Every season of ABC’s celebrity dance competition series Dancing With The Stars is made up of a fun mix of D-listers, former celebs in their golden years, professional athletes and, yes, a few gays and lesbians. While last season featured the series’ first transgender contestant, Chaz Bono, and gay style maven, Carson Kressley, the latest season features the greatest women’s tennis player who’s ever lived, Martina Navratilova.
Fifty-five year old Navratilova has broken or tied almost every women’s tennis record imaginable. She also broke a few taboos in 1991 when she was sued for “galimony” by her ex, Judy Nelson, in an era when lesbians were still fairly invisible in the media. Since then, Martina has racked up more titles, a few more break-ups and survived breast cancer. Now she’s ready to test herself and see how she will fare with the Foxtrot, the Mambo and Ballroom dancing in front of millions of television viewers.
With competitors like actress Melissa Gilbert, a Pip-less Gladys Knight and TV hostess Maria Menounos and being partnered with Tony Dovolani (who has yet to take a contestant all the way to win the coveted Mirrorball Trophy), Martina, who is currently the Health and Fitness Ambassador for AARP, may have her work cut out for her. But when she talked to AfterEllen.com last week, her enthusiasm and positive outlook seemed primed to take her further than many people might believe.
AfterEllen.com: My first question is, how are you dealing with all this sudden attention due to the show?
I was like, “Ahhh! I’m not a self-promoter!” I just want to dance and have a good time.
AE: Did the show come to you or did you put your name in a hat? How did it all come about?
It was a revelation to me. My girlfriend has been trying to get me to wear dresses and I’m like, “That’s not me.” She’d say, “But you have great legs!” So I put on the dress and was like, “I do have good legs!”
AE: Was being the Health and Fitness Ambassador for AARP a big reason you agreed to do this?
I’m a very curious soul and I like to experience new things, but you have to push yourself and this is as hard as I could push myself. That’s what keeps you young, that’s what keeps you alive, that’s what keeps you interested in life.
AE: Once the announcement is made and everyone knows who’s going to be on the show, do rehearsals start right away?
In tennis, you look at the ball and if it doesn’t do the right thing, you curve the ball. But here, it’s all about the body and every single part of it. It’s frustrating and I love it.
AE: What kind of dance experience did you have before this?
And when I first decided to do Dancing With The Stars, I thought I should be the guy because I’m leading, right? But it occurred to me that dancing with a woman – I don’t think middle America is ready for that. [Laughs]
AE: What if they had said, “Let’s break the trend and have you dance with a woman?” That would’ve been OK with you?
AE: You have such a great sense of humor and you even poked fun back at Howard Stern, after he made fun of you for having to wear a dress.
[Conversely,] you only know actors and actresses and celebrities when they are at their best, so when you see a picture of them with no makeup you go, “Oh, God, who’s that?!” So now, we’re flipping it the other way. I think we’re going to surprise people. It’s going to be fun.
AE: You don’t have a say in who you are partnered with, right?
AE: Athletes traditionally do well on the show, for the most part. Do you think being an athlete gives you an advantage?
AE: Hope Solo was on last season and the judges told her she should be more feminine. Are you concerned you might get that note?
AE: Chaz Bono was on the show last season and brought a lot of awareness for trans people. Do you think your being on the show will open some eyes and minds about lesbians?
AE: Of the other celebrities you’ll be competing against, is there anybody that will be a threat? Who do you think will do really well?
I think Gladys [Knight] is the only person older than me on the show, but it’s just about giving yourself over to the process and not taking yourself too seriously.
AE: And, of course, Jennifer Grey won when she was 50.
AE: So you think they had an unfair advantage?
Monica [Seles] was the only other tennis player to do the show and she didn’t do so well. The tennis world is going to be putting pressure on me, I’m sure!
Season 14 of Dancing With The Stars premieres on ABC, Monday, March 19 at 8 p.m. with a two-hour live show.