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Ben Cohen and Kristina Rihanoff met when they were partnered on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in 2013, and a year later they fell head over heels in love. Now the couple are happily settled with their family in the peaceful countryside.
When we Zoom call the couple to catch up before our gorgeous at-home family shoot, we’re greeted by a glowing Kristina who playfully yells up the stairs and tells Ben off for being late. “I’m sorry I’m late – I was watering my plants,” Ben says as he joins us with their Labrador puppy, Ray.
“I’ve found lockdown very hard on my mental health. Looking after my indoor plants has really helped!” he adds.
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The 42-year-old former rugby player and his professional dance partner girlfriend, 43, who are parents to adorable four-year-old Milena, or Mila as they call her, tell us their family is complete and they are putting all their focus into their new wellbeing centre, Soo Yoga, in Northampton.
“No more children for us,” laughs Kristina. “A dog is enough.”
Kristina also tells us about her relationship with Ben’s 13-year-old twins, Harriette and Isabelle, from his previous marriage, describing them as “such amazing girls”, while Ben calls them his “best mates”.
Here, the cute couple open up on life as a blended family, their struggles as new business owners in lockdown and the pressures of homeschooling…
Hey guys! How has the last year been for you?
Kristina: Really tough. It feels like there is no end to it. It’s really played on everyone’s mental health.
Ben: Thankfully we live out in the countryside, but I found the dark days really tough. Luckily we have each other. For us, going into business together during lockdown has been testing.
Kristina: It has been challenging as new business owners. We’ve had to do all of our classes virtually and we’ve got half the amount of people we would have during this lockdown. I think it’s been so difficult for people to motivate themselves, juggling homeschooling and work commitments.
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So it’s been a stressful time?
Kristina: Yes. Trying to run a new business isn’t easy as it is, never mind adding a pandemic to that. We also count on doing lots of personal appearances as a part of our work and that’s all been taken away. It’s very overwhelming. We have no personal support from the government.
Ben: My last job was 13 months ago and I’ve had no support, which has taken its toll. Having a new business, not being
able to earn, I’ve found that really hard. As someone who’s self-employed, I haven’t had any help. When you come back to the business and you’re standing still, you feel completely lost because you don’t have any guidance. And to grow a business like that, it’s incredibly tough. From the mental health side of things, that’s something I’ve found really difficult.
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Do you think it’s important to be open about your mental health?
Kristina: Yeah! If you don’t have each other to talk to then what’s the point in the relationship? You have to open up and talk about the darker things. It’s wrong for anyone to ridicule other people and say they don’t believe someone is struggling. Like with Meghan Markle [who recently opened up about her suicidal thoughts], it’s wrong to say, “I don’t believe you’re struggling with your mental health.” That’s the worst thing you can say to anyone. Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan, to dismiss anyone’s mental health is unkind.
Ben: I’ve had my really low points. But people don’t speak about their weaknesses because they don’t have support for it. We’ve got to find a balance after lockdown.
Has it been nice to spend some quality time with Mila during lockdown?
Kristina: Yeah. We have a house full of girls. Ben’s twins are teenagers and it’s been really tough for them. They are missing their friends. Life is digital now and it’s too different. They need that personal connection, it’s not good for them to express their feelings purely through text.
How did you find homeschooling?
Kristina: With Mila, homeschooling has been so hard. I’m a mum, I’m not a teacher. It’s such a stressful environment to give our children
so much homework. The government advises three hours a day. How can I pin my child down for that long? I did 45 minutes a day
and the rest we would spend dancing, being in the gym or going out for walks. I’m trying my best, but that pressure is awful!
What is Mila into?
Kristina: The iPad and dancing.
Ben: She’s quite self-sufficient and independent. I suppose it’s having two older sisters and they just adore each other.
Kristina: She loves performing. Every night she’d lock herself in her room and record herself [laughs].
Would you mind her following in your footsteps as a dancer, Kristina?
Kristina: I don’t want her to be a competitive dancer and follow in my footsteps completely. I think it’s a really tough world and I don’t want her to go through what I did. I’d like her to do performing arts. I do believe that exposing kids to activities at a young age is good – it gave me really good discipline and a way of expressing myself in ways I couldn’t through words. The stage and dance school is where I always felt myself.
Are the twins Harriette and Isabelle growing up fast?
Kristina: Yes, they are such amazing girls.
Ben: They are my best mates. They have their heads screwed on and aren’t crazy teens just yet.
Kristina: Like any teens they are into their hair and make-up. They are really sweet and innocent. It’s lovely and they are so good with Mila.
Are you proud of being a happy blended family?
Kristina: Yeah. They had a colourful life before lockdown because we took them to fun TV shows. We’re trying to show them the world and go on lovely holidays together, which we can’t wait to do!
Do you feel your family is complete now, or would you like more children?
Kristina: No! No more children. We have three girls and the dog is a boy. That is that. We don’t need any more – the house is full.
Is marriage on the cards?
Ben: We’ve both been married before and will do it again at some point, but not right now. We can’t add any more to our plate at the moment with three kids, a dog and the business. We don’t want to get married in a half-hearted registry office. We don’t want a big affair either, but we want to be able to enjoy it. It also costs a lot of money!
Kristina: We will at some point in the future. We want to have a safe place where people can enjoy themselves, but the whole world is on hold. For the moment I feel like our unit is stronger than marriage.
Kristina, what kind of proposal would you like?
Kristina: I just want to go somewhere warm [laughs].
Ben: I’ll bring her a ring tied to a hot water bottle. [To Kristina] That’ll warm you up.
Kristina: I want to get on a plane and go to somewhere like the Maldives.
Ben: We’d want a family affair with the three girls involved. We’d go to a nice island and make it a real adventure.
Ben, is Kristina’s hard work ethic something that you admire about her?
Ben: Yeah. Kristina is our little superhero. She gets an unfair rap. She works incredibly hard and that’s something that I need.
Kristina: I don’t know any other way. With dancing, discipline was something that was embedded in me from when I was little.
I don’t ever want to let anyone down. It’s a Russian way.
Ben: I don’t think it’s just a Russian way. When you’re an optimist and a competitor, you can’t dwell. If you dwell you’ll never improve. I found my transition out of sport incredibly difficult. I’ve written a TV show about life after sport, prison, the services and more. It’s about how the system does let you down. Sport is definitely one of those systems that doesn’t help. I became world class in something that wasn’t transferable. Us setting up Soo Yoga was to give us longevity. We had to think of what was next. It’s been a good journey but it’s been hard.
Why do you think that transition is so difficult, Ben?
Ben: The problem is that when you finish sport and you go into the TV industry, you’re in a whole different world. You meet some really nice and some not very nice people! All sportsmen and women find the transition from sport at a professional level to screen isn’t always a smooth or easy one. But with great support I’ve found my confidence in front of the camera – and I’m really enjoying it!
Kristina, what was it about Ben that caught your eye?
Kristina: We are similar in a lot of ways. We’re both hard-working people with sporting backgrounds, so I recognised
that he would be loyal and strong. There are a lot of qualities that I really admire. Sometimes he’s really honest [laughs],
but I wouldn’t have it any other way. You have to support each other through good and bad. We’re there for each other.
Have there been many hurdles along the way?
Ben: Of course having a relationship in the public eye comes with hurdles. It can be hard to be scrutinised, but we know our story and we’re at peace with that.
Kristina: It’s frustrating, but you grow a thick skin.
You left Strictly in 2015, Kristina. Would you ever return to the show?
Kristina: There’s always a rumour I’m coming back to Strictly! It’s never going to be a positive answer. Strictly gave me everything in my personal and professional life. I really cherish my friendship with the people I worked with. Throughout the lockdown, I’ve had so much support from Janette Manrara and Aljaž Škorjanec, Karen Hauer and Anton Du Beke. They even did virtual dance classes for my dance school! I’m so grateful for their friendship.
Ben: You left on good terms, which is great. But you took that step away. I can’t see how it would work for Kristina to go back as a dancer.
Kristina: I’m too old now!
Ben: It would be different to go back as a judge because it would take no time at all and you could work around it. But a dancer is 12 hours [work] a day.
Would you like to be a judge, Kristina?
Kristina: It’s something I’d like to do. Not even just on Strictly, but to be part of a show that gives a platform to other talents would be amazing.
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