It’s a curious thing this JFK to LAX commute. As an editor in chief of celebrity magazines for a couple of decades now—oh, how time has literally flown—the New York City to Los Angeles round trip has been a staple of my work life as dependable as my constant dealings with snarky publicists, stubborn photographers and egomaniacal stars. But there’s something about those six hours aboard a steel flying machine that often trump the reason for my trip, and I find myself looking forward to the flight more than arriving at that sun-drenched playground.
Being fortunate to enjoy first-class travel over the years, I’ve met some of the world’s biggest names in that most private of sanctuaries, the far forward cabin of an airplane. And more often than not, the celebrities aboard have also done that particular flight as frequently as you, thus a natural kinship forms. The unspoken rule applies: What is said at 30,000 feet stays at 30,000 feet. The colorful tales I’ve been told in my quarter century of doing this seriously boggles the mind. Seriously.
On this particular occasion, I’m heading to the City of Angels to meet the enigmatic and beautiful Karina Smirnoff, undeniably one of the big reasons millions tune in week in, week out to ABC’s monster smash competition show, Dancing With The Stars. As one of the regular professionals paired with “stars,” Smirnoff’s own fame usually exceeds the so-called celebrity she’s tasked to teach treacherous dance routines. And the results are nothing short of telegenic ratings magic. More on Smirnoff’s guiles in a bit, but first, I have a plane to catch.
Preparing to board the packed midday flight—if your flight leaves NYC at noon and LA at 8 a.m., you tend to get rewarded with the most celebrities in attendance—I spot a superstar television producer I know. He’s completely lost in his conversation on his iPhone 5 as the flight attendant pours his first of many (I know him well) vodka sodas. As I walk by unnoticed, I overhear him threaten-whisper into his phone: “You tell that famous bitch, if she wants me to go all Harvey Weinstein on her ass, she has no idea who she’s dealing with!” This is precisely why I mock and love Hollywood in equal measure, for that cartoonish, ridiculous declaration from the producer is said without a hint of irony or self-awareness. That is how LA folks in the entertainment business regularly speak to and about each other. I find it hilarious and a certain sign—along with the inexplicable and enduring career of Gary Busey—of the looming apocalypse.
Some of the most remarkable celebrity encounters I’ve had on airplanes were with people I literally never thought about until they sat next to me. Who knew David Beckham was so funny? Or Drew Barrymore was so in love with love? Or Sigourney Weaver was so tall (more legroom, please!)? Or Joan Rivers was so thoughtful? Or Aaron Eckhart had the ease, charm and looks of a young Paul Newman? Or Oscar-winning directors Ang Lee and Mike Nicholls, on separate occasions, were so genuinely curious about me? Or Carnie Wilson was so heartbreakingly candid? Or Mimi Rogers was so chatty about everything? Or Jake Gyllenhaal was so, so dreamy? Or Simon Baker was so damn nice? Or Cameron Mathison was so exposed; so honest you want to hug him immediately after his latest revelation? Or Tim McGraw was so comfortable in his religion-exposing tight jeans? Or that Gayle King was the best person ever? Or several Cosby kids were still stigmatized by their early success? Or Mary-Kate Olsen (or was it Ashley?) was swallowed up in a blanket only to emerge to eat bread? Or Stephen Dorff was spot-on in his hilarious, chatty dissection of Hollywood? Or Josh Groban had a jaw-dropping, NC-17 sense of humor? Or Kate Hudson’s infectious laugh never leaves you? Or John Krasinski telling you how funny you are? Or Missy Elliott’s serious motion sickness? Or how Alec Baldwin’s smarts knows no bounds? Or Javier Bardem’s kindness transcends cross-Atlantic exhaustion? Or how Christopher Walken, after several flights together, would become my all-time favorite celebrity plane companion and conversationalist? Who knew? To be clear, there’s a certain dance—and three foolproof rules—I follow when seated next to a celebrity on a long flight: let them initiate engagement. Feign mild disinterest in anything they’re doing. Make direct eye contact. These seemingly simple rules have always served me well. By letting them start the conversation, they’re in more control of the situation and therefore feel safer. Also, if they detect that you’re not that into them, their egos are somewhat bruised—this is universally true of anyone who relies on the public to get paid (athletes very much included). And, finally, by making eye contact you’re reminding them that you’re a real person outside the Hollywood bubble of shifty-eyed sycophants they’re barraged with on the daily. You instantly become “a breath of fresh air” and someone desirable with whom to endure a cross-country trek. It helps if you’re a little funny and hyperaware of the celebrity you’re talking to (without letting on too much). There you go, my secret sauce of airplane celebrity pas de deux revealed.
Landing in the entertainment capital of the world takes me back to my familiar routine. Chatting with the nicest Town Car driver on record—and, of course, he was a regular years ago on a mildly successful television drama—I stare out the window toward the hills above Sunset Boulevard and prepare my favorite Hollywood itinerary with my closest and dearest boys and girls: Casual Mexican lunch at Poquito Más, drinks at Mondrian’s Sky Bar, dinner at Soho House West Hollywood. Done—my LA in a nutshell. Now, one Karina Smirnoff awaits.
As a semi-regular viewer of Dancing With The Stars, I’ve always been drawn to Smirnoff, but not so much for her more obvious traits, but for her all-too-apparent desire for perfection. I’ve always been fascinated by perfectionists, and Smirnoff had all the makings of the little girl in class who always had the answers and always got the “A.” But that little girl didn’t always grow up to be the happiest and that, too, interested me. Beneath those impossibly glitzy, revealing outfits, was Karina Smirnoff actually happy? And, frankly, why did I care so much? Oh, but I did.
All of this subtext was suddenly thrust to the fore a few months ago when Smirnoff, paired with 2007 DWTS champion and multiple Olympic gold medalist, Apolo Anton Ohno, for the All-Stars edition, unexpectedly—shockingly—fell hard during a difficult hip-hop routine, and she broke down in front of America on live television. There stood the gorgeous perfectionist, the over-achieving world champion in a heap of emotion simply because she, for once, had a crushing human experience. Smirnoff was never as interesting or compelling as she was at that moment: Vulnerable, raw, embarrassed. I couldn’t wait to see how Smirnoff would handle her subsequent dance with Ohno. Predictably, they were never better—sharp, joyful, connected—and I still believe that televised public take-down may have been the best thing to ever happen to Smirnoff’s image. It made her just a little more like the rest of us.
Karina Smirnova was born January 2, 1978, in Kharliv, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. By the time Smirnoff started walking it was evident she suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and her parents enrolled her in myriad activities—figure skating, gymnastics, ballet, piano, aerobics—anything to exhaust their daughter enough so she could sleep. Prior to her tenth birthday, Smirnoff discovered her passion for ballroom dancing and dropped everything else to focus exclusively on this athletic, demanding pursuit. Good move.
At 14, Smirnoff’s promising dancing career was placed on hold when her family immigrated to the US, settling in New York City. As Smirnoff focused on academics, dancing wasn’t as big a priority while she attended Christopher Columbus High School and Bronx High School of Science. After high school, the overachieving Smirnoff enrolled at Fordham University with a double major in economics and information systems programming with law school very much in her sights. But the lure of dance was too strong, and Smirnoff resumed her training with top professionals in NYC. After five years of respectable international results in the professional dance circuit, Smirnoff came into her own as a powerhouse in 2001 when—partnered with fellow Ukrainian, Slavik Kryklyvyy—the couple dominated ballroom dance competitions for four years, winning an astounding five US Latin Ballroom Championships, a World Trophy Championship, an Asian Open Championship and making a joint appearance in Shall We Dance, a film starring Jennifer López and Richard Gere. Oh yes, there was no denying that this charismatic, driven ball of fire, this Karina Smirnoff, was headed places—but where? To Hollywood, of course.
Undoubtedly impressed with Smirnoff’s stunning features and impeccable dance credentials, the producers of Dancing With The Stars asked Smirnoff to join the third season of the show and she was instantly paired with suave television host and actor (and agile mover) Mario López. They came in second place in a disputed final—I don’t think there’s any question in most people’s minds that López and Smirnoff were by far the best dancers in the competition. Now, this is the part of the Karina Smirnoff story that gets just a touch sensitive: the famous men.
Smirnoff and López started dating seriously during DWTS and broke up two years later in 2008. A minute later—or so it seemed—Smirnoff began dating fellow Ukrainian dancer (and the breakout male professional on the show) Maksim Chmerkovskiy and became engaged on New Year’s Eve that year only to break up nine months later prior to the wedding. Just a month later, Smirnoff began seeing professional baseball player Brad penny and they, too, announced their engagement a year later only to call it quits in late 2011. For six romance-filled, roller-coaster years, Smirnoff became the inadvertent, reluctant poster child for public celebrity heartbreak. One is left to wonder: is the famously strong Smirnoff going to be OK after so much personal disappointment? I came to Los Angeles to get some answers.
As is de rigueur these days, Karina Smirnoff is a brand, an appealing one at that. She’s the power behind workout program DanceFiT-KS, has a natural supplement vitamin line, Ketone’s and has her own makeup line from Girlactik. Smirnoff is also a seasoned “house flipper” (savvy real estate investor) and fulfilled one of her important goals by finally winning Dancing With The Stars and the coveted mirror ball trophy during Season 13 paired with soap opera star JR Martinez. Smirnoff—as in all aspects of her life—was no longer the bridesmaid, but the bride. She buried her “Susan Lucci of professional dance” moniker once and for all. Hallelujah!
Smirnoff is tiny, bubbly and a true girl’s girl—real, sassy, blunt. When I approach her as we settle in for what would become an interminably long day and evening for the cover story photo shoot and interview, she looks right at me and says, “Hi! I’m so excited!” Seeing that reaction from the dancing diva, I said, “Are you ready to have some fun and play dress up?” She squealed—literally squealed—and screamed: “Are you kidding? Yes!” Now that’s the right way to start my day way up in the hills of Hollywood.
One of Smirnoff’s close friends—and Season 12 DWTS partner—actor/director Ralph Macchio, just gave Smirnoff the opportunity of starring in a film he wrote and directed about a ten-year-old boy who becomes fascinated with a beautiful yet troubled older woman he sees dancing in a neighboring house. Smirnoff plays the dancer and the movie just wrapped filming in New York City. Smirnoff couldn’t be more excited. “I absolutely love Ralph Macchio and working on this film has been one of the greatest joys in my life. I can’t wait for everyone to see it.“
From different angles and in certain light, Smirnoff resembles Angelina Jolie one minute, Jennifer López the next; the fact that those two supernova icons are two of her biggest influences makes perfect sense. But the thing to take away from Karina Smirnoff is her determined, can-do attitude to any task before her, her burning desire to have children as soon as possible and her constant self-exploration.
Breaking it down, leaving Smirnoff’s presence there’s a little less light, a little less truth leaves the room with her. In a town known for a cacophony of celebrity BS, it’s downright shocking to sit down and hear the unvarnished truth from someone so well known. When I ask her the million-dollar question: is the perfectionist, driven, smart girl actually happy? Smirnoff answers the only way she knows how, completely honestly: “yes, almost—I’m almost happy.” Here’s hoping she gets there. She’s certainly put in the work.
As candid and loving and appealing as Karina Smirnoff is during our curl-up-on-the-sofa conversation, I find myself wishing I was sitting next to her on a midday JFK-LAX flight with several cocktails in front of us and nothing but sky—and gossipy truth—in front of us. Now that’s a conversation I would love to have. You would, too. Believe me.
Tell me about your childhood.
My mom is Russian and my dad is Greek and I was born in the Ukraine. As a single child, there were a lot of expectations thrust upon me. I always had to be the best at everything I tried—grades in school, dancing competitions—everything. Having no siblings made it tough for my parents, too. I don’t know how to do anything halfway.
So the perfectionist in you was born.
At 14, you found yourself in the US and in New York City, no less.
I recently learned the reason we left Ukraine when I was 14 was because crime was spiraling and it became too dangerous for us to stay. When I arrived in the US, I was afraid to speak at all in school. Everything was so different. I would run home from school and try to learn English from watching television shows. Friends and Saved By The Bell were two shows I always watched.
So Jennifer Aniston and Mario López helped you learn English?
How did you manage a double major at Fordham University while pursuing dancing on the side?
My parents didn’t want dancing to be the sole focus of my life. So I pursued two degrees with the intention of attending law school when I graduated. So I danced and went to college at the same time. Crazy. I remember this guy from England approached me and I found out he was among the top five dancers in the world and he asked me to dance with him at a tryout. By then I knew this is what I wanted to do with my career. To be able to dance with Paul Killick is like winning the lottery, but my mom wasn’t happy at all. I went to London for a year and came back and graduated from Fordham. It was tough, but I kept my promise to my mom. Something I’m proud of.
I think I know the answer, but is Dancing With The Stars that hard?
It is unquestionably the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Those three months of your life will be the most thrilling and the most frustrating you’ll ever experience. It thrusts a connection with another human being you didn’t know was possible. It pushes you to do things you weren’t even aware you were capable of doing. It’s an incredible journey, plain and simple.
Is fear the biggest hurdle for celebrities on DWTS?
Yes, absolutely, the fear of failing on national television and the fear of making a fool of yourself.
You purchased a home in New Jersey nearly a decade ago. How did you come to that decision?
I had lived in every borough of New york City—Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, Staten island—and I was tired of not having enough room for my shoes and purses, so I gave New Jersey a look. I love it there. I’ve been there since 2004.
Tell me something great about New Jersey everyone should know.
New Jersey is actually a really cool place to live. It’s beautiful and lush—very green. I always love going to New York City and then I get to drive back home to my huge backyard in Jersey.
Tell me about the hard fall you had dancing with Apolo Anton Ohno last season. It looked serious.
The fall was the direct result of me looking at the taped package of Apolo and I rehearsing just prior to dancing live. During the segment, I came across so awful, dropping so many f-bombs and it really looked as if I hated hip hop and that I didn’t know that style of dance. By the time we had to dance, I was pretty destroyed. I was raised so well and turning into a potty-mouthed sailor on national TV, well, it destroyed me. By the time we started dancing, I already had tears in my eyes. The fall wasn’t a surprise to me, but with that much adrenalin, I didn’t feel the pain until later. I was just so embarrassed. But I must say, I learned from it: No more f-bombs from me, that I promise you.
How much input do you have about which partner you have?
We have some input. Gavin DeGraw, for example, and I knew each other prior to him being my dance partner.
Was winning DWTS with JR Martínez one of your best moments of your life?
Oh yes, it’s within my top three moments for sure. The instant we won it felt so unreal. I was so happy for him—still am.
Describe your perfect day.
In Paris, I’d go to a café for some croissants and a little people watching with someone I care about, before strolling and window-shopping along the gorgeous streets.
When was the last time you cried?
When I realized the last relationship I was in, when I was engaged to be married, wasn’t going to happen. It was a complete shock because I thought he was the one, and I was wrong. I was so wrong.
When was the last time you said “I love you” to someone?
It was just the other day to my best friend and manager, Lindsay Reilly, whom I love.
Sitting in a five-star resort, a bottle of great wine, with a fire going in the fireplace—that’s luxury to me. It really is.
Where are you in five years?
I’ll be sharing a beautiful family with a great man. Here’s the absolute truth: I can’t wait to have children. But in five years, I hope I’m still working every day, doing more acting, my businesses are thriving, I’m writing more books.
OK, so your romantic dream scenario looks like…
I still believe in love; I still believe in the fairy tale in spite of everything. The whole wedding scenario isn’t necessarily a must for me any more—though I would love a wedding—but having someone special in my life is all I require. And kids.
Tell me a secret.
My biggest fear is never having children. [Long pause] Oh, and secretly, I think I can sing! [Laughs]
What’s the biggest misconception about you that drives you nuts?
That everyone thinks of me still as this intense perfectionist.
But you are an intense perfectionist.
Yes, but not so much any more. I used to be for sure.
Reveal all, Karina: What would your superhero power be?
I’d love to control time.
Who’s your dream partner?
Oh my goodness, no question about it—Ryan Gosling. Sigh. [Laughs]
Karina Smirnoff is…
Let’s see: Driven, compassionate, strong, vulnerable, loving and kind.
So right now, you’re…
Happy. I have no regrets in my life. I know I have so much left to do and I love where I am in my life and I love that I have so much to learn. I really do.
Time for everyone’s favorite, the name game:
Mario López.Oh, boy! [Pause] really, Richard? [Long pause] Who’s next? [Laughs]
Singer Billy Ray Cyrus.
I love him—he’s a sweet, charming, kind man. He gave it his all.
Chef and fellow HudsonMOD cover, Rocco DiSpirtito.
He’s a great guy and he’s a lot of fun. We had a blast and became good friends.
Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino.
More like a dysfunctional situation! [Laughs] Definitely one of my more challenging seasons, no doubt. Soap star JR Martínez. He’s a true inspiration to be around. He’s so strong and has an incredible work ethic. We clicked from Day 1.
Olympian Apolo Anton Ohno.
He’s undeniably a great athlete and has impressive discipline. We had a good season, but it could’ve been better if we would’ve broken down an emotional wall.
Dancer Maksim Chmerkovskiy.
Um… [Laughs] Gosh, I wish him… Nothing. But. The. Best.
Actor/director Ralph Macchio.
He’s absolutely one of the favorite people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting through the show. Of all of my partners on Dancing With The Stars, he understood me as me the best. Meeting Ralph Macchio was my trophy on Season 12.
And lastly—and some may argue most importantly—who’s sexier, sultry Frenchman Gilles Marini or Cuban heartthrob William Levy?
Wow! That’s an unbelievably tough question because they’re both incredibly sexy for different reasons. Wow! let’s see—it’s a tie! Can there be a tie? [Laughs]