Predicting who will win a competitive reality show is a fool’s errand at best (especially when the public has a say in the show's outcome), but let’s not let that stop us from analyzing who's in the best position to win this season of Dancing With the Stars. There are nine couples remaining and sure, you could look at their average judges’ scores so far and tally up the favorites, but we all know that reality show producers want to craft a good story so that the eventual winner feels satisfying, and using those criteria, only four of the remaining contestants have an actual chance at winning.
It must be said that, statistically, the most likely winners are former professional or Olympic athletes, with 11 of the 27 DWTS winners (a cool 41%) coming from that background. But this season, with the injury of Ray Lewis and the exit of Lamar Odom, we can eliminate that category from contention altogether. Here are the other likely winners, as determined by their season-long storylines, ranked from least- to most- likely to be the eventual champion:
Past winners in this category include Bindi Irwin and, the best example, Season 20 winner Rumer Willis. A Young Lady Gaining Confidence spouts phrases like "I felt very self-conscious" and "I took dance lessons as a child but never ballroom" and does a lot of blushing. As the weeks pass, the judges will talk about the dancer "blossoming" and "coming into her own." This year’s Young Lady is Sailor Brinkley Cook, a last-minute fill-in for her mother, former model and Uptown Girl Christie Brinkley. She’s even friends with Rumer Willis! Many times, the Young Lady doesn’t quite make it all the way to the end, but when she does eventually leave, she will inevitably give a speech about how much she has learned and grown through the process.
Like the Young Lady, this is a category that often makes it deep into the competition based on approval from the voting public, but oftentimes their dancing skills aren’t quite up to par and they eventually get eliminated. Those who have avoided this fate to actually take home the trophy include Army veteran (and soap opera actor) JR Martinez and Deaf activist (and Top Model) Nyle DiMarco. This season, James Van Der Beek best fits here, but the good news for him is that he has the dancing chops to back up the video footage we see every week of him, his wife, and their five adorable children (with another on the way!). The Beek is relentlessly positive and good-humored, supportive of his fellow contestants, and completely committed to his routines, which could very well make him the next winner in this category.
That age, by the way, is basically anything over 35, sadly. These old geezers are often treated like they have one foot in the grave and this is their last chance to discover the joy of dance, even though they're moms, or grandmas, or bigger than a size 2. Past winners in this category include Brooke Burke and Jennifer Grey. Real fossils, right? Anyway, this season, they probably had Christie Brinkley slotted for this role, but then she went and broke her elbow (unless you believe Wendy Williams' theory that her "injury" was all a ploy to get her daughter some screen time), so Kate Flannery (Meredith on The Office) stepped up to play her part, and luckily for the producers, she has some actual theater and dance background, so they don’t have to call her an inspiration every week like they did poor Cloris Leachman and the late Florence Henderson in seasons past. Kate is what my grandma would’ve called "a real hoot," so while it’s probably a good career move for her to remind casting directors that she’s around, and she has many talents, voters in the past have been unlikely to promote a comedic actress to the finals, even if she is Of A Certain Age.
This is the final category, and the one I think is most likely to produce a winner. There is some overlap in this category with the Young Lady and also the Family Man, but past winners from this group include Drew Lachey (98 Degrees), Alfonso Ribeiro (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air), and this season, Kel Mitchell (Kenan & Kel). Men in this category tend to have great natural dancing skills, but not much experience with choreography or the structure of the ballroom, and because they’ve been performing from a young age, they sometimes cut up or don’t take rehearsals seriously. Watch for a scoring dip around mid-season as the judges warn him that he needs to put his nose to the grindstone or some other such metaphor for getting one's act together, then the Former Teen realizes that he doesn’t actually want to go home — he can’t just skate by on his charisma — and ends up with a perfect score the next week on his way to the Mirror Ball Trophy.
The actual leaders thus far based on average scores are a former Bachelorette (Hannah Brown) and a former member of Fifth Harmony (Ally Brooke), and they're both very talented dancers, but... also kind of boring. There is every chance that the producers will realize in a few weeks that one of those two ladies is going to win and start crafting a tacked-on narrative to make their eventual win more satisfying, but if past seasons have taught us anything, it’s that a Young Lady Gaining Confidence, Inspirational Family Man, Woman of a Certain Age, or Former Teen Star will be raised on the shoulders of the other dancers some Monday night in November.
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Kim Reed has been writing about television online since 1998 on sites like Television Without Pity, Previously.tv, Vulture, and MSNBC. Follow her on Twitter @kimreed