There were odd pieces of silver metallic confetti stuck to the dull gray asphalt in the parking lot. The confetti, festive reminders, had been carried there by the shoes and clothing of those lucky enough to be part of Tuesday night's Dancing with the Stars finale. As it sparkled here and there in the darkness, you realized you had been part of an extraordinarily good night of television. A night when you truly felt that anything could happen. Could Laila Ali's stunning presence turn the tide and bring a woman back into the winner's circle? Would Joey Fatone's astonishing freestyle make voters forget that there was anyone else in the race? Or would Apolo Anton Ohno leave everyone in the dust with his boyish charm and ferocious competitive spirit?
Nothing was a done deal, nothing was finished — even during one commercial break, when the audience warm-up asked if anyone had a question for the judges. One woman politely asked why head judge Len Goodman had been so hard on Billy Ray Cyrus. The warm-up started to answer for Goodman, but Goodman wouldn't have it. "I'll answer that," he fired back. Then he barked an order: "Stand up, lady!" As the crowd gasped, Goodman continued, sounding outraged. "Do you honestly think that Billy Ray Cyrus is better than Paulina Porizkova? Better than Shandi [Finnessey]? Better than Leeza [Gibbons]?"
Then he got out of his chair and started walking toward her. It's no secret that Goodman rails against poor dancers staying in the hunt (remember Master P?) when there are more deserving contestants on the floor. But it was surprising — and very entertaining — to see him rail against an audience member. Luckily for her, the commercial break was ending, preventing him from going toe-to-toe.
And besides, adorable as he is, Billy Ray Cyrus is old news. It was time to crown the fourth-season champion. As Tom Bergeron called out their names — "Apolo and Julianne" — the place erupted. To many who have witnessed Ohno up close and personal, it made perfect sense. "Joey took a step," says Porizkova. "But Apolo made a leap."
"I think Apolo won because each week he got progressively better," says Finnessey. "He didn't start out as an amazing dancer, but he became an amazing dancer."
"For me, it was the connection between the two of them," says Finnessey's pro partner, Brian Fortuna, referring to Ohno and Hough. "They're focused, they're young, they're beautiful. They had everything going for them and they did everything they had to do to get where they wanted to be."
Hough looked dazed. But Ohno's face was pure joy. As he hugged his father and his godmother, Maria Kelly, she whispered in his ear. "I told him I was so proud of who he is, not just what he accomplishes," she says. "He proved to himself that he has some ability, that he can overcome some initial hesitation and fear. What's so wonderful about Apolo is that he won over the judges and the public. But he always felt that the experience was the win. That's what he told us last night."
And as if winning weren't enough, it all happened on Ohno's 25th birthday. "This is some present," says Yuki Ohno, his father. "We already started celebrating because he did very well last night. We were very satisfied with his performance because he did better on the paso doble."
Ohno himself sounded like what he is, an Olympic champion. "I hope I was able to set some sort of example," he says. "When you put your mind toward something, and have dedication, anything is possible. To win was icing on the cake."
Judge Carrie Ann Inaba thinks it might have gone another way if Fatone had pushed himself harder in the early weeks of competition. "In this competition," she says, "the audience is really smart. They know when you're really putting it out there, or you're resting. I think Joey saved it for the end. He could give master classes on how to entertain a crowd. And if he had really pushed himself he could've gotten even better by the end."
Fatone's daughter, 6-year-old Brianna, got special treatment tonight, thanks to the spectacular wardrobe department. They whipped up a tiny Star Wars outfit for her, to match what her father and his pro partner, Kym Johnson, were wearing. She could hardly stay in her seat, watching her father dance. "People watching us dance tell us we put a smile on their face," says Joey, resigned to coming in second and looking forward to the Dancing national tour starting late June. "That tells me that we did our job. We would've loved to win. But to hear people say, ‘Hey, I loved your performances. We were highly entertained.' I'm fine with that."
"And his dancing is completely different now," says his partner, Kym Johnson. "Oh, yeah," says Fatone. "Tonight, I could feel it. I was more leading her than she was leading me in the Star Wars tango." Fatone has also become a leaner, meaner dancing machine. He's dropped about 30 pounds. "I have more stamina and I can rehearse longer hours," he says.
As for Ali, she'll never be OK with coming in third. But that's just the nature of a competitive athlete. However, she can soothe herself with getting many props from the judges. "I loved it when Len [Goodman] said that he was a fan of my dancing," says Ali. "Because it's one thing to just judge someone. But to be a fan is when you actually want to watch them and enjoy watching them. That's what it's really all about."
"I'm going back home to get my life back," says her pro partner, Maksim Chmerkovskiy. "I've got studios to run, kids to teach, and championships to be won with straight-up judging according to your dancing. I definitely need a little bit of time off." Maks has always worn his heart on his sleeve. "I'm a little upset that we came so far... but didn't go all the way. I was hoping that this was going to be a season that changes the perception that only men can win. I did all I could."
But when he does go home, he can expect to have a little ache inside. Dance pro Jonathan Roberts, partnered with Heather Mills, says that's what happens when you finish up a marathon like this. "It was such an empty feeling for us when it was over," says Mills, who returned home to London after getting voted out. "Jonathan said, ‘Be prepared. You're gonna go home and you're gonna feel this emptiness.' And I thought, ‘How? I'll be too busy. I've got loads to do, studying for my degree, got my exams in July (Mills is getting a degree in nutrition).' But I really missed Jonathan. I've never had a routine in my life."
"We were on the show for two months, and we saw each other every day," says Roberts. "Every day coming in at 10 in the morning, working, then breakfast, more working, have a break. There's this set goal, and every week there's this prize you fight for. And you perform and get this high and this low. And then it ends and all of a sudden, it's empty."
But while it was happening, it was splendid. Kind of like finding unexpected confetti in the parking lot.
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