Talent Hunter for ‘Dancing With the Stars’ Spills Secrets

On calming celebs’ fears, whose careers have been resuscitated and … wooing a dumped reality dating star.

Last Updated: March 11, 2010 @ 6:09 PM

Deena Katz has been the senior talent producer on ABC’s "Dancing With the Stars" since its inception four years ago.

When the show began, how did you approach the celebrities you wanted to appear?

This was a tough hurdle, because it’s a live ballroom dance show. None of us were sure it was gonna work. Lots of reality shows pit people against each other  — I had to keep telling possible contestants, "It’s not gonna be mean-spirited!"

What concerns did the celebrities have?

The concern was that it’s not gonna be a hit. No one ever wants to sign on to something until they know who’s doing it. Are we going to be showing them in the best light? I think that when Evander Holyfield said yes, he legitimized it.

Now that it’s is a hit, what hurdles do you face?

A lot of agents aren’t sure they want their clients seen on a reality show at all — I have to convince them that this will help their career. I’ll talk until I’m blue in the face, but they still think their client is bigger than a reality show. I’ll say, “This is better than doing pilot season, because this is your chance for everyone in this town to see you as opposed to going in and reading a script."

Has anyone seen an impact on their career as a result of being on the show?

You can be big in your own little world, but the crossover is amazing. Emmett Smith always says that people outside of football didn’t really know his face before he was on the show. Jerry Springer and Joey Fatone have gone on to host shows — Jerry was getting offers for movies he had never gotten before because people had only seen him in one way. Marie Osmond and her dolls … they’re more of a multi-million-dollar property now. It put these guys back in the spotlight.

So, has your job become easier?

It’s easier because they can see what the show’s done and how it can help your career. But it’s also more difficult because the audience is expecting more. Not only do I have to get bigger names, I have to keep doing something different. We can’t have the audience thinking the cast is boring.

Do you now have celebrities approaching you asking to be on the show?

Absolutely. I get hundreds of submissions of people who want to be on. But even if someone who comes to me isn’t right for the show, it might spark me to think of someone else in their arena.

Do they get compensated?

They get compensated. But they don’t get money when they win. They’re just winning a trophy.

Was it difficult to get this year’s jilted "Bachelor" contestant Melissa Rycroft to agree to be on the show so last minute?

She was my Cinderella story. I called her and said you have two days to learn the dance. She took a leap of faith, and it was just perfect timing. America loved this girl and (her getting dumped) happened only three days before. Everyone was talking about her already. She had hesitations about many things — she had a job, she’s not in Hollywood, she didn’t want to be on a TV show again, can she pack up her stuff and get her dog to her parents quickly enough?

Melissa isn’t technically a "star." Do you have a loose definition of celebrity when you’re casting?

You try and get people from all over walks of life, and every season there are a couple of people who aren’t as big as others. What’s great is having the ability to show the audience someone new who they love to meet and make a new hero.