An interview with Martina Navratilova


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 last week, her enthusiasm and positive outlook seemed primed to take her further than many people might believe. My first question is, how are you dealing with all this sudden attention due to the show?

Martina Navratilova: You know, I don’t hoard attention, so it’s just kind of weird. All the press and everything that I’ve done was always for a tournament, an endorsement, a charity event, or whatever I was doing. I’ve never tried to find attention [for myself]. My manager wants me to blog and Twitter and all this dancing stuff. I just started to Twitter now! I haven’t even tweeted until now. He said “You need to do more!”

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?

MN: They’ve been asking me for years but I kept saying “No way! I can’t see myself in those high heels.” But then I found out the heels are not that high and once I kind of got over that I thought “Okay, I can do the dress.” And when I put the dress on, I was like, “Oh my God! I’ve got great legs!”

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?

MN: Yeah, completely. I really wanted to do this for the AARP folks. This is about as far out of my comfort zone as I could possible be, other than perhaps synchronized swimming, which is about the only sport that I can’t do. I encourage people to get out and explore new horizons, and so I thought I’d better lead out of example.

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?

MN: Well, we trained for two days before the announcement. I was told I had to, and I’m glad we had those two days. You [have to] start preparing, so you don’t get voted off the first week. It’s also about learning a whole new way of moving your body and being aware of every body part.

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?

MN: None! I took Foxtrot lessons when I was 14 years old but that’s it. I took a dance class on an Olivia cruise for an hour. [Laughs]

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?

MN: You know, I don’t know. It would’ve been more of an adjustment because I always stand with my right hand out. So that would really be confusing for me. I’m doing it the right way, there’s no doubt in my mind. I’ll also be thrown around by a guy and he’ll be leading the way, if I let him. It’s nice to be the woman.

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. 

MN: I think it’ll surprise people what I can look like. When people see us as athletes, you’re seeing us at our worst. This is like your wife or girlfriend or boyfriend in the morning when they wake up. We have no makeup on and we’re sweating and we’re straining and we’re concentrating and you see us in the worst way. So when I put on makeup and get dressed – even without this over-the-top stuff that you do on the show – people go “Oh my God! You look great!”

[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?

MN: Oh, completely [no say.] But apparently, Tony had asked for an athlete because he’s never had an athlete, and I’m the only athlete there. We get along great. After I started rehearsing with him in Aspen, we flew to Los Angeles together. Everybody on the plane stopped him. All the women knew who he was. I was like “Oh my God, he’s like a rock star!”

AE: Athletes traditionally do well on the show, for the most part. Do you think being an athlete gives you an advantage?

MN: I think so because we’re used to the physicality, and most of all, body control. If you can control your body in one sport, then you can do another sport very easily, or easier than a person who hasn’t mastered a sport, because you have control of your body, though everything is the opposite in dancing.

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?

MN: I think it’s not feminine, it’s athletic. It’s the athlete that wants to move a certain way. You have to take the athlete out. I’m not worried about not being feminine enough, not at all.

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?

MN: I’m sure it will. Some people are so prejudiced, it doesn’t matter what you do. You can be standing on your head and they say you’re standing on your feet. But I think there are a lot of people who just don’t know enough but are open or neutral. I think people who are open to having their opinions changed, or just being open to seeing what comes their way, it will be helpful for sure. They’ll realize, “Oh, they’re no different. They have the same problems that I have.”

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?

MN: I think the young kid, [Disney Channel’s] Roshon Fegan, does dance, so it will be easiest for him. And he won’t care, kids are so uninhibited. He won’t worry about making a fool of himself because he’s got years to make up for it. I’ve already established my reputation, so I don’t want to flop, flat on my face.

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.

MN: But she was a dancer. It was really unfair. She shouldn’t have been on the show and [figure skater] Kristi Yamaguchi shouldn’t have been on the show.

AE: So you think they had an unfair advantage?

MN: Well, Kristy dances on ice. “Oh, let’s make it difficult on her. She has to dance on wood. That’s much more difficult.” Really?

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.

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