Flash Dancer

Jerry Springer describes the thrill of no victory and the agony of da feet on his 2006 ”Dancing With the Stars” run.

In the fall of 2006, the producers of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars asked Jerry Springer, Outrageous Talk Show Host, to be a contestant on their program. Funny thing: the person who showed up was Jerry Springer, Regular Guy. Witty, self-deprecating, and disarming (“At my age, we don’t shake hips, we replace them,” he quipped on air), Springer charmed viewers and made it through an astonishing seven weeks of competition, ending with a hankie-worthy moment with his daughter, Katie, whose upcoming wedding had prompted him to do the reality show. By the time he was eliminated, he was begging to be voted off the island, er, dance floor. Linda Vaccariello caught up with the city’s prodigal son and got him to spill the inside story of his ballroom adventure.

The people who produce Dancing with the Stars must have been drinking. They called, and I said no. Not out of any disrespect, but I don’t know how to dance. Plus, everyone on the show is in their 20s. Thirties, maybe. So I obviously was too old for it and I didn’t think it was appropriate. But I thanked them a lot for considering me. Well, they called again three or four weeks later. I have no idea why or what was going on, but they said, “We’d like you to reconsider.” And NBC, which owns our show, said, “Oh, do it! It’s a popular show.” Then my daughter, Katie, was the final factor. She said, “Dad, this will be great. You can dance at my wedding.” Once she said to do it, I figured what the heck? But I said, “Remember honey, this was your idea.”

I really hadn’t seen the show before. I knew that it was popular, but I don’t get a chance to really watch television during the week unless it’s news. The way they explained it was that you’re go- ing to be assigned to a professional dancer, and she will teach you to dance. Don’t worry that you don’t know how to dance, because that’s the idea: none of the people know how to dance. Which, of course, was totally untrue. That was a set-up. They must have been chuckling in the back- ground. Everyone was better than me. I understand that people were voting for all kinds of reasons, but in terms of pure dancing, I didn’t belong on that show.

My partner was Kym Johnson, who is Australian. She must have been arrested for something, sent to America, and this was her punishment. Seriously, she was perfect. Just a sweet, charm- ing young lady, and totally the right disposition. But it really wasn’t fair to her. All the other professional dancers got to dance with talented people, and here she gets a 62-year-old guy, who is, uh…challenged. So she couldn’t really do her stuff. She won Dancing with the Stars in Australia; it’s a huge thing there. Everyone’s running up on stage, the confetti’s fall- ing, her family’s hugging her, it’s great. And then they announce her prize is to go to America and be on Dancing with the Stars here! They put her on the jet, fly her to L.A., the limo picks her up, takes her to the studio, they sit her down and they say, “Your partner’s Jerry Springer.”

And that’s exactly how they did it. She had no idea. As she tells it, her reaction was “What’s that going to be like?” Because she only knew me from my show. But it turned out to be great. She never complained, she was laughing the whole way. She really got into the spirit of it.

They sat us all down and told us what the rules are. Like, you can’t do lifts and you can’t do splits. I’m going, What?!! I raised my hand and everyone just started laughing. I said, “Are you telling me I’m not allowed to do a split? Damn!”

It was absurd. So I said to Kym, let’s put something together that you think a 62-year-old man could physically do. Keep in mind my age and the fact that I’m not an athlete, and then let’s try to add some comedy to it. There’s no way I’m going to win on technique. This is an entertainment show, so let’s be entertaining. Think of this as a circus. You have all the other people doing the high wire acts, and then the clown comes in. She was great about it.

I started training for the first dance. But it was only for the first dance. You don’t know what the next dance is until they tell you each Wednesday night, so it isn’t like you can spend months lining up five dances. Plus, I figured I’d be gone after the first week, so it wasn’t like I was worried what the next dance would be.

When I realized I was staying, it was unsettling at first, because I kept wondering, what am I going to do? I have a regular job! I had made no plans to be in L.A. They got me a hotel for one week. Everyone else, they booked ’em for a month. No one thought I was going to last past the first week!

So we changed the schedule. I would come back to Chicago on Thursday morning and tape three shows on Thursday and three shows on Friday, then I’d rehearse Saturday and Sunday. I didn’t want to make a total fool of myself; I wanted to respect the dance and learn something about it. I did work very hard; I wasn’t just mailing it in. What you saw was my best. It’s just that my best was pathetic.

Backstage—this is God’s truth—everyone was so nice to me. Whatever competition existed with all the others, they expressed none of that to me. Of course, I was old enough to be everyone’s father. But it was friendly, supportive-“Go get ’em, Jerry! You can do it!” Totally a nice experience, and I appreciated it.

What was funny was that every week, before the show, the others are doing their stretches, everyone’s quiet, they’re really concentrating-and I’m sitting there eating my cheeseburger. The first week, I didn’t think anything about it. I was hungry, because you’re doing it at 5 o’clock in the evening. But every week, I’m the only one eating. No one eats. It’s unbelievable. They have a special cafeteria for the people on the show, all these trays of food, and every week the guy says I’m the only one up there. That just amazed me. How can they dance and not eat? Kym explained that it’s probably not a good idea to eat right before you dance. And I said “What? How’s it going to change anything? I should be hungry, too?”

There was some drama, and there were love interests [among some of the couples]. First of all, they’re young, they’re attractive people, and most of them were single. So why wouldn’t it happen? And some of them were very intense. What I found interesting-I think only one or two of the professional dancers were American. For them, it’s a chance to get exposure in America. If you’re a professional dancer and you have a chance to be on American television in front of 20 million people every week, that’s a big deal. That dawned on me pretty quickly: it’s big for them.

This is clearly a career boost for a lot of the people on the show, particularly because most of them are young. Joey Lawrence and Mario Lopez-they were the two most competitive. They both had been, in a sense, child stars, so now they’re at a point where do their careers go from here? So this was important. Really, I was the only one who it didn’t affect in terms of career, just because of age. For the others, yeah, this could be a great step for them.

Toward the end I felt bad because I was replacing people who really were good dancers.  When they were keeping me instead of Vivica Fox or Willa Ford, it didn’t make sense. And that’s when I started saying on the air, “You have to vote me off!” The people running the show would say, “You can’t do that.” I said, “It’s for your own good.” If someone like me wins, then next year whoever the celebrity is will just start making jokes and it won’t be about dancing any more. So if they wanted to keep the show Dancing with the Stars, it had to be dancers who were winning. Besides, things hurt. I don’t exercise. I was very sore. Honestly, I would say that only a few days ago did my left knee stop bothering me.

I just finished a week taping the George Lopez sitcom in L.A. There are some movie offers, TV show offers, and an offer to go on the tour with Dancing with the Stars-just to join them on some stops. Every day there’s someone offering you something. I didn’t anticipate that. That has kind of always been there–just because I’m known, not because I deserve it–but there has been an uptick.

I guess people saw me in a different light on this show. Most of America, all they know is The Jerry Springer Show. So why should they have a good opinion of me? What’s interesting is that this is the first time in my life that I’ve been me on television. I’m always playing a role. I’m always being a crazy talk show host, or I’m the news anchor, or I’m the mayor. But this time I was a regular person without a title. That’s what I felt was strange. After about the fourth or fifth week, it struck me. Everyone was being so nice, and nice articles were being written about me, which is not normally the case. And I thought: You know what, it’s the first time it’s just been me-the schlub trying to do something right, and not get ting it. I think if there was a connection [with people], it was that. That’s my analysis.

Something else that was different is it was the first time I really talked on television about my daughter. It just kind of came out in an interview, and [reporters] leaped on it. I talk- ed to Katie about this, and I said, “Honey, we’ll put a stop to this in a second.” But she was kind of OK with it, so I felt OK with it because it was about her wedding, and it’s just such a happy event. But it’s not an opening (to discuss family matters). There’s the wedding, and then we’re done.

When I was eliminated, it was wonderful. I thought if I stayed on another week it would really have hurt the show. There’d be a backlash. It’s such a good family show, why mess around with it? So there was great relief in that. And then I was overcome because everyone was so nice. It was overwhelming. It turned out to be just a lovely experience. I’m really lucky. It’s a dream life and I’m just going along for the ride.

This story originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Cincinnati Magazine.

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