When it comes to Dancing with the Stars, fans know what to expect, and that’s not a bad thing. The ballroom-dance competition reality show will have glitter, spandex, spray tans and Drama with a capital D as the show’s professional dancers whip a crop of E- and F- List stars into semi-professional samba dancers. The show never fails to live up to its fans expectations, which is how, in a sea of washed-up reality shows, Dancing with the Stars has managed to hold on for 16 seasons with very few changes to its dance-and-judge format.
Part of the formula that makes the show work is the chemistry between the very distinct personalities of the judges, who — along with hosts Tom Bergeron and Brook Burke-Charvat — have provided a constant for the show, allowing it to stay wonderfully the same while existing in its own dance-driven microcosm. There’s the gruff, traditionalist Len Goodman. The wildly dramatic Bruno Tonioli, who is prone to judging while crouched over the table as if ready to pounce on the contestants. And then there’s Carrie Ann Inaba, the enthusiastic, effusive assessor, whose emotions frequently overtake her, resulting in a sort of undulating full-body glee. The judges are an integral part of the show and not just because of their role as quick-step evaluators. Over the years, they have become stars in their own right and it’s hard to imagine anyone aside from Bruno, Len and Carrie Ann filling those ring-side seats. Luckily for fan of the show, these judges, unlike the ones on, say, American Idol, aren’t leaving any time soon.
As season 16 winds down, we sat down with Carrie Ann for a chat about the current season of DWTS, including her thoughts on why this season seems so dramatic; her new partnership with Skinny Cow, a chocolate she swears by; and who she thinks will take home the coveted Mirror Ball Trophy next week.
I’ve been recapping this show for several years, but this season seems extra dramatic. What do you think it is that is making the emotions run so high?
I think it’s because last season was so competitive because it was the All Stars Season, and this year, feels a lot more about the people and less about just the dancing and the technique. Last year, everyone was already good, because most of them had already won and their technique was good — they came back and we were really focused on the dancing and the technique. This year, is a lot more about the people and their own personal journeys while they are transforming on our show. Andy Dick, I think, sort of defines the season for me. It’s such an emotional journey to watch him struggle with himself and really be open and vulnerable. That takes courage. It’s easy to go out there and risk yourself when you think you are going to win and you have a good chance to win, but when you probably have no chance to win and you get out there and try just as hard and are not afraid to fail, that is really inspiring. I think that sort of opened up our hearts this year. We had some intense moments with DL [Hughley] at the beginning. I think it just got heated. I think for the judges, we just weren’t used to seeing such a low quality of dancing — he came out with so much ‘I’m going to be amazing,’ and he was not amazing. What ended up being amazing, though, was his journey. He ended up eating humble pie. That’s not easy. He took that humble pie and he went back to work and he got better. He made a transformation. And I think he learned a lot about himself in the process. That’s what we hope. It’s a dance show, but what I think the show is really about is transformation – people going through big changes, physical or emotional.
When a contestant was trying as hard as Andy Dick was, is it hard to give him a low score?
Yes, it is. But if they do a lift, I’m going to have to take a point off.
Speaking of that, how did you become the show’s lift police?
I don’t know why the other two are not! That’s the better question. There’s a paper on the desk that explains what lift is. It’s a rule! The question is really not why am I the lift police, but why aren’t Len and Bruno calling lifts? I guess that’s what makes the panel so unique. We all look for very different things. For them, I guess, a lift is not important, although it was a rule from the beginning. If they choose to ignore it that’s okay, I respect them.
With your panel dynamic, it does seem like you have very specific roles. When Len is having a, well, a tantrum, what is that like for you?
That was probably his biggest tantrum ever and, yes, I would call it a tantrum. He was looking for a certain amount of content, but at a certain point, certain people have proven to us that they have the technique down. What I’m looking for is, what goes beyond the technique, how you continue to excite us, are you still pushing your own boundaries. I think looking for specific steps is not what this is all about, but we need to have that on our panel. It’s very important that Len does that. Otherwise, they would end up all doing freestyle and that’s no good either. If it does become a freestyle, there is a line, but it’s subjective. It truly is. Len wanted more, I felt like there was plenty and gave the routine a 10, so did Bruno. Len did not and told us all about it.
In that case, isn’t that punishing the star for what the pro is doing? The star who is doing their best, and has no say in the choreography, and probably doesn’t know whether it’s freestyle or traditional. From what I understand, the judges are supposed to score solely on the star’s performance of the dance, not the choreography
I did read a few tweets that asked that same question, ‘I thought you guys were never supposed to judge the pros. If you punish them for content isn’t that choreography?’ I think that’s a very valid question and I was actually going to go talk to Len about that. It’s interesting that you guys are aware that we only judge the celebrities. That is our boundary, not to judge the pros.
It came up last year, when Karina Smirnoff slipped during a dance and started crying, and you all assured her that you weren’t judging the pro’s performance. People are aware of it now.
It’s a very good point and I’m going to bring it up with Len. It’s done and, you know, sometimes we make mistakes as judges. Not that I think Len’s was a mistake. He was very passionate about it, but he is old school. This year, we’ve added a lot of new styles like jazz and contemporary. Now there’s Afro jazz, which I’ve never heard of. That is some made-up categories and I love our producers for pushing the boundaries. But Len is much more comfortable in the ballroom and Latin dances. I think he holds on to the technique and the format and the old school and I respect him for that. But I don’t agree.
We saw Bruno step out on to the dance floor this season. Can we expect you out on the ballroom floor soon?
I’m just waiting for someone to ask! A lot of my friends have choreographed numbers for the show and asked for me to be in them, but it just hasn’t worked out. Also I have a really bad neck injury. I have spinal stenosis, so I can’t do anything. I can’t do any partnering. It’s really scary for me to go to a party with Dancing with the Stars fans because they all want to partner with me and I just can’t! I was told that if I was in a little fender-bender, I could be paralyzed. So I guess it’s serious. I try not to live with thinking about it, but I do get scared when fans want to dance with me.
Since you can’t go back to dancing professionally and you’ve been on the show for 16 seasons, what do you think is next for you? Not that you should go anywhere.
Nothing lasts forever. In this business you have to be aware that it’s cyclical. We’re so lucky that it’s been doing so well and that it has lasted so long, but everything comes to an end. I’m not wishing for it and the original version of the show has gone on for a long time in the UK and I think [this show] has the potential to go on for a long time. It feels like a family classic show. There are a lot of other things I want to do, though. I want to write a book. There’s a show I want to produce in Las Vegas. I’ve been working on producing some television shows and some internet shows. I love the internet. I think it’s such a great medium. It’s a democracy of ideas and we all have access to it to put our ideas out there. My big passion is rescuing animals. I started my animal foundation, and in October we’re doing a big gala, which I’m producing. It’s called Dancing for the Paws and Tony [Dovolani, a pro from DWTS] is going to dance! It will be a fun way to bring together my two passions of animals and dance.
So the rumors that you and Tony don’t like each other aren’t true?
No! But I love hearing these rumors! He came to one of my events! I know why people think that though — the first time I called a lift, it was on him, and he practically threw the lift book at me. But that was way back in season three. People get passionate and their feelings do get hurt and I understand if they don’t really want to talk to us for a season. It’s okay. I don’t think it means they don’t respect us or don’t like us, they’re just hurt. There’s never any malicious intent for any of us, though. We all three come from the world of dancing. We all three know what it’s like to put yourself out there. I think that’s made us more of a compassionate judging panel, but sometimes things happen.
Who is your favorite to win this season?
As far as my scores go, I think Zendaya [Coleman] has gotten the highest scores from me. I love the way she interprets music when she dances. It’s a full-body interpretation. I think Kellie Pickler is a fantastic dancer. I don’t know if she’s always really in tune with her emotions. She’s always very concerned with the technique. I think she had a breakthrough on the paso, and I hope it continues. I’m hard on her because I know the finals are coming,and if she thinks there’s nothing else to work on, she’s not going to improve. In the finals, people vote for you when you surprise them and you give them something new. If you’re the same, the audience gets bored very quickly. The audience loves to see a breakthrough, they love to see something unexpected. I push people to do that, because I’ve been on the show for 16 seasons, and I know what works. I’m always trying to give people hints on how to win.
Speaking of Zendaya, when you’re pitting a 16-year-old against someone like DL Hughley who is 50, do you think the show is stacking the deck a bit?
No, because not all 16-year-olds could handle the pressure. Our show is tremendous on your emotions. It’s physically exhausting, the hours are crazy, and she’s also going to school. I worked on a show called American Juniors, and it was so hard for the kids to balance. She’s able to grasp that it’s a television show, which isn’t always easy. She’s able to grasp that the comments are about the dancing, not her. When it’s a younger child or a teenager, I worry that they will misinterpret what’s said on the show or on social media, because there is a lot out there.
Kellie Pickler’s experience facing a panel of judges on American Idol must give her some advantage when it comes to weathering criticism. Even when Len’s at his worst, he’s no Simon Cowell.
I worked with Kellie on Idol [as a choreographer] and that is a different situation, because on that show, it is everyone’s dream to become a singer. It’s not everyone’s dream to become a ballroom dancer. It’s not nearly as hard on your soul to get negative feedback. Although some people really get into it and forget that they aren’t going to be a professional ballroom dancer, but I do think that’s a big difference between our show and a lot of other shows. There’s nothing at risk, except your ego. We give a really cheap trophy. It’s a big old mirror ball, that does not cost that much, but it means a lot to people, because it’s a good old-fashioned sporting competition.
Is Maks Chmerkovskiy coming back? He was always a fan favorite.
I don’t know. I don’t know what the producers will choose. He came back once this season, so I don’t think there’s any bad blood necessarily. I try to stay away from it. As a judge, we don’t have any meetings on the set, we don’t go to the set, we’re never allowed near the dancers. We’re never near the celebs. We aren’t allowed in the studios during rehearsals. It’s nice, because as a judge I don’t want to know what’s going with the dancers. As a judge you want to stay neutral. Tom [Bergeron] has a party in the middle of the year for the cast, but we never go. I want to support Tom, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to mix with people. I don’t want it to affect my judgment.
You are obviously a live show, what is that experience like as a judge?
Everyone else on the show — from stage managers to Tom and Brooke — knows what they are doing on the show. Everyone except for the three judges. As much as it looks like an easy show for us, the half-hour before the show is the most stressful times of my life. I just don’t know if I will be able to come up with something to say. Will I be able to see everything? Will I be alert enough? People think it’s scripted, but we all see what it is and react in the moment.
Are Bruno and Len exactly the same in real life?
Bruno is a little calmer, a little more quiet, he reads the newspaper a lot. Len likes to play golf. They are both lovely. I am so lucky to be working with them.