Whatever she does, Cat Deeley gives the impression that there’s nothing on Earth she’d rather be doing; she’s enthusiasm personified. That rare quality is perfectly suited to her current gig as host of the Fox reality-competition series So You Think You Can Dance. On a series that frequently veers into over-the-top mugging and camera-baiting antics, Deeley’s on-camera charm is effortless and ingratiating; she never seeks to outshine the contestants she affectionately calls her “babies.” Years of modeling and hosting British television have given her a camera-ready veneer that’s battle-hardened against the unpredictability of live TV, but unlike many others in this post-Ryan Seacrest world, Deeley’s polished professionalism never gives way to simpering insincerity. It’s almost as if she really is that nice. Before So You Think You Can Dance’s seventh-season première (Thursday, May 27 at 8 p.m. ET on Fox), Deeley spoke to The A.V. Club about the adrenaline rush of live TV, learning to appreciate dance, and whether it’s exhausting being that cheerful all the time.
The A.V. Club: Apparently, the upcoming season of So You Think You Can Dance is going to be all live instead of using pre-taped performances.
Cat Deeley: Yeah, and you know what? I can’t wait. It’s going to be great. It’s going to be kind of must-see TV, because things are going to go wrong, undoubtedly. We’re going to have trouble with props and costumes and lifts and all those kinds of things. The minute you go live, the adrenaline kicks in. And it’s going to happen every single week. It’s not like a one-off surprise that’s going to happen. It’s going to be all the time. And my thing is, I’m really lucky, because I’ve done lots and lots of live television. So it doesn’t scare me at all, it’s not frightening. It just gives me an extra kick. It’s going to be really entertaining and good fun.
AVC: We got a preview of what can go wrong with a live performance last season when Russell Ferguson hurt himself during the finale.
CD: Exactly. And you know what? You never know what’s going to happen. But if you handle the situation in the right way, it’s one of those moments where the audience absolutely feels included. And it becomes an experience then for us in the studio—for the dancers, for the judges—and for the audience at home.
AVC: As you said, you’re comfortable on live television. Did it take you some time to get to that point?
CD: When I was back in England, I was very lucky to start on a job [Saturday-morning children’s show SM:TV] where it was three hours of live television every single week for 52 weeks a year, and I did it for eight years. The first two hours were competitions and sketches and comedy skits and things like that. And then the third hour went into a live music show. So we’d bring 300 kids into the studio, and then we’d have five to seven live bands on every week. What it means is that everything that can possibly happen has happened to me at some stage or another, and it means I’m not frightened of it. So all that you get from being live is the positive. You get the adrenaline. You get those must-see moments. And hopefully I’ll be able to handle it in a way that the audience can either laugh along with or become emotionally attached to, or whatever it is. I think it’s just going to be a great experience for the audience.
AVC: That was your first television job?
CD: It was the second one. I started on MTV in the UK.
AVC: And before that, you were a model. Did you bring any skills from that over to television hosting?
CD: I think that if you keep your eyes and your ears open and you are receptive to learning, there are skills you can get from any job at all. One thing for me that modeling definitely did was that you go to do a different job every day, and you are working with a completely new team of people. You have to learn how to talk to people and how to creatively achieve the same goals. I think it just hones your people skills. You can either choose to learn those skills, or you can choose not to. And I definitely did, and I think it was invaluable. I started modeling when I was 16. It was definitely something I learned to do early on, and I learned to be comfortable with people. I would quite often get along with people that were older than me or who had more experience. I was very lucky that I actually learned from that experience.
AVC: You’ve mentioned many times the irony of you hosting a dance show when you aren’t a dancer. Have you picked up anything over the past six seasons?
CD: [Laughs.] No, but the one thing I have picked up along the way is friends who are really good dancers. So what happens is, I can go for a night out and they all dance around me and make me look good. But my whole thing is—and we say all the time on the show—not everybody is born to be a dancer, and not everybody has the talent to be able to do it professionally. However, there is so much pleasure to be taken from dancing, whether you are at a wedding, out with friends, or at a bar. That’s what we say to people. We don’t want people to stop dancing. It’s just whether you can make it in the competition or not. And I fall into that category. I’ll be the first person up on the dance floor, because my enthusiasm more than makes up for my lack of talent. Could I be a professional dancer? No. Do I have a blast dancing? Absolutely.
AVC: Hosting the show, do you think you’ve become more aware of what’s good or bad in a routine based on the judges’ critiques, or are you still watching more as a fan?
CD: I think a bit of both. I think the one thing I’m definitely going to have is a greater appreciation of dance. I was sent to ballet classes when I was a little girl. I wasn’t very good, but it’s that thing where little girls always try ballet, or whatever. And I’d get occasionally taken to the ballet at Christmas, and go and see The Nutcracker. But I never fully connected in that way with dance at all. I could see it was beautiful and all those kinds of things, but I never fully connected. Through my time on the show, what I’ve learned is—it doesn’t happen all the time—but if you get the right dancer with the right choreographer, right music, hair, makeup, etc., they can create something together that is a piece of art. The reason I know it is art is not because I know the technical terms and phrases. I couldn’t tell you why the steps they’re doing are so physically demanding, or anything like that. But I can tell you that when they get it absolutely right, when all those different factors come together, they can create a magic that can actually move you. They make the hairs on my arms stand on end. They give me chills. They physically move me. They change my body. That’s what any great piece of art should be able to do. And we’ve had it on the show, be it Tyce Diorio’s routines, or Mia Michaels’, or Wade Robson’s. I’ve definitely learned to have a greater appreciation of dance, and just what an art form it is.
AVC: Is there a certain genre or choreographer whose routines you always look forward to?
CD: There are definitely standout routines. I always love Wade Robson’s group routines, because he always does a thing where it’s all-encompassing. It is hair and makeup and the kids as individuals and music and props. It’s amazing. Mia Michaels never fails to create something so unusual. She looks at the world through very different eyes and kind of takes you into that fantasy place, and all of a sudden you’re breathing within it. She’s always brilliant. And then Tyce Diorio—his routines can provoke such emotion, not just in me or the dancers or the judges, but even in the studio audience that I’ve seen there.
AVC: You have a really friendly rapport with the contestants. How much interaction do you have with them outside of the actual performance and results shows?
CD: To be honest, if they’re actually competing, you can’t have that much interaction. But if they’re from previous seasons, I’ll see them at the studio and we might go out socially, or they’ll come round to my house for a Fourth Of July barbecue. To be honest, it’s really nice to have those experiences. That’s what we want people to take from the show. Yes, it’s a competition. But it’s also a life experience. Some of the contestants who take part, the dancers, are creating friendships that will last for a lifetime. And they’re having a life experience that you hopefully will make as enjoyable and informative for them as possible. We always have the door open. The production team is amazing, and the support the dancers get is phenomenal. So they all feel very at ease with coming back and asking advice. We’ve always tried to create that, really. Then you have either 20 winners or 10 winners or whatever, rather than just one winner. Yes, there’s only one title and only one check. But they hopefully have a life experience where they take things away, and it’s something they will remember forever. And they’ll show their kids and grandkids the DVD, and they’ll be like, “This is when I was thinner and younger and more fabulous.” And the grandkids will be saying, “Oh, do we have to watch it again?” And it’s like, “Yeah, we do, because that’s part of what made me me.”
AVC: You’re also really in the thick of it for auditions, which seems exhausting. What’s the audition experience like?
CD: For me, it was absolutely an integral part of the show. I didn’t host the first season, I came on in the second season. When I joined the show, I said to the producers, “I absolutely want to be part of the audition process.” So if the dancers are lined up outside and it’s snowing in New York at 5 a.m., then I’m out there with them and I’m eating their breakfast and getting in their sleeping bags, and they’re teaching me moves and doing that kind of thing, because I wanted to develop a natural rapport. I want to be part of their journey right from the very beginning, and I think that’s incredibly important, because I didn’t want the top 20 to arrive in the studio and them to be like, “Hold on a second. Who’s this English chick who’s trying to be our friend?” I wanted that to develop naturally, and I wanted it to be real. So I love the audition shows, you know? You get the wild and the wacky. You get the fun. You get the emotional. You get the stories of triumph. And it’s absolutely part of the whole process. It’s so enjoyable to see the grace that happens. You see a dancer that’s doing their first audition, and then maybe they get all the way through to Vegas, and then from Vegas, they get to the stage in Hollywood, and then sometimes from there, they win the title. And it’s lovely to be part of that entire process in a very organic way.
AVC: During auditions, what’s your reaction to the people who obviously have no training and are just there to make fools of themselves on TV?
CD: To be honest, I’m very much one of those people myself. You know that saying, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones?” I am that person. When people come on, and maybe they don’t have the talent to make it to the studio here in Hollywood, we never say, “Don’t dance. Stop dancing.” We’re just saying, “Maybe this isn’t the right professional path for you.” Hell, if I’m at a wedding or I’m out with friends, I’m the first person up on the dance floor, and I have a blast. And don’t get me wrong, it’s completely my enthusiasm that makes up for my lack of talent. And that’s what dancing should all be about. It’s fun and it’s social, and you have a laugh with your friends doing it. There’s nothing better sometimes then going out and having a good old dance around the dance floor. Can you do it professionally? Maybe not. But still enjoy it and go do it.
AVC: You also hosted the UK version of So You Think You Can Dance. Did that overlap at all with the last season?
CD: It did, actually, because what I did was, I came back to do auditions here while being live in the studio back in the UK. So there was lots and lots of traveling. I definitely earned some air miles. But it was good fun, actually. I love being busy, you know? It keeps me out of trouble if I’m busy. So I like running backward and forward. For me, it was a chance to see my friends and my family, too.
AVC: It seems like it would be tough to keep your enthusiasm up.
CD: It isn’t at all for me, because I actually love my job. I really, really, really enjoy it. I can’t think of another show on TV that I would rather host. Sometimes you get a bit tired from the traveling. But as soon as I get there and I see the dancers and their passion and enthusiasm and talent, that becomes infectious, and I just enjoy every moment of it.
AVC: Are there any differences you’ve noticed between the experiences of hosting British television vs. American television?
CD: No, there actually haven’t been that many differences at all. I’ve been very lucky that the execs at Fox have kind of turned around to me and gone, “Fine. Do whatever you want to do. Do you it your way. We love it.” That’s extremely flattering. Even down to my wardrobe, which can be slightly crazy at times, I know.
AVC: You style yourself?
CD: Yeah, totally. People either love it or hate it, but they have an opinion about it. Nobody has turned around and gone, “Oh no. Can you do that instead?” or, “Can you say this in this way?” I think they all think that I’m this bonkers English eccentric, and they like seeing what I’m going to do or say or wear next.
AVC: Do you notice a difference between the American and the British audiences?
CD: The American audiences are definitely very vocal. They’re always the first on their feet. I love the response from the American audiences. It’s been a great response to me personally, too. I love the American audiences here. I think their enthusiasm is infectious.
AVC: Were you apprehensive at all about coming to So You Think You Can Dance as a Brit hosting an American show?
CD: Yes, absolutely. I knew that the show did really well season one, and I thought, “Oh my goodness, if this doesn’t work out, I’m going to be the big bad English scapegoat that’s going to be sent home packing.” I never in my wildest dreams imagined or envisioned that it would be such a phenomenal success. And here we are, season seven, talking about it again. So I’m incredibly thankful to be a part of such a brilliant team, a great group of judges, a great group of producers, and some seriously talented dancers. It’s been phenomenal.
AVC: Another change for this upcoming season is the all-star format. Is there anyone in particular that you’re looking forward to having back?
CD: To be honest, they’re all great. That’s kind of why we picked them. They’ve got great personalities and great talent. They’re funny and very nurturing as individuals as well, which I think the top 10 will definitely benefit from. Nobody understands this experience better than the people who have already been there and done that. No matter how much myself or the judges or their families or whoever tries to empathize with them, nobody properly understands this crazy process more than the dancers who have been on the show. They’re all really great like that. I am very much looking forward to seeing Dominic [Sandoval], because he was always very flirty and very fun. I think there’s going to be some witty rapport between us.
AVC: Was there any concern that it might take some focus away from the new contestants? Because a lot of the people that are coming back are big fan favorites.
CD: To be honest, there wasn’t. In the same way that you and I could say, “Oh my God, I’ve got this great friend” and you introduce them to another circle of friends. And then you go out to dinner and have a glass of wine. It’s like you recommending a friend and going, “We love each other. Let me tell you, you are going to love this person.” I think it will just be a stamp of approval for the audiences.
AVC: You’re so positive and upbeat about everything, it seems like you’re always “on.” Do you ever just want to turn it off?
CD: [Laughs.] That’s generally me. That’s my whole thing. When you’re working, you prep everything and you prepare, so that when you actually go live on air, you can let everything go, and you’re just you, and you’re in the moment, and you’re very real, and you’re listening to what the other person is saying, and you’re communicating on every single level. And I actually like communicating with people. I like talking to people. I like finding out what makes them tick—their successes, their failures, their trials, their tribulations. I’m just incredibly interested in people. It’s not like it’s turning it on or off, really. That’s just me. Love it or hate it, that’s me.
AVC: Well you found the perfect outlet for that, didn’t you?
CD: [Laughs.] You know, I think I did. Thank goodness. But I think even if I was serving coffee in Starbucks, I would be exactly the same. You would have to have a chat even as I was giving you a skinny latte.