"Certain things that were on the show were obviously creative editing of just making certain pieces splice together," she shared with E! News. "We had to wear the same clothes for like a week. So certain things could be taken out of context."
But here's something we did find at least a little surprising—there's not one part of Abby Lee Miller that was playing up her role as teacher, choreographer and unquestionable villain who instructed her pint-sized, pirouette-turning elementary and middle schoolers to save their tears for their pillows.
"Out of everything, that was the one thing that never changed," now-15-year-old Asia replied when asked if there was an on-off switch to Abby's personality. "She said what she said."
Fortunately the Orange County native was literally born for this, deftly absorbing criticism and tough love from dance teachers, ice skating instructors and gymnastics coaches more or less since birth.
By the time she was plucked from dance competition success to appear as the youngest cast member on the Dance Moms spinoff Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition, she was ready for the worst the acerbic choreographer could throw her way.
"Going into the show I'm like, 'Okay, I'm already prepared,'" she explained. "Like, 'What, are my feet sickled? My knees bent? Tell me how it is and I'm going to be fine with that.' There was nothing that I was like, 'Oh, I'm going to cry about it.'"
Nearly a decade removed from her years-long stint on Lifetime—a third-place finish on Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition led to a season on Dance Moms and then her own standalone series, Raising Asia—she still has nothing but fond memories of those competitions and late-night rehearsals with Maddie Ziegler, Kenzie Ziegler, Nia Sioux, Brooke Hyland, Paige Hyland, Kendall Vertes and Chloe Lukasiak.
"I genuinely had a great experience on it," Asia insisted, acknowledging that wasn't necessarily the case for many of her costars. "There was nothing that I would change on my experience whatsoever. I learned a lot, I met a lot of people I'm still friends with and pretty close with today and we have so much love for each other."
To mark the 10th anniversary of Dance Moms' July 13, 2011 premiere, the model-singer-dancer reflected on the experience in an exclusive sit-down with E! News.
A triple-threat at just 6 years old—"I grew up doing dancing, gymnastics and ice skating"—Asia was a fixture on the dance competition circuit, and became the youngest to win a national title at 2011's Starpower Nationals in Las Vegas. That's when things got interesting.
"When you win a certain competition, more dance magazines and outlets want to reach out to you and talk about your life. Well, in this case, Lifetime reached out. And they're like, 'Look, we have this new show, it's called Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition. We'd love to have her on it. We just want to make sure she's 9 years of age.' And my mom [Kristie Ray] was like, 'She's 6 years old.' And they're like, 'OK, well we really want her on the show.' I had to go into a full psych evaluation to make sure that I was mentally prepared."
Passing both the dance audition in New York and a series of in-depth interviews with high marks, Asia left her dad Shawn Ray and little sister Bella behind in Orange County, checking into an L.A. hotel with her mom for what turned out to be a six-month stay. The youngest on the series by a whopping six years, Asia had to follow different rules than her competitors, having to master her dances each week with three hours less of rehearsal time.
"I was continuously being challenged by new choreography—things I'm not necessarily comfortable with because I was a jazz and hip-hop dancer, and I wasn't very fond of any other genre when I was that age. The next youngest person was 12: Jordyn Jones. We were across the hall roommates at the hotel and so we ended up clicking really well and became really close friends and stuff.
Honestly, every week, my mom was, like, just preparing me. She's like, 'If we don't make it through this round, it's fine. There are new opportunities.' Except I kept making it! I never went home.
I knew that I wasn't going to be able to win because I was drastically underage to even win the prize that they were giving out, which was to go to the Joffrey Ballet. I'd have to wait 10 years just to go. I'd be going this year! So I was just hoping I even made it to the top four. I just turned 7 a week before I hit the top three. So I was like, 'Wow, it's a little birthday gift to myself, I worked hard, I made it here.'"
And that turned out to be just the beginning of her ascent up the pyramid. Asia assumed she'd return to her regular dance studio with a shiny new prize and a bunch of fun stories. Instead, Lifetime approached with a second offer.
"Never in a million years would I think they'd come at me right after the shows, saying, 'Look, we have two other show pitches that we want you on. We want to give you your own show, but we want you to go on Dance Moms first.' We ended up deciding, like, you know what? Let's try this Dance Moms experience and see what happens. And so we moved to Pittsburgh.
I was only in second grade. And so my school was sending me homework packets to do while I was on the show. I had certain times I had to be off set, like a hard cut for me because of legal reasons. I was still drastically younger than everyone, too.
My time for learning dances was cut in half. If you got four hours, I got two. I have to give it to my younger self, because especially now, I look at that I'm like, 'Could I even learn that today?'"
Still, she packed a punch with her trademark sass ("I had a very big personality—I still do, but it's lowered, like, 10 notches"), a style that Abby likened to "dynamite exploding on stage" and a penchant for nabbing titles that appeared to rattle at least a few of the other mothers. "These moms are trying to scare me off right now," Kristie said in that very first episode, "and what they don't know is that I'm not intimidated and I'm here to stay." So it was pretty much the exact reaction they had been expecting when they showed up at the studio in the Pittsburgh suburbs.
"People see the initial reaction and it's very unwelcoming. But, I think, a majority of it is, if you have someone new come in, you're going to be welcoming to an extent when it's someone coming into your own territory. And I respected that and my mom respected that as well.
But overall, I have nothing but respect for the girls that were on the show. I'm still pretty close with the majority of them. We all try to keep in touch. I know people think that there's issues with us or we're fighting somehow, there's none of that. There was never really any competition between us, either. We're just all so different and we're all talented dancers individually. People can think that there's this rivalry, but overall, really, we just kind of did what we wanted."
And that, truly, was just to dance. One thing the cameras didn't really capture, insisted Asia, was how dedicated they were to perfecting their routines—and not just because Abby considered second place the first loser.
"I would have to go and learn the dances after hours at the studio. We would come back and we'd work our butts off, regardless if our dance instructor was there. If we had group dances, Maddie or some of the girls would count for us and be our head leader of the group and we'd learn that dance until it was pounded into our head. So there's a lot of things that I wish were added to the show to just show how hard we worked.
The things I wish that were focused on more, rather than the drama, was just how much we love to dance. Dance was our life. We'd go back to the studio in the snow just to learn new dances and make sure we did our best. And I feel like that's what made us, our bond, really close.
I was just talking with some of the girls at an event that I saw Nia at or I saw Maddie or Kenzie. We normally talk between text or DM, whatever is easier at the time. We have nothing but support and love for each other, really."
Her costars haven't really danced around their opinions of Abby. Maddie has spoken about how tough the drama-heavy environment felt ("I was stressed at 11 years old, which shouldn't happen!") while Zackery Torres recently shared that they experienced "a lot of detrimental moments that really kind of set me back as a young person." For Asia, though, it was a learning experience on how to survive in the entertainment industry.
"I was prepared for any criticism, any critique, because I grew up with parents who told me how it was and same with choreographers and other instructors. I was not going to be fazed by Abby's commentary or any coaches' commentary. People always ask, like, 'Was it scripted?' And I'm like, 'No.'
Luckily she liked me and my mom and I was just constantly okay with whatever she said to me. I took it as more constructive criticism than getting my feelings hurt. Even to this day, like, I really don't get my feelings hurt often. I've never been that type of person. But certain people are more sensitive to it."
After her season-long stint on Dance Moms and a series of first place finishes, Asia did go on to have her own series, Raising Asia, eventually deciding to call it quits ahead of her 10th birthday. "I started to get a little burnt out," she explained, "a little tired of the constant cameras on me all the time." Worried that the sleep deprivation and the constant go-go-go nature of her own series would turn her off dance forever, she stepped off the reality TV stage but not out of the spotlight. Having spent much of quarantine exercising, modeling, partnering with a series of brands and working on her music, the high schooler, set to turn 16 on Aug. 10, has big plans for 2022.
"I definitely think reality TV gave me a bigger, wider platform across the world. Because even today I've met some people that say my show is just now airing in their country. They have no idea that I've grown up. So it's this constant cycle. People will constantly see my life until it has fizzled out, until I lean into something else.
I feel like talking to any of the girls that were on the show, we all have such different experiences, such different perspectives on things or how we felt during these shows. But I feel like, overall, I had a pretty great experience and I wouldn't take back anything. I really did enjoy the time I had out there and growing up on television. Even though it seems like a lot, it was something that really set me up for life that I would never take for granted."