Bristol Palin and Mark Ballas Bristol Palin and Mark Ballas

The night may have belonged to Dancing's newly-crowned champion, Jennifer Grey, but the conversation in the ballroom after the finale was all about the woman who came in third, Bristol Palin.  There was relief in many quarters that she hadn't won, and wide admiration for the way she'd handled the firestorm of criticism about her inclusion in the final three.

"I really respect the way Bristol handled all that controversy," says contestant Florence Henderson. "She's a tough kid. I remember being 20 and having to stand up against a lot of obstacles. And you either overcome them, or you retreat. And I don't think she'll retreat. I think she's a lot like her mother."

"She works hard and doesn't deserve any of that," says Disney star Kyle Massey, who came in second. "She's really innocent and sweet and we love her to death," says Massey's pro partner, Lacey Schwimmer.     

"I can't believe people hate a young girl because they don't like her mother," says pro Corky Ballas. "That little girl has nerves of steel."   

She'd have to, because as the season drew to a close, there was an undercurrent of anger — and possible danger — that was all but impossible to ignore. On this night, aside from a heavy contingent of security officers, a bomb-sniffing dog made a loop of the ballroom in the last half-hour before the show went live. "That's a little unnerving, isn't it?" said one staffer. Added another, "Our chief of security is pretty much following Bristol around morning and night."

Ask the 20-year-old Palin if going through this experience makes her want to stay in the public eye or retreat from it, and she says: "I definitely will not retreat. This whole thing has built my confidence up so much. I know that I can go out there and do anything. And I've got such a strong support system that I know that I can accomplish anything and do whatever I want to do. And I'm a very grateful for that." So she's a lot tougher than anybody knows? "Oh, yeah," she says, with surprising authority.            

Pro Louis Van Amstel says the uncertainty over this season's final outcome — with Palin as the X-factor — just made the show stronger. "I think it's great for people at home to see celebrities vulnerable, and in an insecure place," he says. "Because in the end, it's inspiring when you see them get out of it."

Adds Henderson, who summed up the last 10 weeks best: "This is the craziest season that I've ever seen," she says, "and I've watched since the beginning."

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!