Strictly star Shirley Ballas lights up Blackpool and the world as she pulls the lever to launch 2021's Illuminations
Showbiz queen Shirley Ballas put on a flawless performance as she flicked the switch to launch another dazzling Illuminations season.
During her yearly trip to the Tower Ballroom, where she runs the rule over celebrities on Strictly Come Dancing, the 60-year-old head judge is usually working her magic from the shadows.
But tonight, in front of a 1,500-strong crowd, she took centre stage - and the spotlight - in a black and silver glistening strapless top and cigarette trousers and heels to pull the lever and light up the Tower and Golden Mile until early next year.
Shirley said that, despite visiting the resort for dancing contests since the age of seven, including a festival win at 18, doing the honours shortly before 9pm was a highlight trip.
"It's bigger than Strictly," she laughed.
"It's just an iconic moment in an iconic ballroom and I'm just thrilled to be a part of it.
"Never could I have imagined all those years ago, dancing in this magnificent ballroom, the greatest in the world, I would one day be switching on the Lights.
"It's just wonderful."
Those inside the 127-year-old venue, transformed into a concert hall with two stages to host the Switch-On for the first time, earlier watched musical performances from multiple-platinum selling Ella Henderson, Reading Festival headlining indie band The Wombats, and former Love Island and Dancing On Ice contestant Wes Nelson.
Ella, 25, who shot to fame after finishing sixth on The X Factor in 2012 and signing a record deal that saw her release number one album Chapter One, said she was overjoyed to be performing again - after spending lockdown writing new music at a piano.
She said: "I remember coming to Blackpool with my friend for a dance competition when we were around seven.
"We had a great time, visiting the Pleasure Beach, getting up the Tower, but we stayed in this little hotel and we ended up getting stuck in the lift!
"I'm hoping it's not going to happen to me this time."
Wes, 23, who signed a solo record deal with EMI Records last year ahead of his first single See Nobody featuring Hardy Caprio, told The Gazette stepping into the Ballroom for his first live performance was overwhelming but exciting.
"I came to Blackpool a few times when I was small," he said.
"I had some great times on the dodgems and in the arcades.
"Now to be part of the Illuminations... that's just massive.
"I'm so grateful to be here."
Television and radio presenter Becca Dudley hosted the proceedings, which were beamed around the world via VisitBlackpool and MTV's YouTube channel, while KSI, a quasi-celeb who turned a hobby filming videos in his bedroom into a career as a boxer and singer, also performed.
The YouTuber, whose real name is Olajide Olayinka Williams 'JJ' Olatunji, thanked the "wild" crowd for its welcome, adding: "It's getting hot in here... insane."
Families, couples, friends, and holidaymakers were among the ticket holders, who applied for their free places in a ballot.
Lucy Alcorn, 22, from Clayton-le-Moors near Accrington in east Lancashire, said: "My first time at the Switch-On was when I was 14 and I've been lucky to get tickets for every one since.
"It's always such a great night."
Lucy travelled to the resort with sister duo Sam and Kath Sharpe.
Sam said: "It's such a buzz. The Tower is great."
Jordan Brooke from the West Midlands was enjoying a dance with her three children Mia, seven, Esme, five, and Noah, four, and said the ceremony was a treat for the youngsters.
She said: "It's their first time at the Illuminations so we feel really lucky to be here."
Christina Grantham, her partner Christopher Nicholson, and her two daughters Amy and Mia Storey, from Blackpool, said they couldn't believe their luck after winning tickets.
"We moved here 18 months ago and [because of the pandemic] Blackpool was dead," Christina said.
"What a way to experience it properly for the first time than at the Illuminations.
"We're having a great time."
Millions of visitors - as well as plenty of locals - will drive, walk, cycle, jog, and be taken on landau rides below the glowing bulbs that straddle the Promenade until Monday, January 3, 2022, with the annual display extended over Christmas and New Year for the first time.
Only the pandemic scuppered efforts to do the same last season.
The Illuminations also feature a number of other firsts.
They include a nightly laser show called Astral Dreams.
Designed by local man Jack Irvings, it will be projected onto the Tower.
Household favourite Laurence Llewelyn Bowen will also show off a water feature called Venus Remixed at South Beach.
The Changing Rooms star, who is the Lights’s creative chief, said: “This year, perhaps more than any other year, switching on Blackpool’s Illuminations marks an important moment of brightness as the country moves into autumn and winter.
"Turning the Lights on has always inspired an optimism and positivity of which Blackpool is understandably proud.”
Tower boss Kate McShane said: "We will never get another opportunity like this.
"It's been a fantastic season and we want to end the year on a high.
"The spirit, tenacity, and resilience of people here has really shone through and this is the perfect antidote for the end of 2020."
It is thanks to our loyal readers that we can continue to provide the trusted news, analysis and insight that matters to you. For unlimited access to our unrivalled local reporting, you can take out a subscription here and help support the work of our dedicated team of reporters.