Cheryl Burke Talks Dancing With The Stars, New Podcast Pretty Messed Up And More - Exclusive Interview

It's not hyperbole to describe Cheryl Burke as a 21st-century renaissance woman. Among the many hats she wears are author, entrepreneur, television personality, podcaster, and, of course, ballroom dancer, tripping the light fantastic on 23 seasons of Dancing with the Stars. In 2020, Burke dove into a whole new medium when she launched her podcast, Pretty Messed Up, which she co-hosts with Backstreet Boys' A.J. McLean and René Elizondo Jr., a dancer, singer/songwriter, and music video director who was once married to Janet Jackson. What binds the three together is that they're all in recovery, and their shared sobriety journey is at the centre of their always frank, often hilarious discussions.

In an exclusive interview with Nicki Swift, Burke opened up about the origin and evolution of Pretty Messed Up, and how she came to make her first foray into the realm of podcasting. Meanwhile, Burke also discussed her Dancing with the Stars journey, including how being recruited for the show led her on a path she never could have imagined when she was a struggling dancer living in Harlem, competing in ballroom dance competitions. 

How Cheryl Burke came to podcasting with Pretty Messed Up

How did Pretty Messed Up come to be? 

"So it's been almost three-and-a-half years, and it just took the process of actually getting a podcast and figuring out basically what we were going to talk about. It was a long process. And at first, it turned out to be just me, and we were going to just basically do a version of "Wifey Wednesday." I don't know if you've ever seen my IGTV, but before I got married, I did these "Wifey Wednesday" episodes where basically, I have my friends come over, they teach me how to iron or basic stuff that I just don't know about. And, [Amy Sugarman from iHeartRadio] loved that idea, that concept of me just trying new things that maybe the general public... Or, whatever was trending, right, was going to be something that I would try out.

And then, got married [to actor Matthew Lawrence], went on our honeymoon, and then all of a sudden she's like, "You have to meet A.J. McLean, and I'm like, "Who's that?" And, she's like, "You don't know who A.J. is?" I'm like, "No." She said, "Backstreet Boys," and I was like, "OK, great." "And, you have to meet his mentor, René Elizondo. And, you guys have to... You have similar stories, you're different age groups, and we find that very interesting."

And so, we met via Zoom, even before I knew he was doing Dancing with the Stars. So, it's really crazy how it all just came together. But, we were going to do this podcast regardless of him being my partner or him doing Dancing with the Stars, period.

Well, given that the podcast deals with some pretty serious subject matter, it doesn't seem like it gets bogged down. It's not a downer. I mean, you still have a lot of fun. But is that a fine line to walk?

Totally. I think that, because the three of us are all in recovery, right, so there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I think that's what we want to be able to spread, as far as awareness goes, when it comes to mental health, and when it comes to really being able to speak freely about it. It doesn't have to be dark. And, obviously, we're very open with our stories, that's part of our recovery, and a lot of people have been reaching out to us and just telling us how grateful they are for our podcast, because a lot of the subjects we talk about are not necessarily comfortable, every day talking points or conversations, I guess, that people have.

Cheryl Burke's goals for her Pretty Messed Up podcast

Well, to follow a bit on that, you have been very open and very public about your sobriety journey. Is it difficult to make that decision to say, "I'm going to sort of open up about this, and tell everyone that these are the struggles I'm going through?" Was that a tough decision for you to reach?

I guess it wasn't really a decision, it was like, I've been sober for over two years now, and it just came at a perfect moment when my partner was sober, he made it kind of OK to talk about, and I think in the world we live in today, everyone's ready to hear it. And, it wasn't forced. It wasn't something like, "OK, today's the day I'm going to announce that I've been sober or talk about my alcoholism or that I'm an addict," but at the end of the day, I've been blessed to be able to tell my story, and I think it's the years of therapy I've been in since I was a little girl. I wrote a book many years ago about my life and every time I do tell my story or talk about it, it's very therapeutic, selfishly, but also I do so because I want to be able to help somebody, at least one person. And, I think we've done that so far.

Is that sort of the goal that you sort of set when you decided to do the podcast?

Yeah. Yeah, I didn't want it to be hot topics. I'm not a gossipy person like that, nor do I like to hear my name in the mix sometimes. So, when it comes to actually ... For me, like I said, I've been able to talk about my story, whether it was even before I came out and said that I was an addict, it was about child abuse and the stuff that — the dark days and the trauma, and being able to come out the other side. And, I think that a lot of people, again, it's hard for them to talk about, including some of my family members, it's hard for them to talk about it, and I see it eating away at them, and it makes me so sad.

Cheryl Burke has taken to podcasting like a fish to water

The podcast format, itself, was it a bit of a learning curve to sort of figure out how that whole thing worked? Because some people seem to get it better than others.

For sure. And, I didn't even know, I just remember back in my high school days, listening to disc jockeys, and I was like, "Oh, wait, maybe I should do something like this." I didn't... even before ballroom. But, the podcast world nowadays, it's such a cool thing to have, or everyone and their mother has podcasts, and it's hard to... When you think like that, then you're kind of discouraged. But, we have a niche, and I think that's why Amy Sugarman from iHeart put us together. She really cast it, I guess, in the right way, because it's different experiences, but the same type of issue, and that makes it unique and interesting, I think.

What have some of the highlights of Pretty Messed Up been for you so far?

Well, we went golfing the other day, and so obviously, any type of human interaction has been nice, especially because nowadays, I've seen René maybe twice in person, that's it. I mean, we've been doing this for a while now. So that was fun. Also, I love having guests on that I don't know a lot about. I do my research, obviously, I do my due diligence and I do read a book if they have a book that they want to talk about, but it's really cool to hear their side of the story. We have Rachel Uchitel coming on, we're recording today. And we had Deepak Chopra, and it's different when... Because, I love online courses. I love listening to other podcasts, and it's so different when you actually have these people responding to your question. It's humbling.

Those two names you mentioned, Rachel Uchitel, Deepak Chopra, I mean, that's quite the span of...

Yeah, of hot topics.

Yeah. I mean, you do get a lot of different types of people on there. One of the more interesting episodes was when you had your good friend Leah Remini on, and I wanted to ask you, is it easier or more difficult when you're interviewing someone that you're that close to?

Well, I did a whole... You should have seen me, I was at her house that night before, and I was like, "What do you want to talk about?" And, it's hard, because we're so close, right? So, she loves to sometimes, "Ask this, ask this," and then I'm like, "OK, but I'm sticking to the script." And then, the next day, she'll change her mind, and I'm like, "Oh my God, it's probably best that I just take a backseat," because the boys had so much to ask about Scientology. So, it's harder for sure to interview your friends. Yeah.

Dancing with the Stars changed Cheryl Burke's Life

I wanted to segue into Dancing with the Stars a bit and just ask you how has it changed your life? How has it impacted you?

Oh my God. I still credit my whole life. To this day, I thank them. I'm in gratitude just for having them believe in me when I couldn't even talk in front of the camera. I don't think you understand. I sounded like a little mouse, and I had zero confidence, no self-esteem. I was coming from the competitive ballroom world, literally flew in from Harlem, went straight to the Palazzo here by The Grove, and I thought I was only going to be here for one season and cut to 65 seasons later — no I'm kidding. But, it's been a long time, and I didn't think that this was going to be my life, nor did I ever want it to be.

It was weird, because I was competing at the time with my professional partner and in ballroom, you're supposed to stick with it, right, you have to be each other's partner, you're in it for the long haul, and very rarely does... unless if you're breaking up, do you separate. And so, this was a big deal. I thought [my partner] was going to get asked as well. And I was like, "OK, I'll just do it for one season."

And then, it was just meant to be, I can't even tell you how it was meant to be. There's so many different parts to this story, right, and it's at that moment, maybe it was terrifying and I was living in this uncertainty, and for the first time having to speak up for myself and do an interview and say complete sentences, and people wanted to know what my favorite color was. No one cared before, and I did a lot of self-discovering, and I have to say, the first 10 years... I never went to college. I never was a part of a sorority. And, I just definitely partied, partied a lot, and I got that out of the way. And, it's hard to meet good people here in this industry. And, I think the people that I have met, like my husband and people like Leah, you just keep them really close to your heart, and that's it. I only need a small, little circle.

Teaming with celebs on Dancing with the Stars is 'like an arranged marriage'

Now, I want to be careful how I phrase this...

No worries.

I don't want to put it in terms of best or worst, but of the celebrities that you've danced with on the show, that you've had to sort of train, who had the highest learning curve, who you're like, "Oh boy, this is going to be a bit of a challenge." Because, you get people from all walks of life and all sorts of athletic abilities and dance skills.

Oh yeah, and all egos of life. Mind you, not in a bad way, we all have it, right, and it's really... I mean, I can't imagine, because I did a show called I Can Do That, where we did every type of talent. I was a freaking Jabbawockee, which was actually one of the better ones. But, Harlem Globetrotters was difficult. Anyway, to be vulnerable, and especially having a girl bark at you, like I did, I wasn't going to change my teaching style. That's the way that I was taught, and clearly in the beginning, it got results, right, and that's what my brand was. I was that taskmaster, so that's who it was.

And, it's difficult, because it's an arranged marriage, you've got to get along. For me, I can't fake it. So, unfortunately, it's not necessarily... Look, I'm not hard to get along with, neither are any of the celebrities I've danced with, but what makes it hard is when I don't feel like they trust me or the process, and then you're just fighting a fight that is just... there's no fight. What can you do?

I guess I've always found it interesting that people would sign onto something like that and not decide, "Well, if I'm going to do it, I'm going to give it my all, I'm going to do my best."

I know, but they look at the show, and they're like, "Oh, I could do that." Oh, you have no idea. But that's our job. It looks easy. That's what actors do. Obviously, it doesn't look like you're reading a teleprompter, but it looks easy.

Shooting Dancing with the Stars without an audience has been 'difficult'

Can you pinpoint any particular experiences on Dancing with the Stars that really stand out, that really kind of feel like you're going to remember and maybe tell your grandkids about?

Well, first of all, I mean, I'll tell my grandkids about this whole experience. Or, if there are DVDs that are in the future, then so be it, they can watch it, YouTube for sure will be around. I think that for all the seasons, right, I've done 23 seasons, honestly, first, just for me, I grew so much as a woman, right, coming here when I was 21, I'm almost 37. And, it's really rare to hear the story, other than maybe people from Friends, right, this cast of Friends, they've been on television basically as long, if not longer. But, to be able to ballroom dance and make it cool again, without that being my goal as to why I even did ballroom dancing in the first place, it's a remarkable story to be able to share my passion in life, right, and to share it with the world, and to be able to affect so many people.

I think this is why I always come back, because it's not necessarily me dancing to my potential or me learning even how to dance, I'm teaching and I'm dancing to the level of my celebrity, which is not necessarily me showing off, it's more about seeing how other people, especially this season with COVID, just getting a flood of emails, and it's just flowing with so much love. And, I just love to be able to give back in that sense. And, I think this is why I'm here.

To follow on that a bit, how much more complicated is it now, this season, when you're doing the show in the middle of a pandemic?

With no audience? It was very difficult. Yeah. I can literally hear the judges breathing down my neck every time I'd quickstep past them. It was like crickets. I mean, it was difficult. This is as entertainers, we love a live audience. You know right away if your dance is good, because they don't lie. And, that's the beauty of Dancing with the Stars, is that it's a live show, and sometimes it was hard for me to kind of snap out of it, I guess, because it's that nervous anxiety feeling, as much as we hate it, we love it, we strive off of that. But, Leah Remini was saying to me the other day, she's like, "I wish I was part of that season," because she was always trying to look for the nearest exit, because she hated the live audience. So, it just depends on who you are. It was hard for me though, I'm not going to lie.

She renewed her love of DWTS by stepping away from it

What was it like for you to step away from the show and then come back? What was that experience like for you?

It was refreshing, not in a good or bad way. It was like I needed to learn again. I needed to surround myself in a different environment. I started feeling like I was on autopilot, and that's never fun, which is why I also went to Argentina to learn how to Argentine tango when the show added that dance. And, it's just so important for me to constantly evolve, whether that be me continuing to dance or not, I just love learning.

Of course, in the midst of all that, you stepped into Dance Moms as well. I mean, yes, you are a task master, but you're also not Abby Lee Miller, I mean, talk about two very different personalities.

Totally. That's what I said to them. I was like, "Are you sure you want to hire me, because I'm not going to give you that same..." They're like, "We don't want that, obviously." So, I was like, "OK, I agree with you."

What was that experience like working with the girls on Dance Moms?

It was amazing. I saw myself in each and every single one of them. I mean, the fact that they were so traumatized, and for some reason, I definitely went through that as well in the competitive life of ballroom dancing. And, it's hard to have a voice. It's hard to not feel insecure with all the body image issues that dancers go through, that's not really ever talked about. Yes, you hear the Hollywood side of things and, yes, you're not a size zero, but there's a whole dance world of ballerinas, ballroom dancers. We're up there in tights, half-naked, shaking our butts, and it does something to you, psychologically, right, and especially when you get comments about your body image, which I've gone through, and a lot of these girls have gone through, and I think it was important, this was their last season, to leave on a high note, to not hate dance because of their experience.

And, I hope that I was able to influence them and just say, "You know what, this was just a little bump in the road, but this bump in the road is what's going to shape who you are as an adult." And so, hopefully, they were able to take something back from that, in a good way, positive experience.

Cheryl Burke has a lot on her plate — and that's the way she likes it

Now, there's Cheryl Burke, the person. There's also Cheryl Burke, the brand. I know you've got your QVC line. I know you're doing those masks now, which are very cool, by the way.

Thanks. I'll give you one.

And you even had a sponsorship with Depends.

Oh yeah, that was awhile ago. It's funny that you mentioned that. So, QVC is no longer happening. And then, the Depends was a one-off, obviously, not because I needed to wear the Depends, it was because they wanted me to dance in the Depends, if that makes any sense, just to show how thin it was, and I could wear a Latin dance costume and wear a Depend and you can't even tell the difference, can you? That was the point.

I guess what I'm getting at is that you've got a very eclectic approach to branding.

Yeah, totally. And, I have to say, I get this from my mother, she is a hustler at heart and she grew up in a very poor province in the Philippines, and I've been so lucky that she worked her a** off and she's been able to support me. And, that's what I want to do for my family and my kids in the future.

So how do you juggle all of that, especially when you're doing Dancing with the Stars?

It's a juggle. Yeah, it's a juggle, for sure, but I love it. I love it. I think that you're either born a hustler or not, I guess, I don't know. I do thrive off of it, maybe too much, like to an unhealthy point, where it's like, maybe I need more balance. But, I'm lucky that my husband understands and vice-versa, when he's working, and we're just there to support each other. And, it's a lot easier when you have someone who accepts you and supports you, than not.

Cheryl Burke and A.J. McLean are sharing their sobriety journey together on Pretty Messed Up

Now that you're working with A.J. on Pretty Messed Up, who's basically going through this journey with you — both the podcast journey and the sobriety journey, kind of at the same time. That must be a real bonding experience for the two of you.

Yeah, I felt like for him to... So, I've been sober for almost two-and-a-half years. He was his first year sober, so he just celebrated his year. And, I have to say, the first year, to do Dancing with the Stars, is not the most ideal thing to do, because it really is... Dancing with the Stars, as amazing and wonderful as it is, it's tough. It's seven days a week. People don't understand, they hear us say it, but it's like Survivor meets Dancing with the Stars. It's really survival of the mentally fittest, right? It's not necessarily physical fit. But, it's not easy. I remember, we just interviewed [Jackass star] Steve-O, and he said that he also joined, I didn't realize that back then, but it was his first year of sobriety as well when he did Dancing with the Stars, and he almost cracked. He said he wanted out so bad, but he was able to last almost until the end. And, I'm just proud of anyone who can actually walk away in one piece after putting your whole life into something, and to just then be judged and eliminated, why?

Now, not to say you don't have enough projects going on, but do you have anything else on the horizon? Anything new coming up?

Well, I got a YouTube channel, which takes a lot of work. I have so much respect for all these YouTube influencers, right? But now, I know why they make the big bucks, because you're like, "Yeah, this is a lot of work." If you were to see behind my laptop right now, it's all this equipment, and you don't have anyone helping. So, I definitely have a newfound appreciation for that. I am going to be introducing my new dance program, which I kind of did a little sneak peak when I partnered with Jewel, the singer, her foundation Never Broken. And, I kind of did a little intro to my dance program, which is that, basically how dance has been very therapeutic in my life, right, more than a fitness program. And, this is not going to be a tutorial, it's going to be how dance and movement relates to mental health and the benefits of it. So that's been something that I've been working on. Podcast, got a new website. We're just going to never sleep.

Fans can hear more from Burke on Pretty Messed Up, available on all podcast streaming platforms; new episodes drop each Monday.