Transgender Celeb Joins 'Dancing With The Stars'

Guests:

Jeremy Kinser, arts and entertainment editor for The Advocate
Eric Deggans, TV critic for St. Petersburg Times

The newest season of the reality dancing competition premieres in September. Chaz Bono, the child of Cher and Sonny Bono, will compete. Social media is aflutter over this. What does this mean for TV culture and the transgender community?

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: And now we want to talk about the show that made ballroom dancing cool again. The newest season of "Dancing with the Stars" will begin on September 19, and it has already created quite the buzz.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The pop princess, the prince of reality, the courtroom queen, the fashion guru and the most unexpected.

MARTIN: As is often the case, one contestant is the one creating all the buzz. That is the, quote, "most unexpected," Chaz Bono, who is the child of Cher and Sonny Bono. Chaz Bono is openly transgender. His participation marks the first time that a transgender person has competed on this program or any other, as far as we know.

Joining us to talk about what this means is Jeremy Kinser, he's the arts and entertainment editor for The Advocate. That's the country's LGBT publication. Also with us is Eric Deggans. He is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

JEREMY KINSER: Thanks, Michel.

ERIC DEGGANS: Thank you.

MARTIN: You know, Eric, there are certain moments that are seen as breakthrough moments in television, like for example "Julia," the series "Julia," where Diahann Carroll was the star, you know, the first African-American to kind of lead in a mainstream television show. Is this that kind of moment?

DEGGANS: Yeah, I think it is. "Dancing with the Stars" is the second-most-watched show on television. When it airs, it's usually the most-watched show on television, depending on whether "American Idol" was on. And that is an audience that's mostly middle-aged, affluent white women. And this is a message that hey, a transgendered person is equal to everyone else, get to know this person.

And it's something we've seen Chaz migrate. You know, he started airing this documentary about his change on Oprah Winfrey's cable network, OWN. He's been on Oprah Winfrey's regular broadcast show, a huge show. And now it's moving to this new venue, where he has an even bigger showcase for this message. I do think it's important.

MARTIN: In fact, Chaz talked about this during a press conference about the new season. Here's what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

CHAZ BONO: It just kind of shows why, for me, it's important to be on the show, because so little still is known about what it means to be transgender, and there's so many just completely inaccurate stereotypes and thoughts that people have.

MARTIN: Jeremy, you have interviewed Chaz twice, as I understand it.

KINSER: Yes.

MARTIN: And why did he want to be on the show?

KINSER: Well, Chaz is a long-time activist, and this gives him, you know, a huge platform to change people's minds. He's already the face of transgender equality - for the community, anyway - and now he gets to reach the broadest audience possible.

MARTIN: And what about other people in the LGBT community? Is this seen as big?

KINSER: Absolutely. There's genuine excitement in the LGBT community, as far as I can see. I mean, people on the Advocate's message boards are just so excited. People who don't even watch the program are saying they're going to now and vote for Chaz.

MARTIN: Eric, what are people saying about this? We're hearing that there's some negative reaction appearing on the ABC message boards, and there seems to be some groups who seem to be saying that they are organizing against this. Can you tell us a little bit about how people are reacting?

DEGGANS: Yeah. In fact, we have seen comments on message boards critical of this decision, and there are some conservative groups that are considering - I don't know that any one has definitely decided that they're going to protest it. But there's a group here in Florida called the Florida Family Association, for example, and they sent a letter to all their members saying, you know, should we protest this?

I do think it's also important that ABC took what is its most popular show and did this, cast a person that they knew would be controversial. And it seems to be a vote in terms of ABC and in terms of ABC's owner Disney to say that we think that this person is mainstream enough to provide the excitement for our highest-rated show.

MARTIN: But, you know, in terms of making choices that everybody isn't in love with, I mean, Bristol Palin, the daughter of Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential candidate, was on the show. And then people accused ABC then of, you know, pushing a right-wing agenda. So what do you think is the strategy here? Is it politics, or is it maximum buzz?

DEGGANS: Oh, yeah. Well, I think in Chaz' case, especially, the idea was to cast somebody that would get people talking and to cast somebody that you would not expect to be on the show.

In the Bristol Palin sense, I think they realized that there were a lot of fans of Sarah Palin who would transfer their allegiances to Bristol. And again, who's the core audience of the show? It is middle-aged, affluent white women, and Sarah Palin is strong with that crowd. I think we saw that Bristol Palin did very well on the show because the audience supported her. And again, I can't stress enough, Chaz has kind of laid the groundwork by appearances on Oprah Winfrey's platforms. He's known to that audience, as well. And I think they're going to support him, as well.

MARTIN: But to that end, though, there are those who looked at the Bristol Palin casting - well, how can I put this nicely? She's not a very good dancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And so - and I don't know whether Chaz can dance, but then there are people who look at that and think, well, you know, is this cool? Is this a cool thing, in that ABC is exposing people to other people, giving people an opportunity to get to know people as individuals who they might otherwise have stereotypes about, be they for political reasons, or be they for other reasons? Or are they just sort of cynically taking advantage of people's kind of instinct to cheer and jeer based on - I don't know. Do you know what I mean? Do you understand what I'm asking? Jeremy, maybe I'll ask you that. I'll ask you both that question. Jeremy, you start.

KINSER: Well, I think it's smart of ABC, because they're going to - you know, they're broadening their own demographic for the show, because Chaz is going to - you know, like I said, the community is rallying around him, and they're going to have, like, all these LGBT people watching.

But, you know, Chaz is like a - when you meet him, he's a very warm, ingratiating person who's going to make a big impression on viewers.

MARTIN: Eric, what do you think?

DEGGANS: I think "Dancing With the Stars," one of its cornerstones is the idea of transformation. It's not just that people are good dancers, but people start out at one level of dancing, and then they transform over the course of the show.

Kirstie Alley became very popular in the last cycle of the show because even though she was overweight and even though she wasn't the best dancer, she got better during the show, and she lost weight. And more importantly, she was a symbol. She was a stand-in for all of the women who were watching the show.

You know, they - her story seemed like their story, and I think in an interesting way, you know, Chaz could do that, too. His story of finding his true self, his story of - when he goes on the show, he may not be the world's best dancer, but he is going to lose weight. He's going to get more in shape, and he's going to be a better dancer by the end of it than when he started. And that's what this show's audience really likes.

MARTIN: Any other comers that we should watch, Eric, keep an eye out for in this season?

DEGGANS: Well, it's hard to tell. Normally, what I do - and I hate to admit that I do this. But normally, I scout out "Dancing with the Stars" by looking at the rehearsal videos that they release right before the show debuts. And I don't think those are up on the Internet yet, but they probably will be up next week or the week after.

So when you get a sense of how good they are in rehearsals, then you'll know. But the athletes tend to do well. So we know that we have an Olympian soccer goalie on, and we know we have Ron Artest, the NBA player, on. We expect both of them to do well, because athletes tend to do well.

And we want to look at whoever's had dance training in the past. We know that Ricki Lake, for example, was in "Hairspray" and had done some dancing. So those are the people who may be the surprises. And I'm wondering about Chaz. I think Chaz is going to be a popular audience favorite and is going to stick around longer than maybe his dancing ability might even allow him.

MARTIN: And there are always surprises. I mean, Sugar Ray Leonard, for example, didn't do as well as a lot of people thought. Isn't boxing like dancing? And he said no, it's not.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: Exactly. Well, I think about Warren Sapp. You know, he's just, you know, a really bulky, really big football player, but he was an amazing dancer.

MARTIN: You're absolutely right.

DEGGANS: So - and we've seen that with other - football players especially tend to do well, and, of course, skaters and - tend to do well, Apolo Ohno and Kristi Yamaguchi. So it'll be interesting to see if that transfers to soccer. Will that transfer to NBA? Rick Fox wasn't the best, I've got to be honest. But there's some high hopes for the athletes, here.

MARTIN: All right, and Jeremy, finally, is there anybody else that you're excited about watching in this season?

KINSER: Well, obviously Carson Kressley, but...

MARTIN: No, not obviously. Tell me why.

KINSER: Well, because Carson Kressley is a gay man. So there - you know, the LGBT community is being represented by two people this season. But not to play favorites, but, you know, I think most people are going to save their support for Chaz.

MARTIN: Jeremy Kinser is arts and entertainment editor for the Advocate. He was kind enough to join us from our NPR West bureau in Culver City, California. Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. He joined us from St. Petersburg. Thank you both so much for joining us.

KINSER: Thank you, Michel.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

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