Dancing With the Stars has rounded up another eclectic cast of celebrity characters for Season 18.
Competing on the show, which kicks off March 17 (ABC, 8 p.m.): Two Olympic ice dancing darlings (Charlie White and Meryl Davis), three singers (including Billy Dee Williams), former child TV stars from The Wonder Years and Full House, a double amputee snowboarding champ, a former pro hockey player, distance swimmer Diana Nyad, reality starNeNe Leakes and comedian Drew Carey.
Also spicing up the mix: Bad-boy pro Maks Chmerkovskiy returns to the ballroom.
The stars and their pro partners will compete amid several changes to the show: Tom Bergeron's co-host Brooke Burke-Charvet was fired and replaced by Fox Sports' Erin Andrews. New bandleader Ray Chew joins the team, as Harold Wheeler and his gang exits.
Pro Derek Hough announced another twist on Good Morning America Tuesday saying that at some point the cast will all switch partners.
"You have to change things every so often to keep them fresh," says executive producer Conrad Green.
The show's audience was slightly smaller (averaging 15 million viewers) and older last fall. And while it is roughly tied with The Voice in total viewers, Dancing has only about half that show's young-adult audience. The median age of a Dancing viewer is 61.6, the second-oldest of any major-network primetime series.
"We have to be mindful of keeping hold of younger audiences," says Green, who admits, "Ours does skew a little older."
But he defends the show that has had so many years of success. "I think we've held our own remarkably well."
Look for the return of the skybox interviews, abandoned last season when the show shrunk to one night a week, eliminating its Tuesday results show. Bringing it back will give Andrews "a place to be," says Green, adding that she's a great fit because she has competed on the show and she does sideline interviews for a living. "That line of questioning, her ability to capture the moment — her skills will be a new voice to the show."
What about the buzz that Bruce Jenner would be joining the cast?"There's been so many rumors this season. I'll never discuss people we haven't got," Green says.
Olympians Charlie White and Meryl Davis seem to have an obvious advantage. Green expects they will bring beautiful dance moves to the ballroom, but points out that they will not be dancing with each other, a big change for them.
But they'd better watch out for Danica McKellar, 39, Wonder Years star and math whiz, who is more than rarin' to go.
"Oh my gosh. I love dancing," she tells USA TODAY. "I love challenges ... I love sparkly outfits. Saying I'm excited is an understatement. I'm thilled."
She says she took ballet when she was little and has recently started Pilates to help get her body "in alignment" before the tough rehearsals really kick in. She adds that she's "terrified," but says again, "If somebody told me this is impossible, I'm like, really? Let me try it."
Danica McKellar on Dec. 15, 2011 in Los Angeles.(Photo: Jonathan Leibson, FilmMagic)
She won't use her math skills to try to calculate the odds, she says. Instead, she needs to try not to over-analyze the competition. "I tend to be a thinker, a planner, I like writing things down. … One of the challenges will be for me to stay out of my head."
For Leakes, 46, the challenge will be her health. After suffering a pulmonary embolism last November, she says she has put on some pounds. "Being sick made me gain some weight. So I'm hoping this will help me lose 20 pounds."
The Real Housewives of Atlanta star says, "There will be doctors on set for me," but "I feel pretty good."
She doesn't count her stripper stint when she was in her 20s as dancing experience. "Not a whole lot of dancing there," she says, laughing, but adds, "I think I have a little rhythm."
Drew Carey's hoping for staying power. "I just don't want to get voted off first, likeJeffrey Ross," another comedian who was the first to go in 2008.
Carey, 55, doesn't have any formal dancing background, either, but says that he loved to dance in college, during the disco era. He and his friends liked to go out and show off their moves. "We took it really seriously," he says. His Drew Carey Showfeatured some musical numbers in the late 1990s, "but I wouldn't call that dancing."
NeNe Leakes on Feb. 6, 2014, in New York.(Photo: Charles Sykes, Invision/AP)
He's hoping that his Price is Right game show audience will vote for him. "Dancing With the Starsand The Price is Right audience are the same age group and wheelhouse. That's my ace in the hole."
But he says he really hopes to inspire people. "I'm on this quest now to it's really all for me, but I hope I can show people it's possible to have a do-over, to start your life over. I'm middle aged, I was overweight. I've dropped the weight. I've run a marathon. I've learned how to ski. I'm doing all these physical things that you can do, too. Anybody can take up dancing, if you want to. You don't have to be on Dancing With the Stars. Anybody can do it."
The complete list of stars and the dancing pros they'll be paired with:
• Full House actress Candace Cameron Bure & Mark Ballas
• Wonder Years actress Danica McKellar & Valentin Chmerkovskiy
• Swimmer Diana Nyad & Henry Byalikov
• Real Housewives of Atlanta star NeNe Leakes & Tony Dovolani
• Pop star Cody Simpson & Witney Carson
• The Price is Right host Drew Carey & Cheryl Burke
• Olympic ice dancing gold medalist Meryl Davis & Maksim Chmerkovskiy
• Olympic ice dancing gold medalist Charlie White & Sharna Burgess
• Para-snowboarder Amy Purdy (who lost both her legs after contracting menigitis) & Derek Hough
• Former NHL player Sean Avery & Karina Smirnoff
• Singer/actor Billy Dee Williams & Emma Slater
• Big Time Rush band member/actor James Maslow & Peta Murgatroyd