First impressions matter.
J.R. Martinez, a favorite to win ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” Tuesday, entered Dalton High School in 2001 as a senior from Arkansas. He could have easily been ignored, a late-comer facing cemented social dynamics.
But his infectiously positive spirit and personality made him instantly popular. “Within weeks, everybody knew him – parents, kids, teachers,” said Susan Ward, the mother of one of J.R.’s best friends Aaron. “You know that smile he has now? He always had that smile.”
A decade later, millions of TV viewers have embraced Martinez on the popular reality competition program.
“Positivity is my secret to success,” he said on the show Monday.
Ward, a middle school teacher in Dalton, said people have come up to her and said, “I wish I knew him.” “If you watch him on ’Dancing With the Stars,’ ” she said, “you know him. He may not know you but you know him.”
After graduating from Dalton High, Martinez joined the U.S. Army. But in 2003, at age 19, he nearly died after his Humvee hit a landmine in Iraq. He had burns on 40 percent of his body, undergoing 33 surgeries, including skin grafts and cosmetic surgery. ”There is no amount of medicine they can give you take that pain away,” he told People magazine recently.
Ward remembers talking to him by phone when he was in hospital. “He could barely talk,” she said. “I started crying. He ended up comforting me!”
In 2008, with no acting experience, he won a small role as a soldier on ABC’ soap “All My Children.” Viewers liked him so much, he was promoted to regular cast member.
On “Dancing With the Stars,” Martinez gives the impression he’s had prior dance experience.
He doesn’t. He has natural ability and a laser-like work ethic. “People don’t see that I’m really pushing myself and I mess up a lot,” he said on the show that aired Monday. (Martinez was unavailable for an interview this past week.)
Martinez has been near or at the top of the leaderboard each week, peaking Nov. 7 with perfect scores on both his dances. But he twisted his ankle during rehearsal last week and again during his paso doble on the live show last Monday. As a result, his scores suffered. “More zero than Zorro,” judge Len Goodman sniped.
Nonetheless, he made the finals.
Ward said Martinez texted her Thursday and said his ankle has improved.
His biggest challenger for the mirror-ball trophy will be former talk-show host Ricki Lake, who had a higher average judges’ score through nine weeks than Martinez. But the judges only counts for half the point total. The other half is from public votes and based on buzz on social media, he is very popular. Bodog, a sport gambling site, has Martinez winning at 1 to 2 odds (which means you bet $2, you get $1 in winnings), Lake at 3 to 1 and Rob Kardashian at 4 to 1.
As fellow “Dancing With the Stars” contestant Nancy Grace said last week: ”“I think it’s going to be tough for anybody to beat a war hero who happens to know how to dance.”
“Dancing With the Stars”
8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21, performance show finale, ABC.
9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 22, two-hour season finale, ABC.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk