by eric deggans
Times TV/Media Critic
She is trying, very hard, to be a good sport about it all.
But ask veteran professional Karina Smirnoff about the way Dancing With the Stars judges treated her latest partner, Karate Kid star Ralph Macchio — especially compared to 60-something ex-Cheers star Kirstie Alley — and seconds pass before Smirnoff is dishing about the way image can overcome actual dancing ability.
"It was a little weird that people were like, 'Oh you moved your little pinky, we love it, you get a (score of) 10!' " she said of Alley, who racked up impressive scores despite falling during one routine and losing her shoe during another.
"Once that happened, (the judges) were like, 'You picked yourself up, you did such an amazing job.' … We fell, had an injury and 'Oh, we'll take points away,' " said Smirnoff. ''Kirstie represents the majority of the demographic that watches the show … and the message she had — that you can lose weight and get into the shape you want through dance — was very strong."
Smirnoff, a five-time U.S. national champion, is used to pushing back against her employer, posing nude for Playboy. And despite a lot of huffing in the press about her embarrassing a family-friendly show — did writers forget that at least three other past contestants also had posed for the magazine? — Smirnoff emerged scarcely ruffled.
She gets to turn the tables, appearing as a guest judge at the Millennium Dancesport Championships in Tampa. The event starts Tuesday, and Smirnoff appears June 24-25.
Between her engagement to Detroit Tigers pitcher Brad Penny and opening her own dance studio in Los Angeles, this Ukrainian-born former economics major has a grasp on the good life earned from years on TV's hottest dance show.
You and Penny caused worldwide headlines when you announced a January wedding date.
To me, that's always, like, bizarre. Nobody cares that I'm still doing a lot for my charity with kids in LA. But when we got engaged, that was front page news everywhere.
Do you worry getting married will make success on the show tougher because fans want to believe you might hook up with your partner?
Dancing to me is pretty much acting with your body without using words. If you're dancing together you do want to portray that you have chemistry, that you have some sort of connection, that you have this passion for each other. Otherwise, you are a horrible dancer.
But you once were engaged to fellow Dancing star Maksim Chmerkovskiy. Didn't it help you on the show for people to know you were an item?
The show is a popularity, personality and a danceability competition. All three matter. If you're popular and you're a hot topic in the press, people will tune to see what everybody's talking about. And possibly vote to see if there's more gossip or more news going to come out in certain situations. But you want people to like you and you want people to see you the way you really are.
How did you deal with Kirstie Alley beating you and Ralph?
Her journey, the fact that she came into the show physically having a tough time getting through the dances, losing something close to like 60 pounds, getting into the best shape she's been in the longest time, it's a wonderful story. ... But I got to dance with the Karate Kid himself; it can't get better than that. I want to be mad, but I can't.