God wants to take our hand and lead us in a dance, while our challenge is to follow his lead. That’s Dancing with the Stars judge Mark Wilson’s take on his Catholic faith.
The reality TV star spoke to The Catholic Weekly about his life-long faith for the first time while preparing for another season of his long-running show.
Mark was taught by Christian Brothers and caught faith from his mother, Mary, during his working-class upbringing in the Melbourne suburb of Thomastown.
In his early twenties he was heavily involved with the Redemptorist lay missionary movement and his parish youth group, and had given up competitive dancing when he met his “beautiful wife.”
“I was exploring the priesthood. I went to a few retreats to discover what God wanted of me, but I knew I was very gifted at dancing and there was a sense of a calling from there instead,” he said.
“I met Annemarie just before I turned 21 and she was a beautiful dancer, the Victorian champion.
“I wasn’t quite in her league but I was so full of myself I told her she should leave her dance partner for someone who could actually dance.
“We started dating before we danced together and I was determined that we were going to be the best.”
Being devout (and naïve) young Catholics came with some challenges though.
“I was a ballroom dancer and she was a Latin dancer so someone gave us lessons in Rumba, which is a dance of love,” Mark explained.
“We were engaged then, and during our routine he calls out from the other end of the studio at the top of his voice, ‘You’re dancing like a couple of virgins!’
“He sips his coffee and gives me a look, while everyone’s laughing. So I let it go quiet.
“Then I said, ‘That’s because we are.’ He spat out his coffee and walked off into the office!
“He wanted to talk about moving your pelvis like this and that, but that just wasn’t part of our framework.
“Not that we didn’t want it to be, we were young Catholic people in love who wanted a full body relationship but at that time we felt that’s not what God called us to do.
“We started competing and danced together for seven years, won the Australian championship five times and were 15th in the world twice.
“We had a great time and lots of challenges but every time I danced it was all about releasing the attachment to what I’d worked for.
“And that’s the key in faith as well. When we dance together there’s an ethereal sense of needing to have faith in what my partner is doing, and that’s how God works in our life.”
In 2005, at the peak of his TV fame, Mark was also running the country’s largest dance studio and raising three young children with Annemarie.
His frugal upbringing gave way to a glittering lifestyle and he became the star people wanted him to be.
“I’d be driven around in limousines and flown to the country in a Learjet with leather seats and champagne,” he said.
“I couldn’t go to a restaurant without someone coming up to talk to me.
“Annemarie and I were smashing it financially when I got on Dancing with the Stars. So it was the most exciting life and we were doing very well, but we were running all the time.”
Then Mark received a call in the middle of the night from the local fire chief. His studio was on fire.
Lit deliberately, police thought it might be directed at him. Three years later when they re-built the studio, it was burnt down again and then a man called their home.
“This person spoke to Annemarie and said, ‘If your husband sets up again it’ll be your house next. I know where you live,’” said Mark.
He used to scan the shadows behind cars on the street as he left work, then stay up late listening to noises outside, while his children slept.
The 60-year-old star says he regrets not having had a deeper faith in God when his life took its dark turn.
“I was so stressed all the time, and that’s the devil’s tool, the fear,” he said.
“I had a jewellery box to keep my ballroom collar in, and on it I had written Proverbs 3:5-6, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight’.”
Mark says he’s forgiven his stalker, who has never been caught but whose actions devastated them emotionally and financially. The family eventually left Melbourne to rebuild.
“I tell my kids that forgiveness is the greatest gift, and we can only forgive if we’re not attached in any way,” Mark said.
“It was a great gift to have such a reckoning. After getting through that I’m not attached any more to having the best car, the best suit, the biggest house.
“God was like, ‘Do you get the message? Ok, here’s another one!’
“I never lost my faith but I was a mess. I took the kids to self-defence classes and I learned how to fight well enough to give my family time to get in the car and get away.
“My whole focus was on survival. I told Annemarie if we don’t get out of Melbourne I’d be dead before 60 from the stress.”
Now a grandfather, Mark is looking forward to teaching his grandchildren how to pray the rosary and relishes opportunities to talk to people about God.
“We’ve got to ask, ‘Have you met Jesus? Have you been to the Catholic Church? Why don’t you come with me?’
“It’s what Jesus told us to do and that’s where they will find peace.
“If we look deeply at Jesus’s actions and what he’s saying, it’s this beauty of non-attachment to being right, to being correct, and a deep attachment instead to the love of his Father which is uncompromising.
“Because love can only be what it is when there are no strings attached.
“It’s how I try to live my life and it doesn’t always work. But our stuff-ups give us an opportunity to reflect and then go back to God and say, ‘Ok help me to deepen my reliance on you.’”