Smart, funny, dressed down and wearing minimal makeup, Dancing With the Stars (DWTS) luminary Sharna Burgess isn't what you'd expect when you think of a ballroom veteran.
From the outside looking in, her cha-cha-ing her way across the globe might seem like an enviable riot of feathers and sequins, but for Sharna, the glamorous world of dancing has bestowed both epic highs and earth-shattering lows.
When Good Health & Wellbeing catches up with the fiery-haired straight-talker, she opens up about her body image struggles and the recent wellness epiphany that has drastically changed her life.
"I had a real struggle with my body because of dance," the 34-year-old reveals.
"I remember being 15 and put on the scale every two days by my teachers and we were told whether we needed to lose weight or not. Every week I was told that I needed to lose more weight – and I certainly wasn't overweight."
Beginning dance classes at the age of four, by the age of 11, ballroom championships were a regularity, but the pressure of competition was coupled with the pressure to shed the kilos.
"While dance was something that I needed in my life, it definitely instilled a negative body image," she says.
"It also started a negative pattern of eating whereby I'd binge one day, and then starve the next. I struggled with that throughout the years. Even in my 20s, I'd look in the mirror and see the 15-year-old that was told every week she needed to lose more weight."
A turning point
The epitome of an Aussie girl done good, Sharna was born in working-class Wagga Wagga, NSW, and left Australia at the age of 18 to move to London in search of her "dance dreams".
Touring for years with stage show Burn the Floor, the production took her to Broadway, where she was spotted by producers of the US DWTS, and the rest, as they say, is history. Joining the cast in 2011, she went on to notch up 12 seasons as one of the show's most popular dancers.
For most of us, the pressure of a prime-time reality TV series watched by an audience of eight million-plus would likely lead to greater insecurities and self-scrutiny, but ironically, Sharna says that the small-screen juggernaut prompted a mental shift that would help curb the long-held negative anxieties she had about her body.
"It was seeing just how much the celebrities on the show transformed and ended up loving their bodies through being able to move and dance that really shook my perspective," she recalls.
"I thought, 'Wow, I've been doing this my whole life.' I started to see something else in the mirror, I started to see a body that had gotten me through some incredibly difficult times, that had created some beautiful moments, that had won championships, that had landed me a life I never ever thought possible. When we get a negative body image as a child, it can take us a very long time to shake it and to see ourselves differently. For me, however, that was my first turning point."
Sharna's journey towards changing her negative self-image and self-worth perspective began in earnest two years ago.
Despite living in glamorous LA and being part of one of the most successful TV shows on air, something wasn't quite right. Rather than feeling blissful about a life that was – on the surface, at least – 'perfect', she was crippled with anxiety.
"I was living this wonderful life and doing things I could never have imagined I'd do, and yet I felt constant anxiety," she admits. "I was hyper-sensitive and crying a lot, and I just didn't know why.
"I went to see a doctor and got a prescription for what was anti-anxiety medication. I will never forget the moment when I had the pills and was sitting with this little orange bottle, staring at it and about to take a pill… and I just didn't want to do it. I thought, 'There has to be another way.'"
Sharna decided medication wasn't the right choice for her and began talking to both a therapist and a life coach.
And after a few months of regular therapy, she took some much-needed time out and enrolled on a wellness retreat.
"That retreat truly changed my life," says Sharna.
"I walked away knowing that I was giving myself absolutely no time for me. I wasn't focusing on any of the great things in my life. I was waking up, looking at Instagram, seeing everyone else's 'highlights reel', and comparing my life to theirs. I learned how to master my mornings.
"Now I make sure when I wake up, I make a coffee, walk my dog, breathe in the air, and focus on all the positive things around me that I've built. Then, when I get home, I do some gratitude journalling, which I always make sure to do – even on the hard days. Just by practising gratitude, giving thanks to myself, and learning how to meditate, I've completely turned my life around."
Mental health is, unsurprisingly, now the lynchpin of Sharna's wellbeing philosophy, but given that she's spent her entire adult life earning her crust on the dance floor, exercise is also a firm fixture in her day-to-day regime.
However, these days she admittedly has to work a bit harder than she did in her 20s.
"I noticed a change once 30 hit," she says.
"It just wasn't as easy to consume calories without the consequences. I also found that it wasn't just dancing I needed, but I also needed to hit the gym, to work on other muscles and on core strength. Previously I would take fitness for granted, because it was just part of what I do, but these days I make a real effort.
"Most mornings I wake up and I go to the gym and I love getting on the elliptical for as long as I can – usually an hour – which starts my day off pretty good. Then I'll do light weights but high reps."
Going to the gym "on average five to six times a week", Sharna is undoubtedly super-disciplined, but make no mistake, she knows more than most the consequences of attaching guilt and restrictions around food. With this in mind, while there's plenty of gym time, there's also a weekly 'cheat day'.
"It's a sleep-in, eat chocolate, and do whatever I want kind of day," she giggles.
"That helps me stay in line throughout the rest of the week. I have very low willpower when it comes to food, but if I have my structure, and I know that I can indulge at the end of the week, then I feel good about it."
And when it comes to her ultimate cheat day meal, Sharna can't go past a classic sticky date pudding.
"It's a nostalgia thing for me; my grandma used to make it," she says.
And with the new season of DWTS set to hit our screens, she'll have plenty of time to indulge in the Aussie dessert staple.
Taking a judging role in the homegrown version of the international ratings hit, Sharna has traded in her dancing shoes for a scoring paddle.
WATCH BELOW: Sharna reveals her beauty go-tos. Story continues after video.
"I didn't quite realise how much I was going to love it," she says of the role reversal.
"I'm such a nurturer, so being a coach is great for me. Plus, I get to watch the transformation without being in the competition. I just get to enjoy it and my God, it feels good!"
Having lived away from the country for the past 16 years, a three-month stint of work also means that the performer is able to spend quality time with her family.
"It has been an absolute gift to be able to come home," she says, smiling.
"To have my mum and dad sit in the audience behind me on the first show of my first season last year was a really emotional moment as my dad – because of health complications – was never able to fly to America to see me on the US DWTS. When I saw them both before our premiere episode, sitting proud as punch, I had to get myself together before we went live.
"In that moment, seeing how proud my parents were, I saw a quick flash of everything that it took to get me to where I was. It was a definite 'wow' moment, because how often do we really stop and give ourselves credit for what we've accomplished and what we're doing? I felt like I'd come full circle."