Seven years after coming thisclose to a win with Mel B. on Dancing with the Stars, Maksim Chmerkovskiy finally has his Mirrorball trophy. His victory with Meryl Davis on Tuesday seemed to be a foregone conclusion, or at least the hot pick, since the cast announcement, but Chmerkovskiy says he had no expectations when he decided to return to the show after taking two seasons off.
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"I really had no expectations. I thought I would last three, four, five weeks," he tells TVGuide.com. "And then Meryl walks in and I go, 'Are you guys serious? There's no way this is my partner.' I was expecting someone to tell her, "Excuse me, sorry, Meryl, you're in the wrong room.' I wouldn't have even been upset."
Instead, the pair's are-they-aren't-they chemistry, coupled with the Olympic champ's technical prowess (the duo broke Kristi Yamaguchi and Mark Ballas' record of highest average season score) propelled them to a long-awaited win for the famously hotheaded pro that he says is worth the wait. Keep reading to see Chmerkovskiy speak at length about the win, those dating rumors, his (sometimes rocky) tenure on the show, how he returned with a different outlook, why he wants to apologize to fans, and if he's done with the show for good.
Congratulations! How does it feel to finally win?
Maksim Chmerkovskiy: Thank you! It's great. I'm not going to say it was exactly how I imagined it to be. It took me many years to stop imagining winning and just do my job. ... I was happy with the season. Any outcome would've been great. ... It's funny because it's Meryl's win. We're the professionals. The show made a huge point about this win being about me, and that felt really uncomfortable, to be honest with you. Meryl allowed me to bask in it a little bit, but that's our relationship. Everything that happened this year would not have happened had it not been for her.
You guys have gotten a lot of mileage out of the romance speculation. How much of that was played up for show? Set the record straight.
Chmerkovskiy: Our relationship is very real. She's incredible. It's going to go beyond Dancing with the Stars for sure. ... As far as what everybody is asking romantically, these things will never be answered by me. You're going to see things in tabloids and pictures, and you have people gossiping and making up their own stories, but I will never speak about my personal life.
The show really milked it too.
Chmerkovskiy: I think the show never had a couple like Meryl and me. ... We had these stories on the floor that gave a completely new depth to our show. Between what we did and what Derek was able to do with Amy, this season has been absolutely remarkable. We had unbelievable dancers. ... Nobody, I think, came close to Meryl and me, just by sheer passion. That passion, that togetherness and that look in each other's eyes — yes, some of it was necessary for the dances to be what they needed to be from a performance standpoint. Most of it was coming from a very real spot. We connected right away and it was extremely creative.
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Almost every season without fail, there's a huge Maks temper tantrum midway. You got frustrated this season, but it never went over-the-top.
Chmerkovskiy: One thing that was amazing this season was I felt a lot of support. This was the first time I was like, "So that's what it feels like when people are rooting for you." I didn't feel any different as far as treatment, like, "You get any production piece you want." But I felt that people genuinely wanted to see me succeed, and that gave me a lot of confidence. There were tense moments, but that tension wasn't produced in the form of, "He's the bad guy" again. It was more, "This stuff is getting to him because it's so close and so real."
What do you make of Julianne's "phone it in" dig?
Chmerkovskiy: I won't remember this season for Julianne's comment or Abby Lee [Miller]. I will remember the season because it was amazing, just like [my past ones]. The difference is it culminated in a win. It's one of those things that is very hard to understand if you have not competed your entire life. Why is it so important to win? It's an athlete thing to say. Without that, you don't have the drive. If there's no difference between second and last, I can just skate by and phone it in — pun intended — and end up last and still be happy. But how long does that happiness last? I have a trophy that validates nine years of being on Dancing with the Stars. It happened this year, it happened this way, and I guess that's the way it's meant to be.
A lot of people still feel that you and Mel were robbed. Does that loss and waiting seven more years to finally win make you appreciate this more?
Chmerkovskiy: Yes. I would've appreciated it had I won with Mel. If they had called Amy and Derek as the winners, all would be right in the world. There would be no riots or outcry because Amy is just as deserving of that win. Every couple is different. I watch [Mel and myself] back and I'm very proud. ... Amy, what do you say? It's crazy what she was able to achieve. That's exactly what the show is about. It's the first time that I understood it. When I was standing there, I wasn't nervous. I was just thinking, "I get it now." It's not who's better or who's worse, you know?
Because art is subjective.
Chmerkovskiy: Yes, and everybody dances to the best of their ability and when they do and they feel it, it's their best dance. It's hard for us to understand because we keep comparing people's cha-chas and everything. I don't think Diana Nyad's dance was any worse than Meryl and mine; it was just hers. That realization nine years later, it was like, "You're an idiot. You finally got it." Before, I was a competitor. I thought I'm a nobody until I win. ... That's why I got even angrier because I was trying to win one to validate my effort, to be worthy of being here. The more I tried, the less I could do it. Finally, I get here and I don't care about winning. I just wanted to do it and no longer for anybody's approval. And this is the season I get Meryl.
How important was it to take the past two seasons off?
Chmerkovksiy: It was more than important. I was done with the show. I was rooting for Val and Tony and my friends, but I had no plans to come back. I had no plans to the point even if it financially kills me. My goal was always to win and walk away, but I never won, so I could never walk away. That would not make me happy had I walked away without a win. But throughout my life, that's what's happened. I never won a world ballroom title, but I left ballroom dancing competitively. And same thing on Dancing with the Stars.
What did you do last year?
Chmerkovskiy: I spent a lot of time taking acting lessons. ... Actors have no inhibitions and I'm inhibited by everything. To be able to make fun of yourself is a skill and a liberating experience. With that, I ended up on Broadway with Karina. I have to give her credit because that experience made me fall in love with dancing again, the art of it that I was never able to put into a sentence. If you look back [at my blogs], I definitely don't sound like this. I don't use words like "passion for dance," "made me fall in love." I was like, "Let's get the win." ... So with that in mind I came back to the show with a new mentality.
When you got Meryl, a lot of people were like, "He must've asked for someone he could win with. Those were his terms for coming back."
Chmerkovskiy: I did not. My history and things I've said about the show are [well-documented]. ... I've had differences of opinion with them and [outgoing executive producer] Conrad Green in the past. There were things that are not visible that I felt were unfair and some other elements. I lost with Mel B., and then I took the next season off. Why did we lose? Who cares? We did our best. That should've been my mentality then. I was so negative and it translated onto the show. ... People want to be entertained and if you're not, why would you want to vote for me? When you go to a circus and you see an angry clown, do you like that? That's not the clown you want to see. You want to be entertained. ... I was never on the same page with that.
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How did it come together then?
Chmerkovskiy: There was no, "Maks, please come back," or me begging for a year, "Conrad, please have me back." I ended up flying to L.A. and walking into a meeting with them, which I asked for. I said, "Conrad, I want to start fresh. I don't want to demand anything, but I want to start on a complete blank page. You don't know me, I don't know you. I'm a brand new pro, but you've seen me on tape and I passed the audition." And he was like, "Deal. Let's do it." What came out of it was what you saw.
It was one of the hardest seasons physically. ... I have a partially torn groin muscle, which started when I was on Broadway. I have issues with my knees, my ankles, my hips hurt. None of these things people heard because for the first time, I didn't want to follow the formula that I followed every season before that. ... Did we feel the pressure? Absolutely. You saw me throw a mic! Because I'm human. You put anyone in this situation, they will have a reaction. I'm just dumb enough to do it the way I do it. Everybody else turns their mics off, say they're having a break, drive two blocks away, get out of the car and scream uncontrollably, then come back to rehearsal.
So now that you've won, are you going to stick to your word and walk away?
Chmerkovskiy: I personally don't see myself doing it again. ... I don't need to win the show multiple times to be satisfied. I need excitement. I hope I brought people happiness they were looking for when they were tuning in. ... Whether I come back or not, it's not up to me. Maybe tomorrow something will change and I will say, "Let's do this again." But I really don't see that happening.
You could come back as a judge again. Replace Len if he's really leaving.
Chmerkovskiy: I'm not saying I want to part ways with the show. I just don't know if I have it in me to feel what I felt this season. I felt so much with Meryl that I don't know if I'm capable of doing that on call because I have to. You've never seen me do a rumba this way, you've never seen me dance barefoot. ... But I want all the people who supported me all these years while I was annoying and unreasonable to stay and watch. Don't stop watching because I'm no longer there. I want them to exhale and to understand that each one of them has a trophy too. And now, please enjoy the show. It's brilliant TV. ... I can show this to my kids one day and say, "Daddy did that." They'll see me dance with Baloo and King Louie.
You mean Boris and Oleg? Or should I say Bear?
Chmerkovskiy: Oh, my God! That was so bad! That was not meant to make TV. They kept being asked these questions about Meryl, and I was like, "Let me start talking gibberish and when I will have wasted enough time, they'll be over it." But then it became funny and people in the room were laughing. There are hours and hours of footage of me behind the scenes that if they come out, my God! They're hilarious.
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Are they on the level of "sex on a stick"?
Chmerkovskiy: It's on the level of "sex on a stick." I do a monologue once a day on average. I don't know where they come from. ... I came up to Tom when he was cussing in dress rehearsals and I was like, "Now you know how it feels." He was like, "This is bullsh--!" ... You have no idea in 18 seasons how much stuff there is.
Where are you going to put the trophy?
Chmerkovskiy: I don't know yet. [On Wednesday] we had a big get-together at my house. Meryl came and Val flew in. It was awesome to see people's reactions in the streets. It's everybody's win. ... Everybody wanted to touch the trophy. It's funny because Meryl Davis is standing next to you and she won an Olympic gold medal three months ago. She worked for that for 20 years. Now, winning this plastic Mirrorball is just as special for these people. It was a storybook ending.
I want to say a humongous thank you to the fans. They're the show. I can be brilliant, but if people don't vote, I will be gone just like Mark and Sabrina back then, which is still the most shocking elimination. They're the only reason I have the life I have now. I did a lot of work, but it wouldn't have mattered if people weren't behind me. ... There's a huge group of people out there who wanted Maks to win and I want to say thank you for sticking around, and I'm sorry. I want to apologize for not giving them this opportunity earlier. I was hardheaded and stubborn. Had I known then what I know now, I probably would've done it earlier just for them. But it's worth the wait. Sinatra said, "I did it my way," and I'm proud of it.
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