TRAUMA can make or break a couple, as dancer and influencer Abbie Quinnen, 23, knows only too well.
After the freak fireball accident earlier this year that left her covered in horrific burns and facing years of hospital treatment, she couldn’t help lashing out at her boyfriend, former Strictly professional AJ Pritchard.
Sitting in the London apartment she shares with the 26-year-old star, tears roll down Abbie’s cheeks as she admits: “I did everything to push him away from me. I felt so traumatised, I hit out at the person who loved me the most.
“He was by my side from the moment I came out of hospital, cooking for me, rubbing creams and moisturisers into my scars four times a day, and telling me I was beautiful, not letting me lift a finger. He was keeping so calm and upbeat for me, but I was an emotional mess and I wanted him to be as devastated as I was.”
The gorgeous couple’s perfect life came to a shattering halt in January, when they decided to rehearse a YouTube life hack video for AJ and his Love Islander brother Curtis’ 1 million Instagram followers.
The hack showed how to cut a glass bottle in half so that it could be used as a vase.
The risky trick involves dipping a rope in a flammable chemical, wrapping it around the bottle and setting it alight. But within seconds of AJ lighting the rope, a terrified Abbie was engulfed in flames.
She was rushed to hospital by the panicked brothers, and suffered third-degree burns to her face, neck and upper body.
Abbie, who began dating AJ in 2019 after she was hired as a dancer for his Get On The Floor tour, says her whole world fell apart.
She suffered flashbacks to the petrifying moment she thought she was going to die, and went through skin grafts, infections and agonising pain.
Five days after the accident, she was advised by trauma therapists to look in the mirror – and could not stop crying for hours.
“I didn’t even recognise myself,” she says. “All I could see were burns all over my face. I didn’t know if they would heal, I just didn’t want to look at myself or let anyone else see me.
“It was during lockdown, but the doctors decided I needed to have one visit. AJ came in to see me, but I refused to allow him into the room. I couldn’t bear for him to see me. I also told him I wasn’t coming home; I was going to move back in to my mum’s. I just wanted to hide from the world – from everyone.”
AJ persuaded her to come home when she was discharged after a week at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, and saw her for the first time since the accident when he came to pick her up.
Abbie says he hugged her and told her that he loved her – but she was still afraid that it meant the end for their relationship.
“I spent all my time crying,” she says. “If he needed to go to work, I’d cry more, trying to guilt-trip him into staying home with me. I suppose I was just testing him all the time, and he just kept being really sweet and trying to help me.
“I remember that a few days after I’d been home, I started arguing with him. I kept asking him why wasn’t he more upset by what had happened. He went downstairs and after five minutes I followed him. He was standing in a room, making these awful animal crying noises, absolutely broken.
“He could barely speak. All he kept saying was, ‘I feel so guilty. It should have been me, not you.’ He feels so guilty because we only tried that YouTube trick for his Instagram and I was the one that got hurt, and that was tearing him up inside.
“I realised he’d been hiding his emotions from me because he was trying to keep it together to be strong for me. We both just cried and cried, and hugged each other, and we knew then that things would never be the same for us.”
Abbie says she does not blame AJ at all for the accident and has nothing but praise for the quick reactions of AJ and Curtis, who took her immediately to hospital when they realised an ambulance would take too long due to overstretched paramedics during Covid.
“AJ, Curtis and his whole family have been amazing,” she says. “They’ve all done everything they can to help both me and AJ.”
But ironically, it was AJ’s breakdown that really brought the two of them closer than ever, because it was then that Abbie realised how deeply he cared for her.
“We’ve been through this terrible thing together. He’s seen me at my worst and I’ve seen him at his best. Helping me, refusing to be pushed away, caring for me on every level. I’ve seen how true his love is, and we know after this we will be together forever,” she says.
Talking to Abbie, it is clear that she is still struggling with trauma and flashbacks from that night but – with the support of AJ, her mum Mandy, 53, and her elder sister Paige, 28 – she is pushing herself hard to recover and to look forward to a brighter future with her partner.
“I’m still living with this every day,” she says quietly.
“I thought I was going to die, and that has made me so fearful and paranoid. I check myself for lumps in my breast obsessively. I got all the moles on my body checked out and made AJ do the same because, in my mind, I have this fear that something else terrible is going to happen.
“And so to have AJ, my mum and my sister always being there is incredible, because you need that support to give you the push to do things.
“In hospital I had trauma therapy to deal with the way my face and body had changed. I had to look in the mirror and talk about how I felt. I actually found it really difficult and after three sessions I stopped.”
For most of her life, Abbie admits much of her focus has been on her looks and enviable figure. “Since I was little, people used to always say what a pretty girl I was. As a dancer, so much is about how you look, and so for my face and body to be so badly burnt, that was really hard to deal with,” she says.
“My wardrobe was full of crop tops, little vests, dresses and bikinis, and now I have to wear a compression vest for two more years. I can’t expose my skin to the sun.
“The laser treatment to reduce redness is painful and it makes your skin go black for a few days before it starts to take effect. So I have to think about dressing differently, buying lots of roll-neck tops.
“The first thing AJ bought me was a Burberry bucket hat to cover my face from the sun. That was so sweet but it also made me cry.”
Abbie adds: “I can’t dress to show off my figure now; I have to dress to hide and protect myself. I don’t go out without high-factor suncream in foundation and lots of make-up to cover the redness over my face.
“I have to drink lots of water and eat lots of protein to help my skin recover. AJ cooks me a version of Nando’s chicken with halloumi cheese, which I eat three or four times a week. And I drink water all the time because burnt skin is basically completely dehydrated.
“The doctors are so pleased with the way my skin is healing.”
In the first seven weeks after the accident, Abbie and AJ kept the news from everyone except their closest friends and family.
“I needed to come to terms with it before it was made public,” she says. And despite the immediate outpouring of sympathy, it took almost another month before she mustered up the courage to venture out, with AJ suggesting a trip to Kew Gardens to see the spring flowers.
“I’m really trying,” she says. “As much as I want to hide, walking and exercise are good. The first time we went out it was to Kew.
I was so nervous, but AJ kept telling me it would be all right, so I went. I was worrying all the time about people staring at me, but it was completely fine – no one said anything and it felt good to be in the fresh air.
“A few days ago we went for a meal outside. I almost burst into tears at the table, because it was such a huge step forward and I couldn’t have done it without AJ.”
Although Abbie suffers flashbacks to the devastating moment she was injured, she and AJ try to keep their focus on the future.
“As hard as it is, we try to be thankful for the positive things,” Abbie says.
“Our love for each other has never been deeper; it really has been forged in fire. We trust each other on a totally different level. My mum’s relationship with AJ and our family relationships are so strong now.”
AJ’s fanbase has also been hugely supportive – in contrast to the start of their relationship, when Abbie received death threats from jealous AJ obsessives, and police investigated a claim that one had even offered to pay £20,000 to have her killed.
She and AJ were advised to step up security measures, and the identity of the fan was never uncovered.
“I have had incredible support from his fans – whereas at the beginning of our relationship it wasn’t such an easy ride,”she says.
“AJ and I have been through some difficult times, but it has just made us stronger and closer. After this, he is the only man who could ever be in my life. We talk about getting married and having children, so that will happen in the next few years.
“In the meantime, I want to get back on my feet. I want to help others by talking about what I’ve been through, sharing everything I’m learning about make-up, clothes and how to deal with burns and scarring. I want to warn people about not trying dangerous YouTube videos at home. And I want to be as supportive of AJ as he has been of me.”
Abbie is unsure if she will need more operations, or how much scarring she will be left with long-term – but she has no intention of retiring any time soon.
Podcast you listened to?
I only ever listen to AJ and Curtis’ podcast (AJ Vs Curtis). It always makes me feel better.
TV show you loved?
Bridgerton. I’m a real romantic and I loved the story, the costumes, and the acting. I can’t wait for a second series.
Time you cried?
Around 20 minutes ago, talking about AJ breaking down.
Person you said “I love you” to?
That would be AJ. This morning. Every day.
Piece of great advice you were given?
One of my doctors told me that, in order to help myself, I should think about helping other people. That really stuck with me.
Person who inspired you?
I really admire Kim Kardashian-West for wanting to become a lawyer. She has already advocated for prison reform and helped champion the causes of various prisoners. And I’m in awe of Katie Piper’s strength and bravery.
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Although she is still waiting to find out when she will be well enough to start dancing again, she is hoping she will be able to regain her professional form.
“My plan is to be able to dance with AJ and Curtis on their tour in September [AJ & Curtis’ Big Night Out show, which will tour the UK] and to keep pushing myself, moving forward step-by-step.
“I have a man who has stood by me, who even at my worst has told me every day I am beautiful and I know is going to be there for me for the rest of my life. Things aren’t going to be easy, but I know I’m not on my own. And that’s all that matters.”
Hair: Dino Pereira using Kiehl’s Since 1851 Magic Elixir
Make-up: Aimee Adams using Sculpted By Aimee
Styling: Kate Barbour