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Utahn is half of the first same-sex pair on ‘Dancing with the Stars’

Jenna Johnson Chmerkovskiy was “shocked” at how her parents back in Provo reacted to the news.

(Eric McCandless | ABC) Jenna Johnson and JoJo Siwa compete on "Dancing with the Stars."

When Jenna Johnson Chmerkovskiy called her parents back home in Provo to tell them that she was going to be half of the first same-sex pairing on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” their response “completely shocked” her.

“They said, ‘What an honor that ‘Dancing with the Stars’ would trust you with this situation,’” said the professional dancer. “And that’s kind of been my whole outlook. When there are times that I do get nervous about it or I do hesitate or question, I just keep thinking, like, what an honor it is that I get to be doing that.”

The show made headlines when it was announced that Johnson Chmerkovskiy would partner with JoJo Siwa, who spent two seasons on the reality show “Dance Moms” and became a YouTube star. Siwa describes herself as pansexual, and she has a girlfriend. Johnson Chmerkovskiy is married, and her husband is fellow “DWTS” professional dancer Valentin Chmerkovskiy.

Dancing with Siwa is both just the latest partner Johnson Chmerkovskiy has had on the show and something decidedly different. Johnson Chmerkovskiy has danced with gay men before — figure skater Adam Rippon and “Queer Eye” star Karamo Brown — but never with an LGBTQ+ woman.

“Even a few years ago, if you had told me I’d be dancing with a female partner on national TV, I probably would have laughed and not thought you were serious,” Johnson Chmerkovskiy said. “But this is groundbreaking, and this does need to happen. And I’m so proud to be the face of this.”

While they’re among the favorites to take home the Mirrorball trophy, “I think what we’re doing is much bigger than that,” she said.

Johnson Chmerkovskiy and Siwa hit it off right away when they met, she said, which has helped them deal with “a lot of stress and a lot of pressure” that’s come with being the first same-sex couple on the show. The dancers choreograph for themselves and their partners, and Johnson Chmerkovskiy isn’t just doing what she would have done with a male partner.

“That’s another reason why I initially said yes, is because it was going to be a challenge and it’s something different,” she said. “I could have played it safe and gone with a male partner and gone through a season knowing exactly what to expect. But I truly go into each week not knowing what to expect, and that keeps me super inspired.”

Rise to fame

Growing up in Provo, Johnson Chmerkovskiy had dreams of a career in dance. Back in the summer of 2013, she had just graduated from Timpview High and made it onto Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” — and she made it to the top eight of the competition. She later returned to that show as a mentor/choreographer, and then transitioned to “Dancing with the Stars.”

(Byron Cohen/ABC) Adam Rippon and Jenna Johnson won the Mirrorball Trophy on "Dancing with the Stars" in 2018. ADAM RIPPON, JENNA JOHNSON

She’s been on 12 of the past 13 seasons of “DWTS” — six as a member of the troupe and six times as a professional partner. She won the Mirrorball Trophy with Rippon in 2018, and finished second with “Catfish” host Nev Schulman in 2020.

“Never in a million years did my 18-year-old self … think that I would end up here now. It is so surreal,” she said. “I have so much to be grateful for. I’m really living out my dreams, and I’ve created a career for myself dancing ballroom, right? Who would’ve thought?”

She’s grateful to her parents “for putting me in dance at a young age and supporting me with all of these crazy ideas that I had. Them sending me off to Los Angeles when I was 18 years old was a very scary move, but I wouldn’t have become who I am or done what I did if it wasn’t for them and their encouragement.”

Recognized in public

One thing that never occurred to her when she was dreaming big was that, one day, she’d be recognized by people when she was out in public.

“It’s pretty insane that random strangers know my name or know what I do or remember a piece of choreography that I did from previous years,” Johnson Chmerkovskiy said. “It’s always humbling. It gives me a reminder to be grateful for what I’ve been able to accomplish and what I’m doing.”

(ABC) Married couple Val Chmerkovskiy and Jenna Johnson are both professional dancers on "Dancing with the Stars."

When she goes out with her husband, they both get recognized. Johnson Chmerkovskiy was definitely not complaining, but she did say, with a laugh, that there are “pros and cons to being in a public relationship. Sometimes my husband and I wish that no one knew who we were and we could just be living a normal life.

“But on the flip side, how incredible that we get to work together. We get to be on a national TV show together, both fulfilling our dreams and succeeding. It’s been so awesome to have him by my side.

And Johnson Chmerkovskiy never expected that her 2019 wedding would be news — that magazines like People and US would publish photos and stories. “It’s wild,” she said. “My parents have copies. My grandparents have copies. And we have copies that I can’t wait to show our babies someday.”

(Christopher Willard/ABC) Jenna Johnson and JoJo Siwa compete on "Dancing with the Stars."

Love and competition

Jenna and Val are each other’s biggest fans, but they both want to win another Mirrorball Trophy. (He’s won two to her one.)

“Both Val and I are super competitive and we love what we do. And we work really hard at what we do,” Johnson Chmerkovskiy said. “And so we both want to be the best.”

They root for each other, of course. “I want him to be successful and he wants that for me,” Johnson Chmerkovskiy said. “And so obviously, when we’re going head to head on a dance competition series, it keeps things exciting and interesting. But I am only happy if he’s succeeding. I want him to be in the final four. I want him to have a chance for that Mirrorball. And I think he has a really great shot this season.”

He’s partnered with Olivia Jade this time. And, like, Johnson Chmerkovskiy and Siwa, they’re among the nine remaining couples as the show heads into the Monday, Nov. 1 episode — 7 p.m. on Channel 4.

One other Utahn is still in the competition — Witney Carson (dancing with The Miz). Two others have been eliminated — Lindsay Arnold (dancing with Matt James) and Brandon Armstrong (dancing with Kenya Moore).

Siwa said her dancing with Johnson Chmerkovskiy “breaks a wall that’s never been broken down before.” And it’s “really special” to her, Siwa added, “that not only do I get to share with the world that you love who you want to love, but also you get to dance with who you want to dance with.”

“I know there are a ton of eyes on us,” Johnson Chmerkovskiy said, “and I know that some people want us to succeed and a lot of people want us to fail. But I think because JoJo and I have been so comfortable with the situation and so just confident in ourselves and what our intentions are on the show, we’ve been able to create some pretty magical moments and pieces together. And some pieces that I definitely wouldn’t be able to create with a male partner.”

And she’s having a blast. “I love dancing with her every Monday night,” Johnson Chmerkovskiy said, “and I’m so happy that I said yes and I get to experience this. I wouldn’t trade this for the world.”

Johnson Chmerkovskiy said she and her husband both are having fun — so much so that it worried her a bit.

“I just talked to my husband about this,” she said. “I told him, ‘I feel so guilty for having so much fun this season.’ And he was, like, ‘Jenna, yes, you should be having this much fun in your work. It’s only going to make your dances and your rehearsals even better.’”


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