Alex Casey meets Julz Tocker, the Dancing With the Stars NZ judge who refuses to sit down.
If you’ve ever seen Dancing With the Stars NZ, you’ll know that judge Julz Tocker doesn’t do anything by halves. If anything, he does things by doubles. He meditates twice a day for 20 minutes. He has two cell phones. He tells me this while sipping a double espresso, his second for the day, and I notice two spoons on the saucer. Tomorrow he’ll be spotted eating an entire head of lettuce in a carpark, tearing off each leaf with a shake of his head like a hyena ripping flesh from the bone.
He is, jazz hands down, criss cross my heart and hope to death drop, the most interesting man on New Zealand television right now. Although his effusive, sometimes nonsensical praise (“Laura, I’ve got two words for you: yah, bah, bah”) often draws from a deep well of bizarre retro Antipodean slang (from “bloody Norah” to “you know, I know and the milkman knows that wasn’t your typical paso doble”), there’s absolutely nothing old-fashioned about Julz Tocker.
Twenty years ago, a young Julz Tocker was on track to be one of Wellington’s next big rugby stars. His father was a rugby player turned international coach and president of the Wellington Rugby Union. His older brother was the toast of St Patrick’s College First XV and would go on to become a commentator. “My whole family were very committed to rugby,” he remembers. “I played rugby, basketball and athletics. I ran. I was always out there doing something, you know?”
That all changed around age 12, when Tocker saw a couple dancing on television and found his footing in the school theatre production. His mum enrolled him in a local dance class, but refrained from telling his father, who was coaching in Japan at the time. “I remember walking up the stairs to that first class and Mum saying to me ‘now, this is not going to take over our lives is it?’” Tocker laughs heartily into his coffee. “At that stage I just saw it as a fun thing.”
Although a fun thing, it was kept a total secret for nearly two years. “I hid the fact that I danced from my family and friends, and I shouldn’t have had to do that,” says Tocker. “But we were so scared that nobody would accept it – which they didn’t initially. To put that pressure on a 12-year-old kid is not fair. It tells your child that dancing is something to cover up and be ashamed of. It’s not a disease, it’s something to be proud of and something to celebrate.”
Starting high school provided a new set of pressures, beginning from the moment he walked through the gates of St Patrick’s College. “I will never forget the first words my principal ever said to me for as long as I live. I came in to pick up my uniform and he said ‘here’s another Tocker, can’t wait to see what he does with the first fifteen’.” He sighs and rolls his eyes. “I just remember thinking in my head ‘they’ve got no idea how much I like dancing – no-one does’.”
Even without the dancing, Tocker found himself the subject of abuse and bullying by his peers at high school. “Look, I was 15, I was pimply faced, had braces and hair that looked pubes, I was basically a walking target,” he recalls, shooting an imaginary arrow through the empty hotel restaurant. “Pew pew.” In an interview with Stuff, he told a story of going through the Mount Vic tunnel, and his bullies yelling “lights out!” as they punched him in the brief moment darkness.
“It got to the point where it was just this constant noise in my life, I was past the point of hurting and it was just affecting me doing daily things, like working or eating my lunch.”
His secret became even harder to conceal when wearing regulation “oompa loompa” fake tan for competitions entered the equation. “I used to button my uniform shirt all the way to the top and wear scarves in the summer, the tan would be all the way up my neck.” One day in the changing rooms after PE class, he forgot. “I turned around with this tanned deep V shape on my chest and that’s when they all started yelling ‘Tocker’s wearing fake tan!’ and all that sort of bullcrap.”
Bullcrap. Remarkably, even when recounting a traumatic period that would leave anyone with a red mist rage of effing and jeffing, Tocker is extremely careful not to use any swear words that might compromise his Labrador-like persona. “I was basically called every flipping name under the sun,” he continues. “Pizza face, train tracks, twinkle toes, fairy.” Look out, here comes the h-e-double hockey sticks. “I don’t know how the hell I got through it.”
Practising dance after school, the room would often plunge into darkness, the music cutting out abruptly. “I didn’t realise this at the time, but the boys would sneak into the dance studio and turn off the electricity box.” Deciding to take some of the power back, Tocker did his school speech about his dancing in front of the whole year – with a bonus demonstration. “When they saw the speed and agility, I think people started to realise that it was cool.”
His dad returned from Japan to the news that his 15-year-old son had been not only dancing for years, but had been given the opportunity to move to Australia to pursue his passion professionally. “My family was in uproar, everyone arguing was arguing about it, but I knew it was my ticket out of here,” says Tocker. “It was bittersweet because Mum wanted her baby to stay, and Dad was the one who actually told me I should go.”
Over the next decade, Tocker took his dancing to the world via Los Angeles, starring in the Dirty Dancing musical twice in the role of Johnny Castle, appearing several times on Dancing With the Stars in America before touring the show, and landing a gig working behind the scenes on the movie La La Land. “I actually started writing when I was working with Ryan [Gosling] and Emma [Stone]… Ryan [Gosling] gave me the idea to start writing my story down.” He’s since written a film, two pilots and “something else” – none of which he will tell me anything about.
It was writing, he says, and the support of his fellow judge and business partner Camilla Sacre-Dallerup, that saved him when his mental health took a turn for the worse in LA. “I was having a really difficult time with some dark stuff a few years ago. I had some mishaps with management and finances and I really thought I had lost my whole career. That was such a low point, but I see now that it was the universe testing me and asking: Julz, do you really want this?”
He gestured at one of his two cell phones. “Life might look great on the highlight reel on Instagram, but it isn’t all picket fences and roses, is it?”
Not long after that, he got the call from Dancing With the Stars New Zealand, his first professional opportunity on home soil. He didn’t even have an IRD number when he returned, a prodigal son, in 2017. “It was so important to show my family and my friends and all the naysayers who told me I was making a mistake pursuing dancing what I could do,” he remembers. “We put so much pressure on ourselves, we wanted to do good by the public and the stars and the dancers.”
“I also felt like I had to get up there for all the kids who have dreams and are told not to pursue them because they aren’t ‘supposed’ to. I wanted to show them that the opportunities are there, sometimes you just have to make it yourself.” Accompanied by close friends Camilla Sacre-Dallerup and Rachel White, the three new judges ushered in the current era of Dancing With the Stars NZ with their finessed, sometimes tumultuous dynamic and glamorous, ambiguous accents.
When he debuted on Dancing, the negative comments Julz received online gave him a very familiar prickly feeling. “When you’ve been called every name for years it shouldn’t hurt, but every week I was being slaughtered for what I was wearing on TV, my shoes, my hair, the way I behaved.” The insults got personal, with people leaning on the same homophobic slurs that the kids at high school had used decades earlier. “Why does it matter, the way I look, my profession or my sexuality? Why does it always have to tie into a stereotype?”
If the comments were getting him down at the time, you’d never know it. Especially not in my favourite Instagram video of all time, in which Tocker spontaneously danced in hectic Auckland traffic with famed Austin Powers impersonator Gary Brown in 2017. Tocker clearly remembers the moment when he urgently handed his phone to co-judge Camilla Sacre-Dallerup and uttered the best request anyone has ever made: “film me, I’m going to Samba around Austin Powers.”
Tocker is wistful in his recollection of his chance encounter with the Austin Powers lookalike. “I love the Austin Powers films. I loved them so much that I learned all the scripts. People would get pissed off at the movie theatre because I would say all the lines before the characters did.” He credits the shaggadelic spy with influencing his judging persona on Dancing With the Stars, most frequently manifesting in an emphatic “yeah baby” at least twice an episode.
Along with the Mike Myers phrasebook, Tocker has become known for another quirk – his complete inability to stay sitting in his chair. It’s become such a calling card that the cast have built a drinking game around it. “I am musical chairs this season, but it’s because I need to move, I need to dance, I need to let out my energy. I can’t sit still – apparently I’m a nightmare in bed too.”
He unleashes a thunderous laugh, leaning into my recorder. “There’s your headline.”
“I do feel like I need to show more physically with my body this season because we have more talented people – particularly talented men.” He’s unapologetic in filling up space, both literally and metaphorically, in order to be the person he needed to see on TV as a terrified adolescent dancer. “I’m always telling boys that they have to perform, they have to show others and be proud because they don’t know who else they’re inspiring.”
Using his time during the week to teach dance classes and speak with kids in schools, Tocker says there’s still a lot of work to be done to destigmatise dancing and the arts in New Zealand and destroy the stereotypes associated with them. “I still hear meet boys who are being shamed because it’s not a ‘masculine’ thing for them to have a career or a hobby in dance. It hurts me so much that we aren’t fostering and supporting that more in our young men.”
Because who better to boost the profile of dancing for men than sporting legends like Manu Vatuvei and Glen Osbourne? “How beautiful is it to see these huge strong rugby player dudes being such gentlemen?” says Julz. “And isn’t it amazing to see people who aren’t usually vulnerable in the media go through that journey and change themselves?” After Osborne was eliminated, Vatuvei sobbed on live television as he embraced his friend. I did wonder where else we’d see men being so gentle.
Julz checks one of his many phones – our hour is up and there’s a screed of texts from Rachel. I walk with him downstairs to The All Blacks Champions Room, lit up with rainbow spotlights for his dance class later that evening. The walls are lined with team photos, generations upon generations of rugby legends staring down at the boy from Wellington who traded the rugby field for the dance floor. “Isn’t it interesting?” he mutters to nobody in particular.
“It’s all come full circle.”
Dancing With the Stars NZ is on Sundays at 7pm and Mondays at 7.30pm on Three