Riverprancer; JEAN BUTLER LIFTS THE LID ON LIFE WITH RIVERDANCE CO-STAR MICHAEL FLATLEY.
For four long years she has gritted her teeth as she watched him claim sole credit for one of the most thrilling entertainment acts of the decade.
But now the stunning dancer has at last lifted the curtain on the behind-the-scenes bitterness which soured their relationship.
And she has told how the rift between them grew so deep they only ever spoke on stage.
"The audience saw us as a golden couple, but Michael wanted the spotlight all to himself," she says, her green eyes flashing angrily. "He thought everyone else was there just to serve him."
Flatley and the flame-haired beauty caused a sensation back in 1995 as the overnight stars of the toe-tapping Irish spectacular Riverdance.
Even then she had learned to shrug off his unshakeable belief that all the applause and adulation were for him alone.
But there was no missing the full extent of Michael's ambition as it became increasingly clear that British audiences loved her far more than him.
A knowing smile crosses Jean's freckled face as she recalls: "Riverdance was created for Michael and me, the two of us. But he didn't see it like that.
"For him, it was the Michael Flatley show. He thought the applause was always for him.
"Yet, when we came to London, it was I who got all the great reviews and he who got upset. The skirt - ie, me - was getting all the attention.
"Michael was rather coldly received in the UK and he didn't like it at all. There was something about him that the British people didn't seem to take to.
"The show's success was secondary to him - and he had no interest in my success. If he wasn't the big star, he wasn't happy.
"It's a shame we didn't get on and I certainly don't see it as my fault.
"Michael is an individual - he thinks of himself. When we won ovations at the end of a show, I felt they were for the team. Michael felt they were for him."
THE dazzling dancing duo may have thrilled audiences all over the world and pulled in a billion pounds at the box office, but the straight-talking Ms Butler makes it clear that she was never a Flatley fan.
In the years since furious Flatley stomped out of the production amid mounting rows over his star status - and his financial rewards - Jean has only seen him once.
"It was a live Irish television show and I didn't really want to do it," she says. "In the end, though, I thought why not.
"But I didn't speak to Michael either before or after the show. When we met in front of the cameras, we sort of embraced diplomatically - and that was it.
"It was a shame that things didn't work out between us. I don't hate him, we worked well together and I admire him as a dancer. But Michael's just not the sort of guy I'd ever keep in touch with..."
Riverdance made New Yorker Jean an international star and a multi-millionairess. Her extraordinary skills were so prized that her legs were insured for pounds 1 million.
But two years ago she followed in Flatley's high-kicking footsteps and suddenly quit.
"I earned loads of money and travelled the world, but Riverdance became a monster. It's unreasonable to ask someone to do the same thing every night for so long. You'd need a lobotomy to do it," she says.
Exhausted and bored to tears with the same straight-armed, toe-tapping routines night after night, Jean felt she wouldn't care if she never danced again.
But not now. As we speak in her adopted home town of Dublin, she is poised for a sensational return to what she calls "the dance".
She is immersed in gruelling, ten-hours-a-day rehearsals for a new show called Dancing On Dangerous Ground, which opens at London's Drury Lane Theatre on November 30.
Jean was persuaded back by Colin Dunne, the man who took over from Flatley in Riverdance and whom Jean has no hesitation in hailing as "the greatest Irish dancer in the world".
As far as she is concerned, Flatley couldn't hold a candle to 30-year-old Dunne, with whom she has been friends since they were both teenage stars of the Irish dance contest circuit.
She says: "Irish dance is in Colin's blood. He's more authentic than Michael. And, for me, he has the added attraction of being a good friend.
"You have to remember that in Riverdance Michael and I didn't choose each other - we were both hired by someone else.
"That was half the problem. And before we knew it the show was bigger than the two of us.
"Of course, working now with a friend is much nicer than working with someone I didn't get on with.
"I am kind of resigned to the fact that people always want me to talk about Michael. I'm no longer angry or irritated about it - just bloody bored.
"All I know is I am working with the world's best Irish dancer and I have a very good feeling about it. I know the public have an appetite for the dance and I think Dancing On Dangerous Ground is going to be a big hit."
As we chat in the office of a Dublin dance studio, 28-year-old Jean is dressed in her rehearsal gear - tight black trousers and a black polo-neck top.
GONE are her famous Riverdance curls. Her enormous shock of bright red hair is swept back in a loose, almost waist-length pony tail.
But the most striking thing about Jean Butler is that she is stick thin. You feel that if she turned sideways you'd lose sight of her.
And it is no surprise that the 5ft 10in dancer was once branded anorexic.
Still angry over the two-year-old charges, she declares: "That was a huge insult. At the time. I was still in Riverdance. Why would I have jeopardised my part in the show or my reputation?
"I try to look after myself, but I'm naturally pretty thin and when I'm dancing I could eat a small horse every night and still lose weight.
"At the moment, in rehearsals, I'm losing God knows how much weight every day. And that's despite eating regular meals and loads of bananas to give me energy.
"The very notion of me being an anorexic is laughable. I love food, I'm a keen cook and I'm a normal healthy eater."
As if to prove the point, she enthusiastically recommends three of her favourite Dublin restaurants and drools over the city's famous seafood.
SADLY, though, when it comes to romantic dinner dates she has no one special to share them with.
Despite the sexiness of some of her routines with Dunne in a story of two mythical lovers, they are just good friends. In fact, he is engaged.
Jean, meanwhile, has just come out of a long relationship and is currently strictly single. She says: "Right now, I'm finding relationships really difficult. I was with someone for quite a long time.
"I'm alone. I share my house in Dublin with my younger sister Cara."
Cara, 25, is also in Dancing On Dangerous Ground.
The girls grew up in New York. "My parents are still there," Jean says, "and my brother works in Manhattan. But I left at 17 and I haven't really lived there since."
She came to Britain and studied drama at Birmingham University, a course she funded herself by seizing the chance to dance with the legendary Irish band The Chieftains.
She laughs. "I took over from Michael Flatley."
With Riverdance behind her, she auditioned for stage roles in Dublin. "But at every one they'd say, 'Aren't you the Riverdance girl?'
"I'd tell them I studied for four years to be an actress. I'm not saying I'm Meryl Streep, but I didn't get a fair shot.
"And when my agent warned me it might be 20 years before I got my break, I thought: 'Why should I put myself through this agony of constant rejection?'
"I mean, I'm pretty well off after Riverdance and life's too short. So I've come back to dancing - and I'm loving it.
"It was so easy to leave that show because it was artistically so restrictive. I think I might have a mental block about it now. I can't even do the steps any more - I've forgotten them!
"Both Flatley and I were in a rat race then.
"I remember when we got to Broadway, looking around and thinking, 'What the hell happened? How did we get to New York?'."
Flatley went on to create Lord Of The Dance, the extraordinary extravaganza which showcases him like no one has ever been showcased before.
As for Jean, she has learnt a valuable lesson.
"I'll never be in anything that gets nasty, ugly or legal again," she says. "In Riverdance it got to the point where the lawyers were more important than the performers.
"Dancing On Dangerous Ground is about dancing and telling a good story, not stars.
"I promise you, it will not be anything like Lord Of The Dance. It'll be fun."
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Oct 26, 1999|
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