“So You Think You Can Dance” may be in its 10th season, but judge Mary Murphy is having no less fun in her job. The bubbly ballroom pro chatted with us about season 10 while en route to the airport for a TV appearance, her chatter infused with a hint of southern twang and that signature gregarious laughter of hers.
The show is almost 10 years old — how does that make you feel?
It went by in a snap. I’m very grateful and really proud of the show, and all the dancers that come back. I would say a good half of [this year’s contestants] are probably 18 — people that we’ve never seen before, and they’ve just been waiting for the day [they can audition]. So many of them say, “I started when I was 9, dreaming about the day I’d be on ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’” It’s starting to be like a rite of passage for some dancers, because they are very marketable after this and our past dancers have been very successful.
Do you stay in touch with any former contestants?
We certainly do. One of our guest judges this year is gonna be tWitch, who was one of our past contestants, and he’s engaged to Allison Holker, who was another one of our contestants. I think they’re really our first wedding, even though they weren’t on the same year — they met each other and did a lot of gigs together and fell in love and it’s just really the coolest thing. I think one of our executive producers is even gonna be marrying them! [Laughs] Kathryn McCormick, of course she got the lead role in the last “Step Up” movie, Alex Wong and Jess LeProtto, Neil [Haskell] too, they were all on Broadway. Danny Tidwell was on Broadway and of course Mark [Kanemura] is traveling with Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Eliana just talked to me like 3 weeks ago — she was our prima ballerina last year that won — and now she said “You’re not gonna believe what I’m doing — I’m traveling with Taylor Swift!” To have another career after she’s had a career is just so interesting, and they’re just so excited that other doors have now opened up for them. And Chehon [Wespi-Tschopp] just did a movie with Witney [Carson], and of course Kherington [Payne] was the star of “Fame” — so all the kids are doing really well they all seem to come back to see the show, or come to the auditions where they auditioned.
You’re like the mama bear of the group, holding everyone together. It’s amazing that you can keep everyone’s names straight after 10 years of contestants!
Well, I’ve been pretty good. I think the only hard year was the year that we did a double season, where we did auditions right after the season and I was also auditioning the Canadian show, so there was three sets of contestants and I think I do remember calling somebody by the wrong name. [Laughs]
Are you sending any contestants on the hot tamale train this season?
Oh, for sure. I certainly put a couple contestants on that train during the auditions, which is rare. And for the very first time I even [used] a cuss word — and I very rarely cuss in my life. I take that out of my vocabulary, mainly because you’re on live TV and you never want to let anything slip — it doesn’t go down well with the network. And it never sounds right and I don’t like it: I don’t like when it other people do it, and I don’t let the dancers around me do it either. I do sound so much like a mother, don’t I? [Laughs] And there was a spectacular kid this season doing animation and something came flying out of my mouth, and it just caught me so off-guard.
How do you keep the show fresh and exciting after 10 years?
Well, as far as any new format twists, they haven’t developed anything or let us know of anything that might change. I do know that they do plan on keeping the two winners this season and that was new last year. We have more new guest judges which is always fun. Minnie Driver is a new judge this season — she studied dance and royal ballet in England. Most of the people that we usually ask to guest judge, I think there’s only maybe that doesn’t really dance and that’s mark Diana stone she was from the new girl, but she was very good on performance tips and things like that. And Jason Derulo was a guest judge and Wayne Brady — he was a lot of fun. He does music in his dances and his videos and he also danced on Broadway, believe it or not, in “Chicago.” So I think people start getting kinda keyholed into one thing and then you find out a little bit more of how they got started. But a lot of these people have dance in their background and they love, love, love the show. You know that they’re huge fans when they sit there and they go over the different seasons and who their favorite dancers and what their favorite dance was that they have memories of a specific dance. It’s cool when you meet somebody like that and they’re so invested in the show. They care about the kids and they also know as far as auditioning all the time how tough that life is as well. So they’re very caring on what they say to the contestants and I’ve really appreciated that from the guest judges we’ve had so far.
And no season would be complete without the opinions of your co-judge, Nigel Lythgoe. What’s your relationship like off-set?
Me and Nigel went to England and met Prince Charles this year at Buckingham Palace, it was the coolest thing. It was really surreal for me. This woman I know invited me then I asked her if I could invite Nigel. Nigel’s a hard person to get something for and I know he’s really involved with England still — their soccer teams and the BAFTA and everything else — that I just felt really good about saying to him, “Would you like to go to Buckingham Palace and meet Prince Charles?” So it was one small thing that I could give back because I am so grateful to him and the other producers that chose me and had faith in me.
Yes, you were gone for a season while you underwent treatment for thyroid cancer.
Yeah, but everything’s worked out now and I’m very healthy. So everything’s worked out for the best.
What’s your biggest piece of advice for dancers?
I think it’s really important about doing your homework on who you choose to represent you. I think as far as dancing goes, most of them they get lost into accepting one initial manager. They really need to go around, they need to do their homework, they need to get references, they need to talk with other people. That’s the person that is going to be guiding your career. Obviously all of them are fantastic dancers, but you have to be careful in Hollywood.
What would you tell yourself 10 years ago, just starting out on “SYTYCD”?
I’d like to even take it back further than that. If I could talk to myself and all the other dancers, it’s about nutrition. Most of us dancers are skinny, and I used to be no exception. I was so skinny. I ate like a football player, and I ate fast food twice a day, I ate dessert — I was dancing 8 to 10 hours a day, it didn’t matter. But I think we relate being skinny as being in good health, and what kids need to understand in the dance industry right now, what you do to the body right now you’ll pay for later. … Nobody, as a dancer, ever talked to us about nutrition. Nobody talks about it because we’re so engrossed in getting ahead and dance practicing and not eating. If you eat properly your muscles will respond better and recover faster. If you keep yourself hydrated, your muscles will recover and respond better. So I think that’s my biggest note to myself, I feel like that’s part of my mission now.
Joel McHale often teases you on “The Soup.” Does that ever get to you?
I have to say, years and years ago, the first time he did it it really hurt my feelings. It made me cry. And the next time, he brought me down [to the show], and everybody from the set was running over to me, talking about the contestants and this that and the other. And he was in makeup and I said, “You know you made me cry a couple weeks ago.” And he said, “What? Mary, don’t you know I love you and I respect you?” He said, “I love what you guys do on that show, I love your enthusiasm. Don’t take it that way. That’s why I brought you here today, because we love you.” And so then I was always looking forward to it, and then I just started getting bummed when he wasn’t showing me. (Laughs)
“So You Think You Can Dance” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox. Follow Meredith Engel on Twitter @MeredithAtMetro.