THE Royal Ballet conjures images of milky skin and tutus - a traditional and closed world for the elite.

But 23-year-old Francesca Hayward is different.

Born in Kenya's bustling capital before moving in with her grandfather above his pharmacy in Worthing, her route to ballet stardom has been anything but traditional.

What's more, she's mixed race

Thankfully the colour of one's skin means very little these days and goes largely unnoticed in most sections of society.

But not in the world of ballet.

Arts reporters up and down the country have filled countless column inches talking about her influence, her new found status and her being an emblem for diversity.

But all modest Francesca wants to be known for is her dancing.

She said: “I just don’t think of it. If someone wants to say how wonderful it is then obviously yes, I am proud to be English and mixed-race, but I’ve never thought of it like that. I don’t think of myself as mixed-race. I’m just Francesca.”

Her belief in talent over background is modest yet unintentionally powerful.

“I’m doing what I do and that's why I’m here, not because of the colour of my skin or whatever nationality I am,” she says firmly. “I don’t want any label attached to me, apart from hopefully being a good dancer.”

She added: “I don’t think it even crosses anyone’s minds. Everyone is so diverse and it’s one big melting pot. It doesn’t matter where you come from. It never even crossed my radar before, especially not here at the Royal Ballet School.”

She laughs warmly and adds: “It’s only recently that people have brought it to my attention.”

Born in Nairobi in 1992 she moved to Worthing aged just two to live with her grandparents - where she fell in love with ballet.

Inspired by a video of The Nutcracker, she danced with armchairs above her grandfather’s Worthing pharmacy and hasn’t stopped since.

Aged three she went to the Valerie LeServe School of Ballet and Theatre Dance, in Tarring Road, Worthing, where her talent was spotted.

At 11 she joined the Royal Ballet School after which she won a series of major prized including the 2009 Lynn Seymour Prize, the 2010 Young British Dancer of the Year as well as prizes at the 2010 Genée International Ballet Competition.

Since graduating from the Royal Ballet School to the Royal Ballet Company in 2011 she has risen from first artist in 2013 to first soloist this year.

Already in her short career she has performed some of ballet's most famous roles including Manon, Princess Stephanie and Fairy of the Songbird.

However, her biggest role to date will undoubtedly be that as the incomparably classic Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Opera House, opening on Friday.

But the assured 23-year-old does not seem fazed by performing as one of the most iconic female heroines of all time.

She said: “I always try not to copy anyone in particular. I like to watch others to get inspiration and ideas but I try to do it in my own way.”

She is also serene about the intense physical and mental demands, her every word conveying a profound and deeply-rooted love for ballet.

“You just have to keep doing it. There are moments when you’re not sure how you’re going to get through it, but the more you do it, the more you realise that you felt like that before, and you did make it.”

Her rapid rise to prominence harkens to her portrayal of Manon, a memory that she lights up at.

Talking of the marathon three act classic, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan to music by Jules Massenet, she said: “Manon was incredible – kind of surreal though.

"Usually you build up to that role. It is unusual for a young dancer who hasn’t actually done even a three act ballet to be given that role. It still feels like I didn’t really do that, it feels like it was all a dream.”

Given her rise through the ranks, she is keen to promote ballet's inclusiveness as well as its wide appeal.

“I think the scariness is an idea we need to break because it’s definitely not. I think a lot of people would be surprised to know they can get tickets more cheaply, I would say, than going to see a musical or a football game. If people are doing a trip to London, you can’t really beat ballet. Give it a go. I think they’ll walk out feeling quite surprised.”

She welcomes the idea of more people attempting ballet and while she encourages people to learn and excel from youth, she maintains that age is no barrier. “I think anyone at any age can attempt it,” she said, “there are so many fantastic dancers who started very late. If you’ve got talent then it doesn’t really matter.”

Her enthusiasm and love for the profession is magnetic and she talks animatedly about how both audience and participants can appreciate and enjoy ballet without moulding themselves into the traditional image.

“People should realise that ballet is for everyone. When you come to the opera house it’s not some scary elitist kind of place. There are so many different types of people that come to the ballet. Everyone comes out feeling quite mesmerised and hopefully they’ve been surprised in a good way. They didn’t think the ballet could be like that and it really moved and impressed them.”

Despite her work being largely in London, Sussex and in particular Worthing, hold very fond memories.

She said: “I’ve come back a few times but I haven’t recently been able to because I’ve been so busy. I still have a few very close family friends here and I try to visit them when I can. I’ve been to Brighton many times for the weekend. I love it in Brighton.”

Francesca’s plans for the future are as vibrant as her already gleaming repertoire and she plans to explore role and character as much as she can, seeming to consider promotion as a bonus and not a goal.

“I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t like to be a principal dancer,” she laughs, “but I would like to do as many roles as possible. When I retire I’d like to look back on so many different classics and know that I’ve achieved them as best as I could.

“There’s this wonderful piece by Ashton called Margeurite and Armand. For me, that’s the pinnacle of everything and I’d love to do that before I retire.”

Hopefully for her - and any lovers of ballet - that won't be for some time.

Francesca makes her debut as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Opera House on Friday, October 23. You can also see her dancing the role of Clara in The Nutcracker live in your local cinema on Wednesday, December 16 at 7.15pm and on Sunday, December 27 at 2pm. More details at