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Dancing with the Stars puts your favorite celebrities in the middle of a ballroom dance competition regardless of their experience. After advancing each week based on judges’ scores and fan votes, one winner gets crowned the Mirrorball Champion in the end.

With 30 seasons under their belts, some viewers are skeptical about how the winner of the competition gets determined. Some fans call it a “popularity contest” where the celebrities with the biggest followings win. Others, including former contestants and a former executive producer, tend to agree. Could season 31 be the season that finally determines whether or not DWTS is a popularity contest once and for all? If Charli D’Amelio wins, that could be the case.

Cheryl Ladd performs with Louis Van Amstel during the 'Dancing with the Stars' Season 31 premiere
Cheryl Ladd performs with Louis Van Amstel | ABC/Eric McCandless

‘Dancing with the Stars’ scoring explained

In the early seasons of Dancing with the Stars, contestants relied solely on scores from the judges and fan votes. Whoever had the lowest score and total number of fan votes in a given week was sent home.

That’s still the case, but the show adjusted eliminations slightly in season 29. Now, each celebrity is still ranked based on judges’ scores and audience votes. But instead of eliminating the star with the lowest overall score, the judges have to choose who they want to save from the bottom two couples with the lowest total score. Speaking of total score, that’s determined behind the scenes. The scores the judges provide become a percentage. Showrunners take that percentage and add it to the percentage of fan votes each couple receives.

Then, Carrie Ann Inaba, Derek Hough, and Bruno Tonioli cast their votes for the couple they wish to save. If the three judges differ in opinion, head judge Len Goodman steps in to make the final decision, regardless of which judges voted for who. 

“The only time Len would not choose a couple to save is if Bruno, Carrie-Ann, and Derek all three agree on the same person leaving,” DWTS pro Britt Stewart, who is competing with CODA star Daniel Durant in season 31, explained to Showbiz Cheat Sheet over the phone previously. As head judge, Goodman’s vote carries more weight.

Charli D’Amelio could win ‘Dancing with the Stars’ based on her social media popularity 

Every season brings a new batch of celebrities. They come from all walks of life, from ex movie stars to members of Bachelor Nation, reality TV celebrities, and famous TikTokers like D’Amelio. With more than 147 million followers on TikTok, 49 million on Instagram, and another 5.4 million on Twitter, some viewers think D’Amelio could take home the Mirrorball strictly based on her social media following. 

Charli D'Amelio, who many think will win the popularity contest that is 'Dancing with the Stars' dancing with Mark Ballas in season 31
Charli D’Amelio performs with Mark Ballas | ABC/Eric McCandless

“Charli posted a video doing nothing but giving a thumbs up in the dressing room and it has 800k likes in [four] hours,” someone pointed out on Reddit. “… She owns the numbers.” 

D’Amelio’s following blows her competitors’ out of the water. Based on Instagram alone, here’s how the cast of Dancing with the Stars Season 31’s social media following compares to the TikTok star: 

  • Vinny Guadagnino: 4.2 million
  • Wayne Brady: 414,000
  • Gabby Windey: 801,000
  • Shangela: 1.5 million
  • Selma Blair: 3 million
  • Daniel Durant: 64,300
  • Jordin Sparks: 1.9 million
  • Joseph Baena: 383,000
  • Heidi D’Amelio: 2.4 million
  • Trevor Donovan: 240,000
  • Cheryl Ladd: 79,000
  • Sam Champion: 157,000
  • Jessie James Decker: 4.1 million
  • Teresa Giudice: 2.3 million 

If D’Amelio, who sits at the top of the leader board after her week 1 performance, continues to score highly, she might become the Mirrorball Champion of season 31. However, it’s still early and there are several other contenders, including Brady, Windey, and Blair. They could entice viewer votes with their positive attitudes and desire to bring it this season. After all, former Bachelorette’s do have a track record of winning Dancing with the Stars. We’re talking Melissa Rycroft, Hannah Brown, and Kaitlyn Bristowe. Ironically, no one from The Bachelor has yet to take home the Mirrorball.  

Of course, if D’Amelio does win, it won’t be based on fan votes alone. Sure, eight million votes will certainly help the TikToker advance in the competition. But she’ll also have to continue pleasing the judges to keep her scores up.

Former ‘Dancing with the Stars’ showrunner once admitted the show is a ‘popularity contest’ 

Andrew Llinares, the executive producer of Dancing with the Stars in season 29 and showrunner before Conrad Green returned in 2022, admitted it’s something of a popularity contest. “… The unique combination of the judges’ scores and the viewers’ votes gives insight on where the contestants are landing technically, but it also shows who has the most vocal fan base, which can lead to unpredictable results,” he told Huffington Post in 2019. 

Even the highest-scoring competitors don’t stand a chance if their competition has a bigger following. For example, when Fuller House star Juan Pablo Di Pace competed in season 27, he consistently earned 10s from the judges. However, he got sent home during the semi-finals. Despite his lackluster scores, country radio host Bobby Bones beat out Milo Manheim, Evanna Lynch, and Alexis Ren in the season 27 finale. This is reportedly what kickstarted the judges jumping in to save one couple from the final two. 

Still, the new rule didn’t stop political figure Sean Spicer from getting further in the competition than he should have. Another contestant with less-than-impressive scores, the former White House Press Secretary placed sixth in season 28. 

As Llinares told Huffington Post: “Dancing with the Stars is not a certified ballroom competition. It is an entertainment dance program that highlights the celebrities’ dancing progress and their journey along the way. Viewers know they will be entertained, moved and inspired by these celebrities who are doing something completely out of their comfort zone.”

‘Dancing with the Stars’ will always be entertaining

Ultimately, the popularity contest aspect of the show means the best dancer doesn’t always win. Instead, the celebrity who scores highly with the judges, shares their personal growth with the audience, and encourages their loyal following to “vote, vote, vote” every week will always take home the Mirrorball. 


Maksim Chmerkovskiy Denied ‘Dancing with the Stars’ 10 Times Before Becoming a Pro; Here’s Why

But it doesn’t matter. No matter what, we’re still going to tune to Dancing with the Stars in to find out who wins, sob over themed nights like “Most Memorable Year” and “Disney Night,” and of course, watch these celebrities share more of themselves with the world. And we can’t forget the excitement and anticipation that comes with watching a live show. Anything can happen — including the dreaded fall. For all of these reasons, we’re in on the popularity contest that is Dancing with the Stars.

Watch DWTS on Disney+ every Monday night at 8 p.m. ET.