Photo Credit: ABC/Adam Taylor
"Why did we have four couples in the finals for the first time?" asked host Tom Bergeron as Monday's episode of Dancing With the Stars began to wind down. "I think they're proving why."
In fact, the judges barely had a negative word for any of the contestants during the penultimate show of Season 16. "Like a 108-yard touchdown!" gushed judge Len Goodman after a freestyle dance by Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones (with Karina Smirnoff). "That was one of the most amazing routines I've seen on a finale of Dancing With the Stars," Carrie Ann Inaba told Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, after her freestyle (with Mark Ballas). "Eye-popping, jaw-dropping, show-stopping!" cried Goodman after the Disney Channel's Zendaya Coleman executed a perfect-scoring samba (with Val Chmerkovskiy).
Over the course of two hours, the Final Four and their partners performed three dances (judge's choice, cha cha relay, and supersized freestyle) in their most crucial bid yet for viewer votes. And while all performed well, this last romp around the dance floor didn't do much to shift the prevailing winds, which have been blowing steadily at Kellie Pickler's back. Yes, the American Idol singer has arguably been the fan favorite to beat in the competition. And going into Tuesday's results show, she still is.
"You're the Southern belle of the ball," Bruno Tonioli told her after she and her partner, Derek Hough, performed a zany, peppy, perfect-lined quickstep. Kellie flashed that high-wattage smile (which matched the kicky, white flapper dress), and her effervescent country girl vibe stole everybody's heart all over again.
For practical reasons, too, Kellie has the best shot at the Mirror Ball trophy. A known quantity, she was a contestant on Idol back in the day (circa 2005) when it was practically illegal not to watch it. Since then, she's released three Billboard-charting albums and cultivated fans among America's country music lovers -- who tend to support their own. And she's partnered with the most beloved (and winningest) pro on the show. That all translates into votes.
And she cinched the deal Monday night, delivering the standout performance of the finals, with a pared-down but gorgeously emotive freestyle. Watch it here:
"Kellie, you just bared your soul on the dance floor," said an openly weeping Inaba. "And it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen." Goodman followed up Inaba's comments by giving Kellie a standing ovation. "You did a dance of spellbinding beauty," added Tonioli. "I'm sure you reached the nation tonight with that performance." In other words, everyone just voted for you.
Who's the contestant most likely to upend this prediction? Zendaya, who always manages to bring both skill and fun to her dancing. Though only 16, she's consistently outperformed most of the season's other (often more experienced) competitors. "You're just incredibly fierce, child," said Tonioli, after Zendaya and Val scored a perfect 30 with their judge's choice dance, the samba. "You have a natural flamboyancy that comes out without effort." In fact, she and Val finished the night with the highest score, 65 -- beating out Kellie and Derek's total score by one point. But most viewers probably couldn't name Zendaya's claim to fame outside of the show. (She plays Rocky on The Disney Channel's Shake It Up.) And you need a very big fan base to get your hands on that disco ball.
Kudos to Aly and Jacoby, whose athleticism landed them in the finals. Both gave it all they had. In fact, Aly and Mark's synchronized pole dancing delivered the wow factor Mark was obviously going for. (In the rehearsal footage, we watched him tell her that she was the only competitor strong enough to carry it off.) In another season, Aly might have won. But this is Kellie's moment. Chances are, the Idol loser is about to taste victory. The season finale results show airs tonight at 9 ET on ABC.