At the age of 63, Nigel Lythgoe has done it all. The former dancer has performed with some of the biggest names in the world, produces two of the longest-running shows on television – So You Think You Can Dance and American Idol – and even owns his own vineyard. We trust him when he swears he doesn’t take any of it for granted. “Life itself is the greatest luxury for me,” he reveals. “After two heart attacks, I cherish every single day. I’ve got a pacemaker and defibrillator, so the greatest luxury for me is just waking up every morning and being alive.”
The British-born entertainer is the very picture of health after making some significant life changes, one of which includes the very thing he’s best known for: dancing.
“Every day of my life is a performance,” he chuckles before adding more seriously, “ But [after my health scares] it would be pretty silly for me to dance again.”
This would be a catastrophe to many, but Lythgoe’s optimistic spirit prevails. “I suppose humor has a lot to do with my success,” he muses, adding, “I celebrate life by smiling.”
Lythgoe’s grand passion for dance began early in life. Unlike most, he knew exactly what he wanted to do as a child.
“I came from backyard in Liverpool and now I’ve got a vineyard. It’s romantic and very, very special to me.”
“I started dancing and competing when I was 11, and then I started winning. I feel that when you do anything that you know you’re good at, that’s what you want to do,” he hypothesizes, conti-nuing, “When I was 12, I thought to myself ‘This is what I want to do’ and I went to dance drama school. I then joined a major group in England called the Young Generations at 18, and at 21 I became a choreographer.”
Nowadays, the former hoofer must indulge his grand passion from the sidelines as a judge or a producer. He has actually flown to LA for a few short hours to accept an award at the Los Angeles Ballet’s annual Rubies Gala before heading straight back to Nevada for the Vegas week of So You Think You Can Dance, the Fox series he co-created and judges.
Though he no longer takes to the floor, trust that Lythgoe is still immersed in the dance community. In addition to his work with SYTYCD, he is a co-founder of the Dizzy Feet Foundation alongside Katie Holmes, Adam Shankman and Carrie Ann Inaba, an organization that strives to increase dance education in the United States. He also executive produced Dancing in Jaffa, a documentary that had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in April.
Of the latter he says, “I’m very happy to have been part of that film. People should know that dance can break down barriers. It is an international language.”
It is blindingly obvious that, despite his inability to do anything that might compromise his health, Nigel Lythgoe has been anything but idle. In fact, he’s currently all about Idol – American Idol, that is.
Lythgoe developed and produced Pop Idol, the long-running series’ parent program, before turning the show into a global franchise and moving to America to oversee the creation of its American counterpart. After six years helming the series, he left to focus on SYTYCD. He then returned in 2010 and has been working tenaciously to make both successful.
Idol, however, has seen a significant decrease in viewership in its 12th season, bringing in some of its lowest ratings of all time. Lythgoe feels that the drop might have something to do with the lack of chemistry among its current cast of celebrity judges: Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj and Randy Jackson.
“Chemistry is something that everyone has to contribute to,” he says. “Each one of them is terrific on their own — they all bring something to the table – but they just don’t gel as a whole.”
He is loyal to his employees, offering only positive critiques of their “performances” as judges on the show.
“Mariah brings a wealth of knowledge when she talks about how to sing something, and Nicki is very focused; she hits the nail on the head a lot of the time. She’s very honest and she doesn’t care whether the public likes her or not, and I believe that’s the right way to be a judge. When you start wondering whether or not the public likes you, you’ll start holding back your true thoughts.”
He continues, “Keith is a wonderful guy and a very, very nice person. He really tries to help the kids with his critiques and Randy, well, America loves Randy. He’s very honest. With all the ‘in it to win its’ are an awful lot of good, honest sentiment. He’s not just all cliché.”
And Lythgoe is not all about TV, though one might think so given the Idol-friendly taglines he uses to promote his passion project, the Villa San-Juliette Winery. Banners for the Paso Robles-based vineyard he owns with longtime producing partner Ken Warwick read ‘These two guys make dreams come true. Now it’s their turn’ and ‘Because some stars are not formed overnight.’
“I like wine,” Nigel says now of his decision to purchase the 168- acre winery. “I don’t like it as much these days of course – I try to be careful – but I used to love both red and white wines back in the day. I love the vineyard and love even more that my son [decided to get married there]. I came from backyard in Liverpool and now I’ve got a vineyard. It’s romantic and very, very special to me.”