With some of “Dancing With the Stars” top champions and fan favorites returning to the ballroom for an all-star season, it’s already shaping up to be a knock-down, drag-out competition – and the first episode hasn’t even aired yet.
“I just left rehearsal and I'm not happy with myself,” a downbeat Gilles Marini told PopcornBiz recently, his jaw clenched with frustration. “So I want to do better.”
It looks like things are getting pretty serious on the fun little dance show, which premieres at 8 p.m. ET on ABC Monday night.
Season 15’s all-star gathering consists of some of “DWTS” heaviest hitters, teamed with its now seasoned celebrity-wrangling dance pros: Marini is paired with Peta Murgatroyd (who won the previous season with NFL star Donald Driver); Kirstie Alley reteams with former partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy; “Baywatch” Pamela Anderson dances with Tristan MacManus; racer Helio Castroneves is paired with Chelsie Hightower; Joey Fatone reunites with original partner Kym Johnson; Olympian Shawn Johnson is teamed with Derek Hough; Drew Lachey dances with Anna Trebunskaya; Kelly Monaco pairs with Val Chmerkovskiy; Olympian Apolo Anton Ono gets a new partner in Karina Smirnoff; Bristol Palin dances with Mark Ballas; Melissa Rycroft is matched again with partner Tony Dovolani; Sabrina Bryan partners with Louis Van Amstel; and retired NFL legend Emmitt Smith re-teams with original partner Cheryl Burke.
“DWTS” host Tom Bergeron said the all-star session was a long time in coming, from discussions early on in the series’ life cycle to almost happening in Season 14. “[Executive producer] Conrad Green and I were adamant about doing it a year ago,” Bergeron tells PopcornBiz, “but I just think with 14 seasons under our belt, we have a wonderful cast of characters to draw from and a great history, now, of seven years. And I think going into a fall season, when the competition for eyeballs is so intense, is the perfect time to do it.”
Bergeron believes that the collection of much-loved celebrity competitors will really put the influence of viewer voting to the test as they struggle to pick a standout from a collection of favorites. “The fan bases are ALWAYS a factor,” says Bergeron. “I think certainly it will play a big part here. The random factor, for me – or the X-factor, at the risk of getting a copyright infringement suit from Simon Cowell – is that we don't know how these people, some of whom will have new partners, some of whom will be competing against other former champions, will see that change the dynamic. How does the change of seven or four years impact your ability?"
Changed dynamic or not, the stars and dancers are looking forward to returning.
"I'm going to rehearse a lot more and I'm going to try and stay out of trouble because I'm a self-sabotager – and I'm sworn off men until November!” laughs
Anderson, who in her stint on Season 10 won more devotion for her quick-witted quips and sexy outfits than for her footwork. She says she’s more determined than ever to court the viewer vote.
“I didn't realize how important that was last time,” she tells PopcornBiz. “I'm locked and loaded and ready to blast off.”
Still, she’s not exactly counting on taking home the coveted Mirror Ball trophy. “I'm looking at all these people, getting more and more nervous as I was realizing that it's a bunch of winners, and Tom also said that most of the people up there were finalists. Not me. So I think be here for comic relief!”
Marini said he was initially motivated by his enjoyment of his first experience of the show (he placed second in Season 8) and wanted to pay back the fans who supported him. “I was glad at having a second run on the dance floor, not to say, 'I've got to win this,'” he says, “No – I'm glad that I have it and it's going to be amazing to be able to entertain people again because that's where the wow factor comes in to you. You feel it, you breathe and you make people so thrilled."
A few weeks after that enthusiastic appraisal to PopcornBiz, Marini admits it’s been far more challenging than he expected. “I am hurt,” he reveals. “My Achilles as we speak is on fire – but it's okay. I will pull it through."
Murgatroyd expects the other competitors to give her and Marini a particularly fierce run for the trophy this season. “I think it's going to be tough because everyone has their little claim to fame from the past seasons. And everyone has moves and stuff that they're known for and what they're good at.”
“The beauty about this season is that everyone's done the show and they know how humbling it is, so I think everybody's going to come into it wanting to have fun,” says pro dancer Johnson. “This is a season for the fans."
But pro dancer Smirnoff says the real pressure will be on the dancers, not the celebs.
“Take this scenario: someone who has won in the past gets a different partner and they don't go all the way, don't even go to the finals. Who's at fault? Who do you think they're going to think is at fault? The dancer. So the dancers have their work cut out for them," she says.
Not that that scares her.
"We have to come up with routines that have never been danced before on 'Dancing With The Stars.' I think as much as it might be a difficult season it also creates a platform for something great to happen. I think that's what All Stars is about. It's about creating something magical, something memorable, something that a whole culture will talk about," she says.
For his part, Bergeron plans to closely monitor the potentially fragile celebrity psyches, especially if they go from first in their original season to worst in All-Stars. “How horrible would it be to be the first person in the All Star season to be voted off?” he chuckles. “We'll have a therapist standing by.”