Utah native Derek Hough is back on ‘Dancing,’ and he’s got a big deal with ABC

(Photo courtesy of Eric McCandless/ABC) Utah native Derek Hough has returned to "Dancing with the Stars" as a judge.

When he first joined “Dancing with the Stars” back in 2007, Derek Hough was a fraud. Or, at least, he felt like one.

“Can I be honest with you? I didn’t know what I was doing,” said the Utah native. "I had no idea. And when somebody first called me a choreographer, I was, like, ‘No, I’m not.’ … I was just a dancer.”

A very successful competitive dancer, but in 2007 not much of anybody knew that. When he joined “DWTS” in Season 5, he was basically known as the brother of Julianne Hough, who had won the Mirror Ball Trophy the previous season (with Apolo Anton Ohno) and would win again in Season 5 (with Helio Castroneves). And his dance partners weren’t particularly impressed by him.

“I’ll never forget it,” Hough said. “My first couple partners were, like, ‘Who is this 12‑year‑old boy I’m dancing with?’”

Well, he was actually 22 in 2007. But a very young-looking 22. “Honestly, I felt like I was just kind of faking it,” he said. “Trying to prove myself to my partners.”

(Photo courtesy of Kelsey McNeal/ABC) Derek Hough and Amber Riley were crowned champions and awarded the coveted Mirror Ball Trophy on the Season 17 finale of "Dancing with the Stars."

He finished fourth (with Jennie Garth) in Season 5 and sixth (with Shannon Elizabeth) in Season 6, but then went on to win (with Brooke Burke) in Season 7 — the first of a record six times he took home the Mirror Ball Trophy (with Nicole Scherzineger, Jennifer Grey, Kellie Pickler, Amber Riley and Bindi Irwin).

And, by the way, he’s won a pair of Emmy Awards for choreography (in 2013 and 2015).

“Along the line, what this show taught me was not just how to choreograph, but how to work with people and how to encourage people and how to bring the best out of them,” Hough said. “It really ignited this passion within me for serving others and to ... find ways to make them their best.”

A new ABC contract

Rejoining “Dancing with the Stars” (Mondays, 7 p.m., Ch. 4) this season as a judge is not the really big news for Hough. He just signed a deal with ABC to host and develop specials and entertainment programming for the network.

“Derek is a creative force not just in the ballroom, but also every room he enters,” said ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke. “The energy and dedication he brings to every project is palpable. We value his partnership immensely and look forward to the exciting and imaginative projects to come.”

What, exactly, those shows will be is still under wraps, although Hough said he’s “looking forward to things coming soon.”

“Especially in these times right now, I feel like magic and lights and positivity and joy and just pure entertainment is what I want to be a part of,” he said. “And I think that Disney and ABC ... embody that.”

He brought “pure entertainment” to both “Disney Family Singalong” specials that aired earlier this year, performing with his sister, Julianne, and his longtime girlfriend, Hayley Erbert.

He’s also scheduled to headline in Las Vegas in 2021, starring in “Derek Hough: No Limits” at the Flamingo Las Vegas from June 2 to Nov. 7 (pending the pandemic, of course).

Judge — and cheerleader

On both “Dancing with the Stars” and “World of Dance” — which has featured him as a judge since 2017 — Hough has built a reputation for giving honest feedback mixed with a whole lot of encouragement. He sees it as the same sort of tough love he got from his dance instructors.

“If the teacher was picking on me, then I honestly would be, like, that’s a good thing, because it means they believe in you. They want you to be better,” he said. “So, yeah, I catch myself being a little bit more critical, a bit more tough on some couples that I believe have a lot of potential.”

He admits that, for him, the toughest part of judging is keeping his remarks brief.

“I think my inner coach, my inner teacher wants to come out and I want to give a whole TED Talk to the contestants about how they can improve,” he said. “For me, there is a lot of compassion and understanding and empathy for what they are going through. It’s hard for people to really fathom how challenging it is.”

(Photo courtesy of Eric McCandless/ABC) Judges Carrie Ann Inaba, Derek Hough and Bruno Tonioli during an episode of “Dancing with the Stars.”

Much has been made about how Hough was a last-minute replacement for longtime judge Len Goodman, who couldn’t travel from his home in the U.K. because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But, according to executive producer Andrew Llinares, he had been talking to Hough about the job for “months” — and even if Goodman was available, Hough would still be judging this season on “DWTS.”

“The plan was for it to be the four of them — Len, Bruno [Tonioli], Carrie Ann [Inaba] and Derek,” he said. “And, of course, because of the situation this year, that couldn’t happen.”

“I’m trying to edge him out because I’m still bitter over a six he gave me 10 years ago,” Hough joked.

Goodman has made some brief appearances via satellite, giving the show “at least a sprinkle of Len across the season,” Llinares said. He’s not promising that there will be a four-judge panel next season — he’s not promising anyone will be back. “Who knows what will happen next year?” he said.

Changes at ‘DWTS’

Adding Hough to the judging panel wasn’t the only change the show made this season. Longtime hosts Tom Bergeron and Erin Andrews were fired and replaced by Tyra Banks, who’s also an executive producer this season.

Llinares denied that Bergeron was fired because he was vocal in his opposition to casting former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer last year, repeatedly asserting the change to Banks was “about evolution” and making the show “feel fresh, exciting and new.”

“The host is part of it. Bringing Derek in is part of it,” Llinares said.

(Courtesy photo) Julianne and Derek Hough brought their "Move Live On Tour" show to the Maverik Center in 2015.

Hough spent the past four summers sitting alongside Jennifer Lopez and Ne-Yo judging “World Of Dance.” Will he be returning as a judge for Season 5?

Hough deflected the question, insisting his “focus is on … ‘Dancing with the Stars.’” He also correctly pointed out that NBC hasn’t officially ordered another season of “World of Dance,” so there’s no issue — yet.

He won’t be judged, but Hough will perform in the Oct. 19 episode of “Dancing with the Stars.” He’ll dance with Erbert, who he met when she was a troupe dancer on “DWTS.”

“We actually did a little session yesterday, and we woke up this morning very sore,” he said earlier this month. “So, we were like, ‘Oh, OK. We have three [weeks] to make this happen.’”

(Photo courtesy of ABC) Derek Hough and Hayley Erbert perform on “The Disney Family Singalong.”

Hough said that he recently walked onto the empty ballroom set and was overwhelmed by memories. “Being a part of this show has been such a dream, and I’m so thankful for it,” he said. “And to have the honor and the pleasure to perform once again in this sacred space, it really is a pleasure.”

Yes, he did say sacred. “I certainly won’t want to disappoint. I’m going to bring my all … to the dance floor, as much as I possibly can,” Hough said.

One of the things that makes Hough so appealing on TV is that he veritably oozes earnest charm. And he certainly sounded sincere when he enthused that it’s “so great to be back in the ballroom.”

“It honestly reminds me how much I love ‘Dancing with the Stars,’” he said. “I owe so much to this show and the people that have been a part of it and are a part of it. It’s really, really special. And to be a part of this journey once again in a different role is magical.”

He laughed when he recalled some “terrible decisions, terrible routines” when he first joined the show. And he said coming back as a judge is a “full circle moment.”

“I pinch myself sometimes and reflect back on my first performance on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’” he said, “and just to see how far and how much the show has grown and it’s gotten better and better.”