Dancing Queen: An Interview With Carrie Ann Inaba

Carrie Ann Inaba

Carrie Ann Inaba is a philanthropist. And a singer. And a dancer. And a choreographer. And an actress. And a judge on the popular, long-running ABC television series Dancing With The Stars. And she runs a foundation for rescue animals called the Carrie Ann Inaba Animal Project. 

She’s toured with the great Madonna on her 1993 Girlie Show World Tour, she’s been a part of iconic films such as Austin Powers In Goldmember, and she was an original Fly Girl on the sketch comedy series, In Living Color.

Despite all that, she’s got a laundry list of things she still wants to do—in fact, she’s quick to let me know, “I’m only halfway through my bucket list.”

“I know that I would like to produce a live show in Vegas,” she tells me from her home in California, where she’s in the middle of finishing up Season 24 of Dancing With The Stars. “And I also want to continue to host daytime, because I like talking about normal things and life’s problems. I love the power of talk; when you talk about things and when you bring them to light, even if it’s an embarrassing thing—like as I get older, I’ve gained weight, and the way you cope with that is to talk about it,” reveals Inaba. “It’s interesting, the feedback you get, because we’re all kind of struggling with something and not quite sure what we’re doing, and we’re all doing the best we can. And I think it’s really important to share with each other what we learn, because we all do different things and have different interests.”

After speaking to Inaba for five minutes, I’ve already decided I want her to be my life coach, or at least my spirit animal. The practice of “sharing what you learn” has become a mantra of sorts for Inaba, who recounts her days of touring with Madonna as some of the most formative experiences of her life, both as a performer and as a woman.

“For me, it was the golden star on the bucket list,” says Inaba. “I wanted to tour with Madonna.” Inaba got her wish, and also a little more than she bargained for. “She chose me to do this opening number where I came down a 50-foot pole, and I had to shave my head,” Inaba recounts. “It was like a combination of Cirque du Soleil and a stripper, and it was so far from anything I had done before. And that was so powerful, because I didn’t know I could do it. But she looked at me and thought ‘that’s what I want you to do,’ and so in the three months of training, I had to learn how to do aerial skills.”

Inaba recounts training every day from five in the morning until eight, before having regular rehearsals that went until nine at night. Given that Madonna didn’t let her dancers off easy (Inaba admits the singer would dock one hundred dollars off their pay for every minute they were late), it’s no surprise that the lessons she learned have carried over into today, where’s she’s the one people are looking up to. “Madonna taught us how to be strong, she taught us our values on stage, and she challenged you as an artist,” says Inaba, adding that the larger- than-life star being so involved in her dancers’ performances, “made me realize that to build her career and maintain her career, you have to be that hands-on all the time. She brought out the very best in all of us by frankly telling us what she saw from her point of view as an experienced professional, and I learned so much and I gained a lot of courage.”

Inaba was born and raised in Honolulu, where she spent most of her early years before migrating to the west coast for college. She started her career as a singer in Japan, releasing three singles, but it was her dancing that made American audiences take notice of her. And it’s no secret that being on the other side of the fence for so long has made her invaluable when it comes to sitting on the judging panel of Dancing With The Stars, especially because couples dancing, as Inaba notes, “brings a whole other level to any kind of performance. Having to be in a couples situation as you’re dancing is so much more challenging than anything. And I have so much compassion for them. I also know the rewards so well, that I look at my job as a judge and as more of a coach for the panel. Because really, all the judging I give is also filled with constructive comments to help them grow, and to look at themselves honestly. It’s really not so far from coaching when I’m judging.”

Carrie Ann Inaba

When I mention that I love watching Dancing With The Stars because I was a former ice skater who could understand the level of training that went into each performance, Inaba makes my day by telling me I would most likely succeed on the program. “Skaters do well on our show because they know their articulation in the foot is so important in ballroom dancing; if you’re going to be placed on the inside of the foot or the outside of the foot, if you’re going to pronate ... all of those nuances of the feet make ballroom dancing so spectacular,” she explains. Still, as fun as it is to see people come into the competition who have a little bit of experience, one of Inaba’s favorite things is being surprised by contestants with backgrounds that might not lend themselves to dancing at all.

“Especially this year, I had the biggest thrill of reading a roster of who’s going to be competing,” reveals Inaba. (Just like the fans, the judges don’t know who the competitors are before the official announcement happens). “I’ve been through 24 seasons, and you think that I wouldn’t be surprised at any point—but just like everyone else, there were some fun people I was really excited and looking forward to seeing, like Charo and Mr. T. And then, you know, there’s some people that I see on the roster like Bonner Bolton: I didn’t know who he was, I’d never heard of him, but he turned out to be somebody who made it through week eight in the competition. And it was a really wonderful story ... he had to fight a back injury, he came so far and had a beautiful, natural elegance that we did not see in too many other people.”

So, out of 24 seasons, who still remains on Inaba’s Dancing wish list? Fashion model Chrissy Teigen (“I think she’d be so much fun,” Inaba gushes), figure skater Johnny Weir, model Ashley Graham, basketball star Michael Jordan, football quarterback Terry Bradshaw, and boxer Manny Pacquiao. “I don’t know what his dance background is, but with his boxing and dancing there is a connection ... I have an eclectic list,” she finishes with a laugh.

How does she spend the small amount of downtime she has? “I have a bevy of animals—3 rescue dogs and 3 rescue cats, so our house is filled with little fur balls and other fur balls of love,” she says. “I love to be at home with the animals, because animals are so healing and nurturing, and they’re just the most rewarding.”

CarrieAnnInaba

And before I completely commit to making Inaba my life coach of sorts, I have to ask her some wisdom: namely, what would she tell herself ten years ago?

“Oh, don’t dance so hard,” Inaba decides, after mulling over the question. “Slow down, because I think I worked so hard when I was young- er that I burned myself out. But now I enjoy going a little slower and keeping an even pace in my life.” That pace extends to some sage advice that she’s picked up along the way during her successful, storied, ongoing career.

“I’ve found that you have to put in the work to be ready for the next opportunity that comes to you, but usually, the universe brings you opportunities, so you don’t have to go searching for them all the time,” says Inaba. “If you do the work, and you’re prepared when the opportunity comes to you, it’s all going to work out fine. A lot of people spend so much time chasing opportunities that then they are not ready, and I think it’s really important to make sure that as a human being and as a performer—in any aspect of life—that you do the work, that you know your business, that you know what it is you’re pursuing and all that comes with it.”


Features Editor Andrea Towers
Photographer John Russo
Location The London West Hollywood At Beverly Hills
Photographer Assistants Jackie Brutchy, Jason Bush, Tas Limur and Justin Miller
Stylist Jen Rade
Hair Steven Berg
Makeup Joanne McCarthy