Dancing With the Stars is no stranger to controversies, especially when it comes to casting. But, they usually happen during the season and involve contestants with quite a bit of dance experience. However, season 28, which is still weeks away as of press time, courted controversy immediately after the cast was announced.
The season 28 cast includes the typical smattering of people. There are reality TV stars Karamo Brown of Queer Eye and Hannah Brown of The Bachelorette, one-time teen heartthrob James Van Der Beek and sports figures like Ray Lewis. But here's where it veers off: former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Many have said Spicer, who after his time as the mouthpiece of the Donald Trump administration popped up at the Emmys and made talk show rounds, shouldn't be "normalized" following his time spreading misinformation. Spicer's casting immediately drew criticism, including from longtime host Tom Bergeron.
"A few months ago, during a lunch with DWTS' new executive producer, I offered suggestions for season 28. Chief among them was my hope that DWTS, in its return following an unprecedented year-long hiatus, would be a joyful respite from our exhausting political climate and free of inevitably divisive bookings from ANY party affiliations. I left that lunch convinced we were in agreement. Subsequently (and rather obviously), a decision was made to, as we often in Hollywood, ‘go in a different direction,'" Bergeron said in a statement posted to Twitter. "For me, as host, I always gaze into the camera's lens and imagine you on other side, looking for a two-hour escape from whatever life hassles you've been wrestling with. That's a connection, and a responsibility, which I take very seriously, even if I occasionally season it with dad jokes."
Bergeron continued his comments in an interview on EW Live. "[My preference] wound have been to avoid any political lightning rods. I think Dancing at its best is an oasis away from all the divisiveness and all of the stuff we are all wrestling with right now," he reiterated. "And so that was a call they made and my job as host, to the best of my ability, is to be Switzerland for those two hours a week."
When asked to comment on Bergeon's statements, Andrew Llinares, the new executive producer on Dancing With the Stars, said, "We've got a great and diverse cast. We are excited about the season."
Spicer defended his participation to E! News. "Really? It was polarizing?" Spicer asked about his former gig. "I would love America to love me in a non-polarizing way. It'd be a great opportunity. I think for a lot of folks there was a very one-sided view of who I was and the opportunity to see that was me going back and forth with reporters at a podium...also I was speaking for somebody else. This is an opportunity to be who I am as myself and give people a view they may not have seen during my tenure there."
Critical viewers looked at the other participants, like Karamo Brown, to balk at Spicer's involvement. "First, I have no say who is on the cast and didn't find out till this morning that he is on! But I'll tell you this...I'm excited to sit down w/ him and engage in a respectful conversations. Only way things get better is if we try to educate those who have different POV than us," Karamo tweeted.
Spicer's casting isn't the only thing sending shockwaves through the Dancing With the Stars community. Following the cast announcement, fan-favorite pro dancers Sharna Burgess and Artem Chigvinstev announced they were not asked back to compete.
"I am unbelievably sad to not be back!!! However, what I can whole heartedly tell you is that it's all good, ALL love and in this moment I can't help but be grateful for the time and the journey that I've had, the people I've met, the incredible talent I've shared the stage with and the memories I've made," Burgess said on Instagram. "To say the least…it's been epic."
Now 28 seasons—14 years—in, at times viewers have become more attached to the pro dancers than the rotating cast of "stars."
E! News has learned Burgess' exit, which could just be for the season, was due to the budget of the aging series. DWTS previously took a cycle off to recalibrate after sinking ratings and is returning with some changes, including ditching the dance troupe and many extras previously associated with the reality series.
"Even though this is so hard on me, I will be DWTS #1 fan, cheering you all on every Monday night!" Chigvintsev wrote.
Ratings for the long-running competition have steadily declined over the years. Season 10 had the highest-rated premiere with just over 24 million viewers in 2010. Season 27 debuted to under 8 million viewers in 2018.
Will the pre-premiere controversy bring eyeballs to Dancing With the Stars or will the divisive casting drive even more remaining viewers out the door? We'll find out after the Monday, Sept. 16 season 28 premiere on ABC.