In her quiet rehearsal studio, Marlee Matlin rolls her hips, moving to a sort of internal metronome. "My husband is the one who told me I needed to do this show," says Matlin, unstrapping her ballroom heels to relieve her aching feet. "He thought it was a great opportunity for people to see my lighter side."
That lighter side, full of sass and wit, has been overshadowed by a fierce determination to overcome the odds. At 21, Matlin stunned Hollywood by winning an Oscar for her powerful performance in Children of a Lesser God. She was the fabulous newcomer but had barely finished her acceptance speech when the ugly whispers started: It was a sympathy vote because she's deaf. She'd never work again.
"You don't say that to Marlee," says close friend Henry Winkler, who hosted Matlin's 1993 wedding to L.A. police detective Kevin Grandalski. "If anyone was destined to be in this business, it's her."
Fabian Sanchez, Matlin's partner on Dancing with the Stars (Mondays, 8 pm/ET, and Tuesdays, 9 pm/ET, on ABC), couldn't agree more. "There's no sympathy here," he says. "I treated Marlee pretty much the same way I treat all my new students." That is, he's not cutting her any slack. The two rehearse six hours a day, five days a week. And he's told her to cut out the carbs, including her favorite guilty pleasure, pizza. "I've lost five pounds so far," says Matlin. "And my body has gotten more toned." Sanchez says the 42-year-old mother of four was worried about her "muffin tops, meaning her abs. She pulled up her shirt the other day and she was developing a six-pack. No more muffin tops!"
Getting in shape isn't Matlin's only physical challenge. Because of her deafness, she has to rely even more on her partner. "Fabian is my music," says Matlin. "He expresses the music to me, and then I absorb it from him and feed off of him." Her longtime interpreter, Jack Jason, is also with her every step of the way. "If the judges aren't nice," jokes Matlin, "I'll know because Jack won't be signing."
She's mastered their first dance, the cha-cha, but admits to freaking out when they got to the quickstep. Why? "Because I have to hold my head to the side and can't look at him," she says. "And I said, 'What do you mean, don't look at me! I need you.' And he said, 'No, you cannot.' So I flipped out a little bit."
But Winkler says if Matlin has to work twice as hard as everybody else, she's more than willing to step up to the task: "She's not there just to wear a costume." Matlin makes a regular practice of calling Winkler before accepting any job. "But this time," he says, "I didn't get a call. Somewhere in her, she knew she could do this and it was right. She didn't need anybody's blessing."
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