Tony Dovolani, NeNe Leakes’ ‘Dancing With the Stars’ pro partner, in Atlanta handicaps her chances of winning

Tony Dovolani is paired with NeNe Leakes on the 18th season of "Dancing With the Stars." CREDIT: ABC

Tony Dovolani is paired with NeNe Leakes on the 18th season of “Dancing With the Stars.” CREDIT: ABC

Tony Dovolani, the sweet professional dancer on “Dancing With the Stars,” has been paired with NeNe Leakes, the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast member and actress for the 18th season of the show.

He was in Atlanta this week at Academy Ballroom off Miami Circle to rehearse with Leakes for the show, which returns on ABC Monday March 17. The pair began working on their first routines last week in Los Angeles and New York but he said Leakes had some Bravo-related work to do in Atlanta this week so they spent a few days here.

Dovolani said given the competition this season  (including an unprecedented five athletes), he thought going in that they might end up finishing in the middle.

But after working with Leakes and seeing her outsized personality in person, he thinks she could very well make it to the finals.

“We know athletes have an advantage,” he said in an in-person interview at Academy Ballroom. “But I feel like personality takes you a long way. As long as we can show NeNe’s personality in a positive way, we can have her connect with the audience at home.”

Leakes was just leaving the dance studio when I stepped in. She looks like she was in good shape and ready to boogie. I didn’t interview her officially but she said she thought it was going to be tough with all the athletes in play. She is looking forward to spending time with fellow contestant Billy Dee Williams, still sexy after all these years. (He’s the token elder statesman on the show at age 76.)

Dovolani, who lives in Connecticut with his wife and three kids, loves his job and expressed no jealousy toward Derek Hough, the star dancer on the show who has won an unprecedented five times. (Hough’s contestants have never finished lower than sixth.)

He has been on the show since season 2, suffering a few early exits (Martina Navratilova, Wendy Williams, Kathy Ireland, Wynonna Judd) and a lot of midde-of-the-pack performers (Jane Seymour, Susan Lucci, Kate Gosselin). His best competitor was “Bachelorette” Melissa Rycroft, who came in third season 8 and a surprise first season 15 for an all-star season. That was his only time he got to take home the mirror-ball trophy. (Yes, the pros get their own.)

Dovolani’s reputation on the show is the good guy, the nice guy and the big brother. (He’s the elder statesman now at age 40.) “All the dancers look to me for answers,” he said. “Cheryl [Burke] said I’m like her godfather.”

He watches “Real Housewives” because of his wife and is familiar with Leakes’ antics on that show.

“I’m her dance teacher,” he said. “There can’t be too much drama. There will be moments when we’ll be tested. As long as I remain a professional and make sure I’m the teacher, she’s the student, we’re partners, we’ll be good.” (He later said that he hopes her alter ego, she references as Nay-Nay, doesn’t come out, he’s good.)

In general, “I don’t do well with drama,” he said. I referenced the notoriously hot-headed Maksim Chmerkovskiy, who returns this season after a brief break. “That’s his schtick. I give him credit for the attention he’s got. I’m glad he’s back. He’s a big part of our show. Anything that brings us more attention is good.”

Drama or no drama, Dovolani wants to design dances that will highlight Leakes’ personality. He said when he teaches students, he tries to find what their strengths are, what types of advice works best for that person. And if they are having a tough moment, he isn’t big on fighting back. Rather, he tries to re-direct that anger or frustration in a more productive way.

Leakes entered the competition in pretty good shape, Dovolani said. And when she complained about soreness, he said that’s a good thing. “If you go to the gym and don’t get sore, you didn’t have a work out,” he said. “Dancing wakes up a lot of muscles you may have forgotten about. You can burn 275 calories in 45 minutes dancing. The natural movement of dancers elongates muscles and keeps the body healthy.”

He said he doesn’t have to spend 10 hours a day in the studio with her because she comes in prepared. “She practices when she goes home,” he said. “She comes in with good questions and comes up with good ideas in terms of how she wants to look. I love it when someone is outspoken and knows what they want. It makes my job easier. My goal is to make my partner shine.”

He himself has managed to get through 16 seasons of the show relatively unscathed. Ironically, he was most hurt season 15 when he won with Rycroft, courtesy of a bad back and a torn tendon in his wrist. “It meant more given I was in so much pain,” he said. “We worked so hard. We never had one dirty look. We had the same purpose in mind – to win.”

Other topics:

On new co host and Atlanta resident Erin Andrews (who finished second season 9): “Erin’s a lot of fun. Has a great personality. She’s welcoming to the contestants and understands what they’re going through. I loved Brooke Burke. She was wonderful. At the same time, it’s nice to see a fresh new face.”

On Tom Bergeron: “He’s so understated. He’s fantastic. He’s only one Emmy. He should have more!”

On Melissa Rycroft: “She’s pregnant. She’s giving birth to her second child. She’s like my little angel.”

On Leah Remini, his season 17 partner who came in fifth: “She and her husband have become my family. She’s been my mentor. She really worked. She gave me everything, every ounce of energy she had. She was also very vulnerable and scared. [She had just left Scientology.] She felt exposed in some ways. I had to keep her in the right frame of mind.”

On losing the results show: “We’re still adjusting to it. The results show as like a little variety show. It was like an unofficial day off for us. We used to have one night just to celebrate. Not anymore… On the bright side, I have more time to choreograph.”

On Omega 3 oils: “It has helped make it possible for me to dance into my 40s. I don’t feel it.” He promotes Omega XL as a global brand ambassador.

His brief time in Atlanta: He got to golf Wednesday afternoon at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth not far from Leakes’ home and gave the place a shout out: “It was a beautiful course, an incredible experience,” he said.  And he repeated what many celebrity visitors say when they come into town: “The people here are so kind. They go overboard to make you feel welcome.”

On his future as a dancer: “My body still works. I feel stronger than ever. I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. Maybe it has to do with the Omega XL.” (Endorsement alert!)

UPDATE: If you want to know how much celebrities get paid on this show, TMZ got a look at Cody Simpson‘s contract. He is only 17 so his contract has to be filed in court and made public. In it, he gets paid $125,000 guaranteed up front and more money each week he sticks round. The winner could pick up at least $400,000 as well as that mirror-ball trophy.

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