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National

Protesters Rush Stage After Ryan Lochte's 'Dancing With The Stars' Routine

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Since it started back in the summer of 2005, ABC's "Dancing With The Stars" has made its mark pairing not just athletes and models with ballroom dancers but celebrities we'll describe as, well, falling or fallen stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DANCING WITH THE STARS")

CORNISH: This year, it's U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, fresh off his scandal in Brazil. Last night's season premiere of "Dancing With The Stars" was supposed to be a new start. He danced a foxtrot with his partner. And then two protestors in anti-Lochte T-shirts rush the stage, aiming to tackle him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DANCING WITH THE STARS")

CARRIE ANN INABA: Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me. Ah, ah. Excuse me.

CORNISH: The audience was divided in its reaction. There were some chants of liar, liar in the crowd. Others stood up to give Lochte a standing ovation. Lochte's not the only celebrity to grace the stage in need of an image rehab. Slate editor Laura Bennett is here to talk more about this. Welcome to the program.

LAURA BENNETT: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.

CORNISH: Well, we are too, because, obviously, Ryan Lochte - known for causing near-international outcry when he and other swimmers lied about having been robbed in Brazil during the Olympics. Is this about a do-over?

BENNETT: Oh, it sure is. There is truly no more perfect contestant for "Dancing With The Stars." Ryan Lochte - you know, a good-natured goofus (ph) in pursuit of redemption. This is the perfect vehicle for him.

CORNISH: But why? What are the casting folks looking for, especially when it comes to people like him who have a PR problem?

BENNETT: So for this piece I wrote, I interviewed the casting director, who's kind of a wizard on "Dancing With The Stars," whose name is Deena Katz. And she talked to me a little bit about sort of the mix of contestants they want on every season of "Dancing With The Stars."

And so, you know, you want your sort of nostalgia cards. Like, Jennifer Gray was on one season. You want your crowd-pleasers. And then you want someone who has been through some kind of public odyssey. And the public wants to sort of root for their rehabilitation.

CORNISH: So why does it make sense to do this, rather than, say, a round of late-night talk shows?

BENNETT: The pitch they make to celebrities is that they allow them to seem sort of in on the joke. Tom Bergeron, for instance, in the premiere with Lochte, said - you know, his introduction was, our next star made big news by becoming the second-most decorated Olympic swimmer in history.

And he made some other news, too, which is sort of, like, a classic, hammy, good-natured "Dancing With The Stars" reference to the scandal that doesn't really require him to steep himself in it.

CORNISH: Right.

BENNETT: He doesn't have to really address it.

CORNISH: But then I think of someone like Paula Deen - right? - who was on last year and who was on the heels of a scandal where she was accused, essentially, of bigotry. Did something like that (laughter) really get rehabbed through a reality TV show?

BENNETT: I mean, that is a good question. I will say she was the rare contestant, where they didn't even nod to her scandal because it was too - sort of racism is too hot for primetime. So rather than make a joke-y (ph) reference to what she needed to overcome, they just let her, you know, climb on stage and say, I'm Paula Deen. And I'm probably most known for cooking.

CORNISH: So does it actually help?

BENNETT: Well, you know, I would say yes. So if you watched Lochte's, he looked sort of beleaguered and sweet and hangdog. Like, he came out of it seeming like a guy who was, you know, victimized in some way unfairly. And here he was, just trying to do the foxtrot. And it was all being blown up by some meddlesome protesters.

So they really are uniquely deft at - you know, at manufacturing a certain, like, good vibes and high spirits and making every celebrity look like they just want to have a good time. And naysayers are sort of just buzz kills.

CORNISH: That's Laura Bennett with Slate. Thanks so much for talking with us.

BENNETT: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DANCING WITH THE STARS" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.