
When I moved to Manchester and started looking for a church, I remember some kids staring at me [during the service]. Afterwards, their dad said: “Are you Rhys from CBBC? It’s so wonderful to see someone from television here in church, actually interacting with their faith. My kids couldn’t believe it when they saw you, they’re so happy.” It was lovely because I think they felt seen, they felt represented. Christianity gets a bit of a warped representation and so, for a child to see someone on television who is just themselves, who is normal and confident and happy to mention being a Christian, it’s amazing.
I THINK IT’S MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER, ESPECIALLY AS A BLACK MAN, TO BE TALKING ABOUT MY FAITH
Having you and Dan Walker on Strictly Come Dancing, being open and clear about your faith in a natural way, was really refreshing. Was it good to have Dan there?
Having Dan was such a blessing for me. We prayed together before the show every week – well, from the third week, because I kept trying to build up the confidence to ask him! We bumped into each other backstage and I said: “Dan, would you mind praying with me before the show?” And he said: “I’d love that!” And it became a thing. We weren’t the only ones; other contestants came and prayed with us and it was so wonderful!
Dan and I talked about Halloween week and he said: “What are you going do?” I said: “I love to dress up, but I don’t want to be part of anything that has the perception of being evil or demonic.” So when they gave me War of the Worlds and Dan the lobster, it was perfect. It was so good to be openly Christian, but it didn’t ruin the fun for anyone. We weren’t doing it to be difficult or self-righteous, we were just doing it because that’s [our belief], in the same way that a Muslim might say: “I’m going to dance in a headscarf” and no one would question that. I think it’s just about getting people to respect those choices.
Was being open about your Christian faith intentional for you from the outset on Strictly?
I didn’t set out with that aim, but it became more intentional. During Couple’s Choice week, they try and get a personal story from you. I remember thinking: The most personal thing about me is my faith. They allowed me to talk about it like I was talking about a football team, or a club that I’m a part of. I didn’t preach. I wasn’t quoting scripture. I was just saying: “This is me. These are the people that go to my church. I go because I love it. I feel like it’s the one constant in my life.” And that was the thing that people kept with them that I said it was the one constant in my life, which is true. So many things have changed, but God never has.
I wasn’t trying to indoctrinate anyone, I was just speaking my truth. And then it got followed up by me doing a really cool Spider-Man street dance, and I just thought that fitted so well. Kids could go: “Oh my gosh, I can talk about God and then pretend to be a superhero!” It worked way better than if I was talking about my faith and then did a waltz.
At the time, you thanked your Instagram followers who “felt empowered by me talking about my faith”. It’s interesting that so many Christians feel embarrassed of faith, rather than empowered to share it…
We always seem to be worried that if we mention it, people will hit us with arguments. But most times, they just go: “Oh, that’s great,” and either leave it alone, or they might be curious. I find myself having really interesting conversations with people who are not religious in the slightest, but they want to know…and it’s not because I preach scripture, it’s because of my character, the way I live my life. As a Christian, your life needs to be the testimony more than your words.
YOU’D BE SURPRISED HOW OFTEN GOD ANSWERS HONEST AND DESPERATE PRAYERS
You support children’s mental health charity Place2Be. Do you feel a responsibility to be an advocate for mental health, in the same way that you do your faith?
I do, especially as a man! As a Christian, you’re still more likely to see a woman being open about her faith – there’s still such as weird perception of it being a crutch or a sign of weakness, or making you less of a man. My dad has a faith, but he never interacted with it as much. He didn’t come to church with us a lot. So when I’d see Christian male role models, it was a big thing for me. So I think it’s more important than ever, especially as a black man, to be talking about my faith, to not be ashamed of it but to actually identify it as a strength rather than a weakness.
Was being in front of the camera or on stage always a dream of yours?
When I was ten, my mum forced me to do drama. I didn’t want to do it, but I loved performing – it was just all the praise you got afterwards. I always knew I’d love to do something in that area, but I thought it was an impossible dream.
I thought being a doctor would be a safer bet, so when I got to sixth form, I decided I needed to focus on studying. I didn’t do any musical theatre for two years but at university, I picked it up again. I felt like I just unlocked something. I thought: Oh my gosh, I need this. It became such a lifeline for me.
I started presenting a show on our student channel for fun, and they nominated me for a National Student Television Award. I remember sitting there [at the award ceremony] and thinking: I don’t care. But when they started reading out [the nominations for] ‘Best On-Screen Male’ I freaked out. I thought: I really, really want it. I bent down, like I had a stomach ache, and prayed: “God, if I’m meant to do anything in television, please let me win this award.” And then I thought: What a selfish prayer! I’m not going to win this now. But I won!
It was the fastest answer to prayer ever. After that came the realisation: Now I’ve got to go for it. So I made a show reel and sent it around to some places. The next thing I knew, CBBC got in contact.
THE IDEA OF LIFE WITHOUT CHURCH SEEMS REALLY FOREIGN TO ME
That was probably the most important prayer I ever prayed. It shows that your prayers don’t need to have incredible words. You can just be honest and desperate sometimes. You’d be surprised how many times God answers prayers like that.
I do feel that God has opened doors for me. I’ve always felt it’s been a divine thing, because I’m not savvy. I’m good at getting on with people, but the whole: Oh, I’d be great on this show. Here’s my card, blah, blah, blah…I’m so bad at selling myself.
The fact that I’ve come this far, that’s God just making sure I was in the right place. That brings me such a sense of peace. I know I’m going to make it; it’s just in his timing. I don’t need to know the timing, I just need to trust. Whatever door I push, I hope it opens, but, if it doesn’t, I’ll just move to the next one.
To hear the full interview listen to Premier Christian Radio at 8pm on 16 April or download ‘The Profile’ podcast