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Bristol Palin takes third place in 'Dancing With the Stars'

Maia Nolan-Partnow

Bristol Palin finished a respectable third in the 11th season of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" Tuesday night, falling behind second-place finisher Disney Channel star Kyle Massey and winner and "Dirty Dancing" star Jennifer Grey, who took home the show's Mirror Ball Trophy.

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Bristol's success on the show -- she beat out professional entertainers like Brandy, Florence Henderson and David Hasselhoff to make the finals -- was marked by controversy and a few bizarre overreactions, including reported death threats, a fake anthrax attack, and an incident destined to become urban legend in which a Wisconsin man suffering from bipolar disorder shot his TV and engaged in a 15-hour standoff with police after becoming enraged over the Alaska dancer's performance.

I've been following Bristol's progress on the show, from her debut cha cha through to the end. While our homegrown Alaska girl hasn't always been the queen of the dance floor, there's no doubt she's grown as a performer -- and taken her lumps along the way.

Notes on a scandal

Bristol Palin was never expected to be a serious contender, surrounded as she was by a field of professional entertainers. As weeks went by and Bristol stayed (and more accomplished dancers went home), more and more people worked themselves up into a crazy lather over Bristol's continued presence on the show. Some of them are die-hard "DWTS" fans who resent what they see as an incursion into their previously-quiet little corner of reality television. Others just really, really, really don't like Bristol's mom. And then there are the Bristol fans who have reported spending hours on the Internet voting for Bristol hundreds of times from various e-mail addresses (an effort ABC insists is in vain because over-the-limit votes from individual IP addresses aren't counted). What with the untold gazillions who don't seem to realize that "DWTS" is not, in fact, a referendum on the Obama presidency or a precursor to the 2012 election (in which, I'm told, each American will be allowed to vote only one time, and not via text message) and the pissed-off celebrity dance show fans, things were crazy even before reports of fake anthrax and death threats.

Although the voting "scandal" didn't really erupt until a few weeks into the competition, Bristol's appearance on the show has drawn some criticism from the beginning -- as just about anything tagged with the Palin family name seems to. Some have complained that Bristol isn't a "star" and therefore shouldn't have been cast in the first place (because, of course, the coveted Mirror Ball Trophy is right up there with the Palme d'Or, career-wise). I suppose it all depends on what definition we're operating under. If, by "star," we mean someone who's become famous for excelling in some sort of artistic, athletic or intellectual pursuit, they're probably correct that Bristol isn't a "star." If that's our working definition of "star," though, that rules out a whole lot of past "DWTS" contestants, including reality television stars Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino ("Jersey Shore"); Trista Sutter ("The Bachelor," "The Bachelorette," "Trista & Ryan's Wedding"); Melissa Rycroft ("Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team," "The Bachelor"); Jake Pavelka ("The Bachelor," "The Bachelorette"); and Kate Gosselin ("Jon & Kate + 8," "Kate + 8").

Clearly, if "star" implies some measure of significant professional accomplishment, the show perhaps ought more properly be called "Dancing With the Famous People." But that's not terribly catchy.

As for the argument that Bristol isn't a "star" because she's only famous by association with her mother: I submit Heather Mills (season four), famous for having been married to a Beatle; Priscilla Presley (season six), famous for having been married to Elvis; Kelly Osbourne (season nine), famous for being the daughter of a rock star; Holly Madison (season eight), famous for being Hugh Hefner's girlfriend; and Kim Kardashian (season seven), famous for being famous.

And for those who think politics and paso doble don't mix, I might remind you of season nine competitor Tom DeLay, who was forced to drop out due to stress fractures in both feet. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Monday: Bristol's jive was 'vibrant,' but judges split over freestyle

During the first round of the finals Monday, Bristol impressed the judges with her "redemption dance" -- during which each team had to perform a style the judges thought they had botched earlier in the competition. Bristol and Mark were assigned the jive, which they had performed partially in gorilla costumes to the theme song from "The Monkees." The panel loved Bristol's new and improved jive, calling her "brighter and more vibrant than ever."

They were less enthused by Bristol and Mark's freestyle dance, performed to "Cell Block Tango" from the musical "Chicago." Two of the judges -- Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli -- found themselves unable to establish enough distance from the ghost of legendary "Chicago" director and choreographer Bob Fosse to be able to appreciate Bristol's dance for what it was. A third judge, however, Len Goodman, called the dance "fantastic." Bristol and Mark finished the evening with a combined score of 52, putting them in third place behind Disney star Kyle Massey (56) and "Dirty Dancing" leading lady Jennifer Grey (a perfect 60).

During Monday night's broadcast, hosts Tom Bergeron and Brooke Burke repeatedly reminded the television audience that viewer votes count for half the competitors' scores -- an explanation ABC found itself having to reprise over and over in the final weeks of the competition as questions surfaced over why Bristol, who frequently appeared near or at the bottom of the leaderboard, continued to survive eliminations. Bergeron had been somewhat less politic in addressing the controversy during an interview with Movieline the week before:

"I'm a liberal Democrat, and I state that proudly. But I have no patience with my friends who believe there is a conspiracy keeping Bristol on the show ... My response to that is similar to my response to the midterm elections. I'll say, 'OK, right. So who did you vote for instead of Bristol?' 'Uh, well, I don't vote!' 'Well, then, f--k you.'"

Read Maia Nolan's full recap of the "Dancing With the Stars" finale.

Contact Maia Nolan at maia(at)alaskadispatch.com.