Dancing With the Stars producers introduced a groundbreaking element in this year’s competition, coinciding with the TV powerhouse’s 30th anniversary — a same-sex pairing. Viewers and judges have had a strong reaction to the sight of YouTube star/singer JoJo Siwa swaying with past Mirror Ball champion Jenna Johnson Chmerkovskiy — they’ve been met with nothing but enthusiasm. Now, they’re headed into next week’s competition at the top of the leaderboard, having scored 24 points for last week’s routine.
Johnson Chmerkovskiy took time out of a busy rehearsal week to chat with TV Insider about her pairing with Siwa, audience reaction to the same-sex element, her husband Val Chmerkovskiy’s pairing with influencer Olivia Jade, the return of judge Len Goodman, host Tyra Banks’ outfits and more!
Read on for a candid conversation.
You look like you’re having a lot of fun this season.
Jenna Johnson Chmerkovskiy: Seriously, it’s the best time. It’s such a joy to be able to perform with JoJo. You could see it on my face when we did this week’s dance. I was so happy with how it went.
You earned not only four 8’s but also high praise from Len Goodman, arguably the show’s sternest judge.
I don’t take either the judges’ comments or the scores for granted. I was shocked seeing all those 8’s. Len’s compliments mean a lot. It can feel challenging to please the judges at times but his comments sent me over the moon. It’s giving us motivation and excitement going into next week.
In 1989, advertisers reportedly pulled out of an episode of ABC’s thirtysomething over a scene showing two men in bed merely talking after they’d have sex. There hasn’t been an uproar over two women dancing each week. We’ve come a long way.
I had a lot of stress and anxiety going into this season. I was so sure of what JoJo and I were doing but I had no idea how everyone was going to react. Once I got to know JoJo, I grew even more nervous because I started to fall in love with the person she is because I wanted to protect and support the decision she’d made to dance with another female.
I was shocked at how little hate we got — which is a terrible thing to say! We’ve been flooded with love and support so, yes, we have come a long way. It’s so awesome to see.
There will be some slower, perhaps more intimate dances coming up. How will you handle those?
We’re going to go with the same formula we’ve used so far. We’re taking it dance by dance and see who’s in the lead role. So far, JoJo has preferred to do the ‘guy’ steps, which technically makes her the lead. We’ll see how it works with the slower dances. She is a little bit taller than I am so I fit into her frame. Honestly, my perspective is to just take it dance by dance and figure it out as we go along.
Did the producers approach you in advance about having a same-sex partner?
They approached me and told me about the exciting news they had about having a same-sex couple on the show. I just assumed it would be two guys. I was like, ‘That’s amazing!’ Then they asked me how I’d feel about dancing with another woman. My reaction was, ‘Oh, my goodness…of course!’
I’m so glad that I said yes. This experience has changed my perspective on things, changed me as a choreographer. I can’t rely on things I’ve done in past seasons because this is all new. I’m growing as a dancer, an artist, and a choreographer.
Could you see a same-sex pairing on DWTS in a future season with two men? If so, could you see Val being open to that?
Val and I have talked about it. I believe he would definitely be open to it. [The show] hasn’t told us if they’re going to do that…I think Val would be a fabulous candidate [if they did it] because he’s willing to push boundaries. He’s such a great teacher and choreographer. He’d be fabulous in that role.
Speaking of Val, I think his partner Olivia Jade came in with the biggest spotlight on her, given her parents’ role in the college admissions scandal. Val told Olivia in their first meeting that the only thing that matters is what they do on the show; if he’s willing to give her a chance then, viewers might be more open to doing that, too.
One of the reasons I fell in love with Val is that he will never judge somebody or form an opinion about them until he gets to meet them and gets to know them. He’s the most genuine person. He gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. He’ll put his full heart and soul into making your interaction with him the best it can be. Mark my words, I can see [Val and Olivia] in the finals because they have such a genuine connection and chemistry. She trusts him. He’ll be there for her. I’m happy for him this season.
And how do you feel about your journey, having been paired with JoJo?
When I told my parents that I’d be dancing with a girl this season, I was [wondering] what their reaction would be — they said what an honor it must be that the show would trust me with this responsibility. That’s exactly how I feel; I’m honored. I just want to do the best that I can and be a mentor to JoJo. I want to be her friend. So far, that’s what’s been happening. I am really loving Season 30.
It’s such a milestone. Think we might see clips of past great dances? A montage of winners being announced?
I hope so! I would love to see all those moments. I’ve been on the show since Season 18 and have experienced all of my 20s on this show. It’s been incredible. There have been so many iconic moments. It’d be nice to revisit them. It’d be really fun to see.
Have Tyra’s outfits given you inspiration for costumes for performances? Those are some gowns!
I know! She’s Tyra Banks! She can — and should — wear those. I’m not sure I could pull them off but they are indeed everything.
Has Cheryl Burke’s COVID diagnosis reinforced how careful everyone has to be — wearing masks, using hand sanitizer, etc.?
Yes. We’ve all been reminded that COVID is real and that you can get it even if you’re vaccinated. We have to take it seriously if we want to be on the show.
Cheryl and Cody Rigsby were judged on a rehearsal video as they didn’t perform live on this week’s show. Does that make you mindful of doing somewhat of a “performance-level” dance during rehearsals — not just for COVID but in case there’s an injury preventing you from dancing on show night?
Yes. It does make you think about when we shoot our “wides” — I want to say that’s what they used for Cody and Cheryl. I do think about that, should something similar happen.
This season has many stars who have dance experience. It’s not just one or two.
When they announced this cast, I thought this was one of the toughest seasons in terms of competitors. So many people this season have either experience performing or with dance — and/or they’ve got these magical personalities. It’s going to be a tough competition. I’ve told JoJo that it’s not necessarily the best dancer who wins; it’s America’s favorite dancer who wins. We’ve just got to go out there and entertain the audience and the viewers each week. I think that’s what everyone is doing. We want to get people smiling; then, we’ll have met our goal.
Dancing With the Stars, Mondays, 8/7c, ABC