'DWTS' features train hero and Paula Deen
ABC's Dancing with the Stars has added a genuine hero to its Season 21 celebrity roster.
Alek Skarlatos, who helped subdue an armed terrorist suspect on a French train last month, will be one of 13 famous contestants to paired with a pro dancer when DWTS returns Sept. 14 (8 p.m. ET/PT). The full slate of celebrities and star-pro pairings were announced Wednesday on ABC's Good Morning America.
Less than two weeks ago, National Guard specialist Skarlatos "was on a train in France (and now) he's become a genuine national hero. It's very exciting that we can have someone like this on this season," says executive producer Rob Wade, adding that Skarlatos is representing his close friends and fellow heroes Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler.
Season 21's celebrities also include controversial celebrity chef Paula Deen and the contest's first married competitors, Alexa PenaVega (Nashville, Spy Kids franchise) and Carlos PenaVega (Big Time Rush).
Don't expect any competitive trash-talking in the PenaVega household. If the two faced elimination, "I would want to be the one voted off because … I want him to do well. But he also wants me to do well," Alexa PenaVega says. "We're not good at being competitive."
There is a friendly wager, she says during a joint interview with Carlos. "If I go further in this competition, he has to salsa with me whenever I want."
The two actor/singers were approached simultaneously but separately about appearing. (Jewel and her then-husband, Ty Murray, were supposed to be the first married celebrity competitors during Season 8, but a training injury forced her to cancel her appearance.)
"This opportunity to learn something brand new and challenge ourselves really drew us to" say yes, Carlos PenaVega says.
Female stars and their pro partners include: Alexa PenaVega and Mark Ballas; Deen and Louis van Amstel; actress and wildlife enthusiast Bindi Irwin and Derek Hough; singing star Chaka Khan and Keo Motsepe; Real Housewives star Kim Zolciak Biermann and Tony Dovolani; and singer and TV personality Tamar Braxton and Valentin Chmerkovskiy.
Male celebrities and their pro partners are: Skarlatos and Lindsay Arnold; Carlos PenaVega and Witney Carson; actor Gary Busey and Anna Trebunskaya; singer-songwriter Andy Grammer and Allison Holker; Backstreet Boy Nick Carter and Sharna Burgess; social-media star Hayes Grier and Emma Slater; and Triple Crown-winning jockey Victor Espinoza and Karina Smirnoff.
Wade likes the range of performer backgrounds, from music legend Khan to Vine phenom Grier, 15, the youngest male competitor to date.
"We wanted the show to feel like it had a lot of story in it and really interesting characters and, most of all, for there to be something for all of the family," Wade says.
Deen provides a substantial storyline. Dancing marks another step in the public re-emergence of the celebrity chef, who lost a Food Network series and some lucrative endorsements in 2013 after she admitted having used a racial epithet. She recently launched a self-titled, subscription online network and a Roku channel and she has a new book.
"I have always loved the show and the level of excitement from my family, team members and friends has encouraged me to hit the dance floor," Deen says via email about her decision to participate. She had been rumored as a contestant shortly after the scandal.
Irwin, 17, known for roughing it in such TV wildlife pursuits as Bindi the Jungle Girl, finished a crocodile-research trip in her native Australia before heading to the dance competition in Hollywood.
"I've always been quite a tomboy. I play with the animals and roll around in the mud," she says. Dancing "is totally different than anything I'm used to but I wanted to give it a try ... and maybe empower others to do the same things in their own lives."
She likes the "the gorgeous, sparkly dresses," but the wardrobe provides challenges. "I've been trying to work out how to wear heels. I'm not a heels person. I'm usually climbing trees."
Dancing will be down to three judges – Carrie Ann Inaba, Bruno Tonioli and Julianne Hough – for the fall, with Len Goodman away to focus on his British dancing series and spend time with family.
Goodman's absence is temporary, Wade says. "This is a hiatus. I fully expect him to be back in the spring."