"This has been a big test." Seven weeks into Dancing with the Stars, Brazilian race-car driver Helio Castroneves, 32, isn't talking about mastering the quickstep and the jive. He's taking stock of what this rocket ship to stardom has done to his personal life.
The two-time Indy 500 champ has been engaged since last Thanksgiving to Ali Vazquez, who lives in Miami and works in jewelry design. Castroneves and Vazquez were supposed to get married this year but put off the nuptials when they found out that Castroneves would be involved in the show, possibly for months.
It's been more than two months now, and the two haven't seen much of each other since the end of August, when Castroneves relocated to Los Angeles to begin rehearsals. And Castroneves says his fiancée has been feeling his absence. "It's been very hard," he says. "But for me to ask someone to marry me and become the mother of my children? It's because I know what I want. I've had girlfriends before who said, ‘You should stay here with me,' and I'm sorry, but that's not going to work. That person has to understand that I'm doing something that I love: racing, and now dancing. In the beginning with Ali, it was hard, and it goes up and down. But I think everyone has those moments."
A long-distance engagement would be tough enough, but it's even more difficult when one of the parties — Castroneves — is dancing in front of millions with a spectacularly beautiful girl like Dancing's Julianne Hough, 19. "I understand that part," says Castroneves. "But I'm not doing anything. Julianne and I have been incredible professionals and I think that has helped our teamship because we're not trying to be anything else. I'm not going to be fooling around. I already did that. I had my fun, and it's done."
The chemistry between Castroneves and Hough has been a double-edged sword for both dancers. Hough knows it's enormously helpful in selling their dance routines to the public. "I think chemistry is one of the hardest things to get, but one of the most important things to get," says Hough. "For me, it is the most important thing. Because you can fake your feet, you can [fake] your arms. But if you don't have chemistry, it's going to be boring to watch."
The problem is, she's already done another highly successful chemistry experiment with last season's champ, Olympic speed-skater Apolo Anton Ohno. And while it was exhilarating to watch, Hough spent much of her time warding off rumors of romance. It didn't help that during their time together, she broke off her engagement to Zach Wilson, her boyfriend back home in Utah. So when she and Castroneves became partners, "I told Helio, ‘Just make sure nothing happens between you and your fiancée, because I'm going to be the one who looks like I did something,'" she says.
Castroneves is trying to keep his romantic life on track, but there are no guarantees. A few weeks back, feeling very homesick, he considered moving back to Miami for the duration of his Dancing run. "I told Julianne, ‘Listen, I think that I'm going to go home because I miss everything there.'" But at the time, he wasn't getting very high scores and, he says, "I knew that if I missed more practice time, it was going to be bad." So instead, he moved from a hotel in midcity Los Angeles to another hotel on the beach in Santa Monica. "It feels more like home, so it's better," he says. "I go down and practice my dancing on the beach."
As for his fiancée, Castroneves says they're both feeling the strain. "It's been tough on her, obviously," he says. "But she needs to understand that I am doing something that is an opportunity of a lifetime. We're engaged, we're not married. And if something goes wrong, this is the time to see. It's better to find out now."
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