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Thursday, 30 October 2014

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Dragons' Den TV show was stepping stone for tenacious Cumbrian woman

Dragons’ Den was not Denise Hutton Gosney’s first TV appearance. That happened more than two decades earlier, when her dance school took part in a talent contest on Saturday Superstore.

Denise Gosney photo
Denise Gosney

The young Denise even got to ask studio guest – and heartthrob of the day – Terence Trent D’Arby a question.

“He couldn’t understand what I said and Sarah Greene had to ask it for me,” she recalls in her sing-song west coast Scottish accent, laughing.

But it’s Dragons’ Den people associate Denise with, even now, five years on. Some do double takes, recognising her from somewhere they can’t put their finger on, while fans of the show still come up and say hello.

“I was in Tesco the other week and a guy recognised me and asked why I was in there. People seem to think you appear in the show and suddenly become a millionaire.”

If not propelling her into that category the business is still a huge success – there are now 40 Razzamataz schools across the UK, including three in Cumbria, at Carlisle, Penrith and Whitehaven.

But Denise’s story isn’t just about success. It’s involved tenacity, hard work and, in the last year, a devastating loss.

One of four children, Denise grew up in Renfrew, near Glasgow. Her parents couldn’t afford to send her to dance classes but one day her mum spotted an advert inviting youngsters to audition for a dance troupe.

It was a chance sighting, really, but one which sealed Denise’s fate. The next few years saw her excel in dance – freestyle disco was her speciality – and gymnastics.

Into adulthood she travelled the world, from Las Vegas to Fiji, dancing in theatres and on cruise ships, her tiny size six frame sporting glitzy, garish costumes, from stars-and-stripes ra-ra skirts to carnivalesque feather headdresses.

They were tough gigs, especially on the cruise ships. “You could be seeing only water for days on end. Often there’d be no day off at all. I missed home and back then there were no mobile phones, so it cost about £10 a minute to phone mum.”

“But I’m not going to moan about it. It’s not like I was stuck in a sweltering hot factory all day every day.”

A highlight from those years was getting work at Butlin’s – “every night was a Saturday night and I saw my heroes, people like Cannon and Ball” – and performing at the London Palladium, a bittersweet moment because her beloved dad had just passed away, though Denise is sure he was still watching her proudly.

A crunch moment in her career came when she narrowly missed out on roles in productions of Fame and Starlight Express. “I had the edge over other dancers because I could do flips and tricks, but with the singing and drama I didn’t have the confidence to bluff it.”

The experience planted a seed in her head – starting a theatre school that would teach all three skills.

“A dancer’s life is short so I was thinking about what to do next. Learning dance, drama and singing is a great way for kids to gain confidence. I wish I’d had that when I was growing up.”

She had moved to Cumbria to work as a choreographer at Oasis holiday village (now CenterParcs) near Penrith, and started running classes in the town on a Sunday.

The business rapidly expanded and as more schools opened Denise realised she couldn’t keep up with the demand, so “took the chance” and franchised the business.

Asking for investment from the Dragons came about by accident rather than design. Denise had applied to go on the show with an idea about a performing arts game, but the prototype wasn’t ready.

“But the producers said they were interested in Razzamataz. At first I wasn’t very keen, they had to coax me into it. It was my baby, an absolute passion of mine, it wasn’t something I was just doing to pay the bills.

“Before the show I was terrified! I hadn’t watched it loads but knew it was X Factor for businesses, an entertainment programme. I knew what I was letting myself in for, that you’re a little bit there to be ridiculed.

“But I held my own, I got through it.”

In fact, she was one of the few to avoid a mauling (or whatever it is dragons do) before leaving empty-handed. Scottish businessman Duncan Bannatyne bought a 25 per cent stake in Razzamataz. It is growing each year, even in this challenging economic climate.

“Franchise sales have remained steady, around five a year, which is how I wanted it. It’s not easy but the rewards have been great; seeing students gaining confidence and franchisees who are quite young – there are 22-year-olds owning their own business.”

Denise, who lives in Stainton with husband Jason and four-year-old son Callum, is still involved with the business (which also provides children’s classes in First Choice resorts across the world) and is principal of the Carlisle school.

“Running a small business you’re head of every department. It’s not easy and there’s been plenty of hurdles along the way. But I have the most fantastic team.”

One of Denise’s most treasured team members was Rebecca Rennie, her PA and friend, who was killed in a crash on the A7 last December aged just 23.

Unsurprisingly emotions are raw, the sense of shock still palpable as Denise remembers that terrible morning; of not being able to get hold of Rebecca, of hearing about a crash on her route into work, of being told the tragic news.

“She was just the most lovely girl you’ve ever met in your life, so hard working and committed,” says Denise between her tears. “Everyone loved her – colleagues, the kids and parents.”

Rebecca had first worked for Denise when she ran Phake beauty salon in Carlisle. “We took her under our wing and saw her grow up from a shy trainee beautician at 16 to head office manager at 23. When she was still alive me and Jason would say ‘there’s not many Rebeccas in this world’. We genuinely did.”

Denise dedicated the annual Razzamataz show – at The Sands Centre earlier this month – to Rebecca, and the school’s Student of the Year prize has been named after her.

Earlier this year Rebecca’s friends and family planned a series of fundraising events in her memory. All money raised will go to Carlisle Mencap’s new respite facility, the Grace Little Centre, which will be used by Rebecca’s disabled sister Emma Jane.

A three-hour Zumbathon was held in April and next month Denise and one of her colleagues, Helen Green, will take on the Three Peaks Challenge to further boost funds.

It involves scaling Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon. They had a trial climb up Scafell a few weeks ago. “It was the worst weather ever, 52mph wind, minus 15 with the wind chill factor and I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes afterwards,” Denise adds. “But then we remember why we’re doing it.”

Visit www.justgiving.com/razzamataz to make a donation.

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