"Dancing With the Stars" has built a reputation as a ballroom competition for actors, athletes and musicians, plus the sporadic politician and media personality.
"I always say it's the most bizarre dinner party you'll ever put together," said co-executive producer Deena Katz. "You start with a group of people that you don't necessarily expect to be in the same room, and then somehow, once you meet them all, it makes sense."
And over the last 15 years, the occasional reality star or two has joined the fun: "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" siblings Kim and Rob Kardashian, "The Osbournes" kin Kelly and Jack Osbourne, "Little Women: L.A." star Terra Jole and "Duck Dynasty" daughter Sadie Robertson. Four "Real Housewives" - Lisa Vanderpump, NeNe Leakes, Kim Zolciak-Biermann and Erika Jayne - have participated in the series (Lisa Rinna competed before "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" began). Even "Jackass" mastermind Steve-O and "Honey Boo Boo" herself, Alana Thompson, have gone for the mirror ball trophy.
But this season - the franchise's 29th, which kicked off Monday on ABC - will not only be known as the one filmed with a new host, a familiar judge and under COVID-19-compliant guidelines. It will also be the one that unabashedly opened its dinner-party doors to the very famous faces of reality television. The group competing on the ballroom floor this fall includes "Catfish" creator Nev Schulman, "Tiger King" personality Carole Baskin, "Cheer" coach Monica Aldama, "Selling Sunset" Realtor Chrishell Stause and Kaitlyn Bristowe, the ninth "DWTS" contestant from the "Bachelor" and "Bachelorette" franchise. (Host Tyra Banks, whose "America's Next Top Model" ran for 24 seasons, is no slouch when it comes to reality TV cred, either.)
Although "Dancing With the Stars" has always pulled its reality-TV talent from various networks in the space - E!, Bravo, TLC, MTV, Lifetime and its parent network, ABC - this year's crop is most notable for featuring three from Netflix, reflecting the streamer's aggressive push into unscripted genres. (Karamo Brown, of "Queer Eye" fame, kicked off the trend last year.) It's a tangible example of how much culture at large is shaped by reality TV, which, thanks to Netflix, now includes star-making docuseries like "Cheer" and "Tiger King" alongside more traditional fare like "KUWTK" and "Housewives."
"It's really important that this cast has people that everyone's talking about right now, as if the season is just a slice of what's going on right now," Katz told The Times.
Producers of the competition consider the significant proportion of reality TV stars in this season's cast another example of the dance competition's ability to adapt over the years, as it's periodically brought in notable names from platforms like YouTube and Vine. And while the long-running series isn't necessarily the authority on what's considered cool, perusing through its past lineups feels like thumbing through time capsules of past pop culture phenomena: remember America's fascination with "Jersey Shore" cast members Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi and Michael "The Situation" Sorrentino, or Kate Gosselin of "Jon and Kate Plus 8" fame?
"Way back in Season 1, influencers, YouTube, Netflix - they really weren't around, so you didn't have this bigger pool of people to reach out to that we have now," said Katz. "We had to evolve as culture evolved if we wanted to stay relevant."
The reality stars were to compete alongside talk show host Jeannie Mai; musicians AJ McLean and Nelly (who had his own reality show on BET); former athletes Charles Oakley, Vernon Davis and Johnny Weir; and actors Anne Heche, Justina Machado, Jesse Metcalfe and Skai Jackson. And as with any season, no particular person's following alone can guarantee a championship.
"It can't just be people that you know about or may have heard about, it has to be people who you're going to be with every Monday night, because you want to get to know them more, watch their journey and root for them every week," Katz said. "You want to laugh and cry along with them, whether or not you know where they're from."
That's more important than ever for "Dancing With the Stars," one of the few network titles returning to the fall TV schedule amid the pandemic. "On top of everything, they're all wonderful, warm and fun people to be around," said executive producer Andrew Llinares. "I think that's ultimately what we want the show to be right now: a place where, for two hours each week, you can forget about everything we've been through this year, and just have a wonderful time."
Except "Tiger King," of course. Who could forget that?
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