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Heather Mills attempts a mambo makeover

Heather Mills could provide the greatest test of the healing powers of dance. Compared to her, Jerry Springer was a piker when it came to bad press.
/ Source: The Associated Press

On an episode of "30 Rock," comedian Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) informs co-workers he's on a religious quest.

"My attorney told me to join a church preemptively, 'cause juries are suspicious of celebrities who find religion after getting into trouble," he explains.

There could be an alternate approach to legal or public-relations damage control — and it took Jerry Springer, of all people, to light the way for needy celebrities like Heather Mills.

That's Mills as in Paul McCartney's marital sparring partner, tabloid target and, sagely, among the latest "Dancing with the Stars" contestants.

On ABC's hit series last season, Springer waltzed his way into America's heart in the unexpected role of a devoted father who wanted only to make his daughter, Katie, proud when they danced at her wedding.

With a game attitude and self-effacing jokes ("At my age we don't shake hips, we replace them"), Springer managed to eclipse his longtime role as sleazy talk show host. Katie sealed the deal, hugging him after a performance.

He was born again as a mambo-makeover pioneer.

"It will forever be seared in my heart, the moment with his daughter, which is a much stronger visual than any chair-throwing, outrageous stunt he's ever had on his show," said TV and radio host Leeza Gibbons, a competitor on this season's "Dancing."

Call it The Springer Effect.

Perhaps a new image wasn't Springer's goal, but he gained one and it quickly paid off. When Regis Philbin bowed out as host of NBC's "America's Got Talent," which will return come summer, Springer was picked to replace him.

"I don't think there's any question that the networks obviously saw the friendly response to my being on the show," he said. "This is a business, and if they think you appeal to Middle America then obviously those opportunities are going to be there."

Mills could provide the greatest test of the healing powers of dance. Compared to her, Springer was a piker when it came to bad press: Mills threw divorce mud at a beloved Beatle that, conventional wisdom had it, she never deserved.

Springer "had to have an influence on Heather's decision to do this," said "Dancing" host Tom Bergeron, noting he hadn't spoken with her about it. "There's no question that this show can be a vehicle to enlighten people, if you will, as to who you really are."

"For good or ill," he added, with a laugh.

As Mills dances, viewers aren't judging her skill. At stake is whether she can demonstrate, by charm or by the grit needed by an amputee dancing with a prosthetic leg, that she is a Good Person After All.

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On Monday's debut, Mills was introduced by Bergeron as a "charity campaigner" whose goal on the show is to inspire the disabled.

"You've got more guts than Rambo!" excitable judge Bruno Tonioli exclaimed after she and partner Jonathan Roberts performed with apparent ease.

She'll return for another stab at forgiveness Monday, and then face the music on the Tuesday results show.

Whether the audience believes it's possible to detect character through the TV screen cannot be in doubt; it's routine to make decisions about public figures, whether political candidates or Paris Hilton, based entirely on their media persona.

That's not misguided, Springer argues. After years of playing what he calls "characters" on TV — mayor, news anchor, "crazy talk show host" — "Dancing with the Stars" allowed him to be recognized for himself.

"The public will spot a phony immediately. I think the camera doesn't lie," Springer said. "The one thing Americans are experts at is television, because we watch so much of it. People immediately see who's authentic and who's not."

"The key is to just be who you are and, if people like it, good. But you can't fake it," he said.

Gibbons agreed and added words of support for Mills, whom she hadn't met before "Dancing."

"Regardless of what people think they know or don't know, or how they believe they feel about Heather, there's no controversy about the courageousness that it takes to demonstrate what's possible for people with physical challenges," Gibbons said.

Springer said he got the modest payoff he was after: He and Katie enjoyed a lovely waltz at her wedding. Whether "Dancing" can mean bigger rewards for anyone else is uncertain, he said.

"Moments that are authentic can never be reproduced. You've got to make your own moment," Springer said. "Things work the first time and everything else is a copy."