Interview with “Dancing with the Stars” Judge Bruno Tonioli

In six fleet-footed seasons, ABC’s reality competition Dancing with the Stars has evolved from punchline to unlikely hit to bona-fide ratings juggernaut. Based on the UK series Strictly Come Dancing, the simple premise (celebrities of various wattage and specialty are paired with professional dancers to compete in a ballroom-style dancing tournament) was anything but a sure win for an American audience, but it has become a true television phenomenon.

The tried-and-true format isn’t the only thing that DWTS borrowed from its predecessor; it also imported gay choreographer Bruno Tonioli as one of the judges. The out Italian native, who became an instant fan favorite due to his enthusiasm and quick wit, was such a success with audiences that he was even given his own spinoff, Dance Wars, with fellow judge Carrie Ann Inaba. He’s still anchoring the flagship show today, making him the only out gay judge on a network reality competition.

We had the opportunity to speakwith Tonioli about his childhood in small-town Italy, the toll being in the public eye has taken on his personal life, and exactly what it was he was doing in Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” video.

AE: Where are you at today?
BT:
Today I’m at home. I’m resting today. I caught a bit of a cold, I think a kind of a head cold. I felt a bit rotten yesterday so I’m gong to have a day lying low.

AE: Do you live in LA?
BT:
I’m based in London, but I come to Los Angeles during the shows. While I’m filming, I stay here. I’d love to get a place here, but it’s been so busy – I haven’t actually had the time.

AE: What’s been the biggest surprise of the new season so far of the contestants?
BT:
Just of the stars? I think Jason [Taylor]. For me Jason was really a great surprise because we had kind of great big guys before like Clyde [Drexler] and they didn’t quite work. But I mean Jason, 6 feet-four, incredibly elegant, so sharp, so musical. I never thought he was going to be so good.

AE: He was amazing doing that mambo.
BT:
He was right on it, and his musicality – he’s always on the right beat. Never missed a musical nuance. Sexy.

Jason Taylor with dance partner, Edyta Sliwinska

Photo credit: ABC/Kelsey McNeal

AE: Gay fans of DWTS have been disappointed that so far there haven’t been any gay celebrities on the show. We spoke with Conrad Green and he said that you guys have considered having some openly gay participants. Do you know who was considered?
BT:
The thing with the judges, we don’t really know because it’s not my show. We are not part at all in the picking process and the casting process. It would be great, it would be welcomed, but we don’t actually know until everybody knows in the press.

AE: Which gay men do you know of who would do well, that you’d like to see compete?
BT:
I don’t actually know. You’d have to tell me!

AE: I’d like to see John Barrowman.
BT:
John Barrowman is too good! He’ll win. John Barrowman is a good friend. He’s amazing, but he’s too good because he’s done 27,000 musicals …

AE: It seems like there are more out gay celebrities in the UK.
BT:
The people are kind of relaxed about it. It’s kind of known, but it’s not a big deal. Like you have John, and there is Graham Norton. There are so many people on television, in the UK anyway, that have never been "in". So to be out, it doesn’t make any difference. It’s like people have always known, in a way.

AE: Has that surprised you that America is so different?
BT:
It doesn’t, but there is one thing about America, there is a very good thing about how the gay and lesbian organizations – they’re more kind of organized here. I think there is a very good sense of community and support. Especially if people have any problems and if they need help. Because when I went to the GLAAD awards last year, there is nothing like that in the UK. And how strong the community is, and how well funded it is and how much support it gets from people all over the entertainment industry, the business industry. I think there are the good and the bad in every situation, but I think America is a bigger country, so it has a much broader spectrum. You see what I mean?

AE: I just interviewed Graham Norton last week and he made the exact same observation. He said America was a lot of different countries. It’s so big that you can’t really define it.
BT:
It’s easy in the UK. The UK is a very small island; almost in London everybody knows everybody. But here you’ve got East Coast, West Coast and everything in between, from New York to San Francisco to Minneapolis. You can’t generalize, but I think – I’ve been coming here since the 70s and I’ve seen 70s, 80s, 90s changes, and I think what they’ve done – it’s quite amazing, the organization here of the gay and lesbian movement has been much, much more efficient than in the UK.

I think everything came from here, from Stonewall, and I think they’ve been amazing. I mean, as I say, I can’t believe the GLAAD awards – what a fantastic event! And how great bringing people together and organized. Obviously I think there should become a point, in an ideal world, being a child of the 70s, I think there should be a point where you should be totally irrelevant, your sexuality, race, or orientation should become like the color of your hair, but I think there’s a few years before we get to that.

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