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Plumber's son who became Lord of Dance: Michael Flatley's rise to fame

Plumber’s boxer son who became Lord of the Dance: Multi-millionaire Michael Flatley had to weather the storm of a false rape allegation, wed a backing dancer and has already faced cancer before his latest diagnosis

  • Michael Flatley announced yesterday that he has an ‘aggressive’ cancer 
  • Born in Chicago, Michael was the son of an Irish emigrant plumber
  • Shot to fame as part of the Riverdance troupe who performed at 1994 Eurovision
  • Here FEMAIL looks back over highs and lows of Michael’s time in the spotlight 
  • Read More:  Michael Flatley’s team appeal to fans for ‘prayers and well wishes’

For many, he will always be the leather-clad Lord of the Dance leaping through the stage shirtless with a bouncy blonde mane during his sell-out West End shows in the late 1990s.

However, Michael Flatley’s busy career has seen him dabble in just about everything – from acting, to playing the flute to boxing. 

For all its twists and turns, the Irish-American star’s rise to fame and consequent time in the spotlight has been far from smooth-sailing – having previously weathered the storm of a false rape accusation.

Earlier this week, the 64-year-old star sadly announced that he is receiving treatment for an ‘aggressive form’ of cancer – after battling a malignant melanoma back in 2003.

Michael Flatley announced he has been diagnosed with cancer for a second time earlier this week. The 64-year-old was treated for a malignant melanoma back in 2003

Here FEMAIL reveals how Michael went from the son of a plumber in a small neighbourhood in Chicago to the man credited for revolutionising Irish dancing.

Michael was brought up in Chicago in a blue collar family, the second out of five children to Irish parents Michael James Flatley and Elisabeth ‘Eilish’ Flatley.

Speaking to the Irish Independent last year, Michael explained his parents – who had both grown up in Ireland – met in Detroit in 1956 and married shortly after.

The couple then relocated to a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago where they started their family.

Michael (left) with his plumber father Michael (centre) and sisters at an undated family Thanksgiving dinner

The dancer says his earliest memories of his father were when he’d play his Clancy Brothers records every night when he returned home from his job. With a demanding occupation and five children to provide for, Michael said his father was always ‘exhausted’. 

At the age of four, Michael says his grandmother Hannah – who had been a Leinster dance champion herself – taught him how to Irish dance. Whenever he struggled with the moves, he recalls how she would whisper in his ear: ‘You can do it.’

Despite living in the US, Michael says the first time he heard an American accent was when he was six years old.

‘All my family’s friends and all my friends were Irish,’ he said. ‘We’d see them at mass on Sunday, and at Irish get-togethers where everyone would sing and dance.’

During his school years, Michael says he was bullied for his Irish accent and took up boxing in order to defend himself.

Undated photo of Michael Flatley in the early stages of his career. The 64-year-old has previously said he ‘didn’t make a penny’ until he was 35 years old

Michael pictured in 1994 during his Eurovision performance. The seven-minute performance was extended into a full-length spectacle and opened at Dublin’s Point Theatre in 1995

He competed in the amateur boxing Chicago Golden Gloves tournament in the 126 pound novice division and won in the middleweight Chicago Golden Gloves Boxing Championship. 

When he was eleven years old, Michael’s parents enrolled him at the Dennehy School of Irish Dance. However, he says he had to be ‘dragged by the ears’ to his lessons as he was more interested in playing baseball with his friends.

However, Michael’s distaste for dancing didn’t last long and he went on to become the first American man to snatch a title at the Irish Dancing World Championships in 1975 and 1976, aged 17. 

He added: ‘I will never forget flying home on Aer Lingus to Chicago with the trophy on my lap. I should have been over the moon. But I was a little bit melancholy. Because all I could think of was, ‘Is that it? That’s the end of it now.’ 

Michael with wife Niamh and son Michael in November 2015. His second wife had previously worked as one of his backing dancers

Michael announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer with this Instagram post yesterday

Determined to keep dancing, Michael continued developing his own routines and went on to tour with the the Green Fields of America in the 1980s. Later on, he collaborated with the Irish folk band The Chieftains – but his request to become a full-time member of the band was turned down.

With touring not bringing enough money, he thought about turning to professional boxing, telling the The Chicago Tribute in 1985:  ‘I`d been touring with one band or another since I was 13, and there is nothing I love more than getting out on a stage and dancing. 

‘But unfortunately, it`s not very lucrative. So I was thinking of turning pro, which my parents were very much against, and then the phone rings.’

On top of this, he also tried to set up a plumbing business while struggling to make it as a dancer. Speaking to the Daily Mail’s Weekend magazine last year, Michael said he ‘didn’t make a penny’ until he was 35 years old.

Michael pictured during an interview with host Jay Leno on May 30, 1997 – the year he reportedly made £36million

After being sacked from Riverdance, Michael developed his own show Lord Of The Dance, which opened in Dublin in 1996 and was seen by over 60m people

But that all changed thanks to Eurovision. The choreographer shot to fame in the Irish dancing production Riverdance, which was first performed as a seven-minute interval break during the 1994 broadcast for 300m viewers.

Blown away by the unknown dance troupe’s talent, the performance resulted in a standing ovation from the 4,000 members of the audience in Dublin. 

Having successfully stole the show, the performance was extended into a full-length spectacle and opened at Dublin’s Point Theatre in 1995.

Writing in his 2006 biography Lord of the Dance: My Story, Michael explained: ‘It was a really, really important moment in modern Irish culture which extended far beyond Eurovision. It completely eclipsed the event that it was part of and became a phenomenon.’

However, Michael’s’ experience with the follow-up show was soured by a bitter court battle with producers in 1995 over his pay and sharing of the profits.

Michael Flatley in Riverdance before being sacked from the show in 1995 over disputes with producers about his pay

Michael Flatley pictured in an undated photo from his hit Lord of the Dance show, which became one of the most successful dance shows ever

Flatley was sacked from the show on the eve of its second season in Dublin that year.

A legal adviser to Flatley told The Irish Times in 1995 that he was suing the Riverdance producers on contractual grounds, claiming he was entitled to 2 per cent of the gross earnings of the Riverdance shows. 

An estimate of the shows’ turnover around 1999 was £400 million, which would suggest that Flatley’s claim was for £80 million. The suit was settled, its exact terms kept from a public under a strict confidentiality agreement in 1999. 

Hot on the heels of Riverdance, which he had left within a year after a row over royalties, he created Lord Of The Dance, which opened in Dublin in 1996.

He then toured the world, playing to 60 million people in 60 countries and becoming one of the most successful dance shows ever. In 1997 alone Michael earned £36million.

But as his career was taking off, things appeared to take a turn for the worse in his personal life. 

Michael with Sophie Anderton (left) and Caprice (right) in 1996, the year he confessed to cheating on his first wife Beata Dziaba

Michael with second wife Niamh O’Brien at the 2015 Pride of Britain awards. In 2013, he described himself as the ‘the luckiest guy in the world’ to be married to Niamh

In 1986, Michael had married his first wife Beata Dziaba – who worked as a makeup artist. The couple reportedly met at the Royal Albert Hall and tied the knot in a Danish registry office.

However, during their marriage, Michael fell in love with 19-year-old dancer Kelley Byrne – and described the affair as a ‘bolt from the blue’. 

In his biography, Michael recounts how he confessed to cheating on Beata – who had been working in Los Angeles – when she travelled to Dublin in 1996.

He wrote: ‘Everyone who meets Beata tells me I’m a fool – that I should have stayed married to her. I agree. How could I walk away from one of the most beautiful women in the world? One of my best buddies said he felt like punching me after meeting Beata. He said he wanted to knock some sense in me.’

Michael pictured during rehearsals for the Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games Broadway show in 2015

Following the breakdown of his marriage, Michael’s world was turned upside down again when he was falsely accused of rape in 2002.

Tyna Marie Robertson, a real estate agent, alleged the Riverdance star had raped her in a Las Vegas hotel in 2002 and threatened to file a sexual assault lawsuit unless he agreed to pay a ‘seven figures’ settlement, according to court papers.

Police declined to press criminal charges and Flatley said the sex was consensual. Tyna then filed a £16 million civil sexual assault lawsuit in Illinois, but it later was dismissed.

After a lengthy four year legal battle, Tyna was ordered to pay Michael £5.2m in damages in 2007 for extortion, intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation.

Michael Flatley pictured with a fan earlier this week. Yesterday, he announced he had been diagnosed with cancer again

In his book, Michael admitted: ‘I can’t even describe how it affected me.’

The year before the trial came to an end, Michael married his girlfriend of four months Niamh O’Brien – who had worked as his backing dancer for years.

In 2013, Michael told the Irish Mirror that he was the ‘the luckiest guy in the world’ to be with Niamh. What’s more, he said his wife doesn’t mind if he checks out other women.

He said: ‘I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But my wife knows me well and she loves me and I love her.

‘I’d like to think [my roving eye has retired] but, like I said, I admire beauty in everything and women are the most beautiful things in our world.’

Michael starring as spy Victor Blackley in his 2022 film  Blackbird, which was dubbed as an  ‘awful 007 rip-off’ by one critic

The couple share 15-year-old son Michael. In 2010, the dancer told the Daily Mail that ‘life doesn’t get any better’ than being greeted with a hug after a long day of work.

Following a series of injuries, Michael retired from dancing in 2017 – but attempted to re-invent himself as an actor last year.

The spy-film titled Blackbird, was written, directed, produced and financed by the dance star according to The Mirror. 

While The Telegraph called it an ‘awful 007 rip-off,’ the Irish Examiner wrote that it ‘will leave you rather more shaken than stirred’.

Jumping to his defence, Michael’s co-star Patrick Bergin told The Irish Times: ‘Michael is a very intelligent, successful person and some people resent that.’ 

Yesterday, supportive messages from celebrities and fans started to pour in for Michael after he revealed he had been diagnosed with cancer for a second time.

It is unknown if the diagnosis is linked to his previous battle with skin cancer. Michael was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma in 2003, which he revealed eight years ago for the first time.

He explained to the Irish Independent at the time: ‘It was purely by chance that it was noticed. I had never even noticed it…it can be a frightening place to be.’

Michael’s melanoma was spotted by an MTV viewer who noticed the symptoms of his condition during a television appearance.

Speaking about the experience, he said: ‘So many people who surround me have had cancer and so many people I know have died from it.

‘I was diagnosed with skin cancer myself and it was a very scary time. I sympathise with anybody who is lying on that bed and facing the uncertainty of the future. It can be a frightening place.

‘It was a malignant melanoma that I was diagnosed with. It was around 2003 and it was purely by chance that it was noticed.’

Michael previously spoke about how his 2003 cancer diagnosis changed his outlook on life, specifically his wealth and material possessions.

He said: ‘If I was in a position to go for everything, that intensified. And the value of friends, the value of loved ones — all of a sudden, material things faded away into the past.’

He told Russell Davies on BBC Radio 2: ‘My art and the people that I spend time with, are the things that I love most now. Cancer certainly gave me tremendous focus.’

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