Fourteen years and 12 inches. Those were the most noticeable differences between Dancing With the Stars partners Laurie Hernandez (age 16 and an even 5 feet) and Val Chmerkovskiy (30 and 6 feet tall) when the two met in August.
His first impression of the Olympic dynamo: “ ‘Laurie! Yeah!’ ” the Ukrainian dance pro recalls exclusively in the new issue of Us Weekly. “And then, ‘Wait, are you down there?’” Counters the gymnastics gold and silver medalist: “Well, I thought you were a giant.”
Two months later, the teasing — and loving — big brother–little sister dynamic has grown along with their scores (four perfect 10s so far!). With Us’ Ingrid Meilan on hand to moderate, the two sat down October 23 at L.A.’s CBS Television City to analyze season 23, high-five and interview each other about their tight bond.
Laurie Hernandez: Val, any preconceived notions about me?
Val Chmerkovskiy: I’d just seen you in the Olympics, so I was really excited. I liked seeing a girl named Hernandez out there, because I never remembered other Latinas competing in gymnastics at that level. And then that little wink at the camera, I was like, “Damn, I’ve never seen a gymnast be so sassy!”
LH: [Laughs.] I knew who you were. Kind of. I recognized you because you had been Zendaya’s partner [in season 16], and Rumer’s. [He and Willis won season 20.] When I watched you dance, I could tell you had passion and emotion — you weren’t just moving.
VC: What do you think is my worst habit as a coach? I have this instinctive —
LH: You’re going to answer the question yourself?!
VC: Well, in my head, it’s when you’re struggling with something, I second-guess my choreography. So I make a face that fuses condescendence, disappointment, anger. [She giggles.] And that two-second look is devastating. I’ve been on the receiving end from my brother [pro Maksim] a million times!
LH: I’ve learned if it looks like you’re mad, you’re just frustrated and want to try again. Before, I would be like, He doesn’t like me!
VC: What else is a surprising thing about me, Laurie?
LH: You drink your coffee black. No sugar or anything. That’s nasty! And you can break an apple with your hands — just snap it in half.
VC: I don’t know what would surprise people about you. When I think about you, I know you’re 16, but you look like you’re 12.
LH: [Laughs.] Thanks?!
VC: No, no, you’re young and innocent and sweet, but you’re also very mature and have a lot of wisdom. I was nervous to be paired up with a teenager.
LH: Because your dances are all spicy? And you have to tone it down, like … 40 notches? [Laughs.]
VC: I just didn’t want to babysit. There are 50-year-old children, and there are 16-year-old adults. You hold yourself accountable.
LH: Val, what do you like best about being my partner?
VC: I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. I know you’re going to be deeply depressed and miss me an awful amount after this.
LH: Definitely! [Laughs.] I loved when we went to the fish market in Seattle.
VC: We bought some pins.
LH: Yoda pins!
VC: Every single week has been a gift to me. I hope it ends on a very special note. You could be the youngest mirrorball champ ever! And inspire a generation!
LH: It’s weird to hear anyone call me a role model. I feel like a regular kid! But I went to the Olympics, I’m on DWTS and on [the Kellogg’s] tour, and I guess regular kids don’t do that.
VC: Half a year ago, nobody knew you. You’re an ordinary kid choosing to do extraordinary things.
Dancing With the Stars airs on ABC Mondays at 8 p.m. EST.
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