Pros and Cons: Heading into the show’s 21st season, there might be something the southern chef wants even more than the Mirrorball trophy: image rehabilitation. Unfortunately for Deen, we’re not so sure the voting audience will be as quick to forget the racist remarks that got her booted from the Food Network in 2013, or the questionable Halloween photo that surfaced earlier this year. Add even a dash of sloppy footwork on the dance floor, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a last-place finish.
Gary Busey (with pro Anna Trebunskaya)
Pros and Cons: Trebunskaya hasn’t appeared on DWTS since Season 15, which has given the audience plenty of time to pledge its loyalty to other professionals. (Plus, when paired with men of a certain age like Steve Guttenberg and Jack Wagner, Trebunskaya has been eliminated early on.) Still, if Busey’s over-the-top Dancing announcement is any indication, he should be game for just about anything.
Victor Espinoza (with pro Karina Smirnoff)
Pros and Cons: Smirnoff doesn’t have the best track record with partners from the sports world: She only managed ninth place with Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and 11th place with both Sean Avery and Randy Couture. (Plus, the three-inch height difference between her and Espinoza might not bode well for pulling off complicated lifts.) But Espinoza could prove to be a hit with horse race-loving voters — and if the Mirrorball remains out of reach for him, that Triple Crown trophy on Espinoza’s mantle at home will likely cheer him right up.
Kim Zolciak Biermann (with pro Tony Dovolani)
Pros and Cons: Something tells us Dovolani is longing for the days when he was paired with Melissa Rycroft (and won!). Now dancing with his second Real Housewife in four seasons (after NeNe Leakes in Season 18), the Dancing vet is likely to finish in the middle of the pack again this season — unless there’s a sudden surge in voters who never miss an episode of Real Housewives of [Insert City Here].
Chaka Khan (with pro Keo Motsepe)
Pros and Cons: Being the Queen of Funk and all, chances are good that Khan has a better sense of rhythm and musicality than most of her competitors this season. That said, her professional partner is still a relative newcomer to the Dancing world, which could make it hard to find a fanbase. (After all, Motsepe’s last partner was Carl’s Jr. “spokeswoman” Charlotte McKinney, a thought that still makes us shudder.)
Alek Skarlatos (with pro Lindsay Arnold)
Pros and Cons: Let’s face it: Skarlatos, an Oregon Army National Guardsman, likely won’t be the lightest on his feet this season. (Meanwhile, his partner — who has been in the DWTS troupe for the last four seasons — has only competed on the show one other time.) But on the plus side, he’s young and fit — and Skarlatos’ dancing prowess, or lack thereof, will merely be a footnote for voters who (rightly) consider him an American hero.
Bindi Irwin (with pro Derek Hough)
Pros and Cons: On paper, Irwin and Hough look like the team to beat in Season 21. Hough, a five-time DWTS champ, has cracked the Top 5 every season except one. Irwin is young, energetic and — judging by her lifelong passion for animals — up for anything. But the Dancing ballroom couldn’t be further from Irwin’s natural habitat, and her lack of experience could be the team’s downfall. (Plus, there’s a bloc of voters who prefer to see less-hyped pros get a shot at the trophy.)
Alexa PenaVega (with pro Mark Ballas)
Pros and Cons: PenaVega has made a career of acting and singing, which means the dance floor shouldn’t be too far outside her comfort zone. She’s also got Ballas on her side, who has taken home the Mirrorball twice and reached the finale on five other occasions. PenaVega’s real obstacle will be finding an audience, aside from those of us who loved her work in Spy Kids.
Carlos PenaVega (with pro Witney Carson)
Pros and Cons: The same can be said for Alexa’s husband, who might also have trouble winning over the voting audience. (Sure, he’s in the band Big Time Rush, but how much overlap is there between Nickelodeon viewers and DWTS fanatics?) Fortunately, PenaVega is paired with a onetime champ — and if Carson can make former Bachelor Chris Soules look good on the dance floor, she can probably do anything.
Hayes Grier (with pro Emma Slater)
Pros and Cons: Say what you will about Grier’s claim to fame, if you’re over the age of 25 and wondering, “What the heck is a Vine star?!” All skepticism aside, Grier has more than 4 million followers on the video-sharing app, which could amount to countless millennials voting for Grier on a six-second loop. Not to mention, being the youngest Season 21 competitor (at just 15 years old!) means Grier has energy and vibrance that his fellow contestants may not.
Tamar Braxton (with pro Val Chmerkovskiy)
Pros and Cons: Though some viewers might write Braxton off as another reality star, she’s also a Grammy-nominated R&B singer, which means she knows a thing or two about keeping time. Plus, even though Braxton is not the most popular name on the Season 21 roster, her fan-favorite partner (who is coming off a victory with Rumer Willis) will bring in plenty of votes on his own, too.
Andy Grammer (with pro Allison Holker)
Pros and Cons: Grammer’s laid back music doesn’t require a whole lot of movin’ and shakin’, but if his guest appearance on Season 20 is any indication, the singer-songwriter isn’t afraid to commit to his routines. Holker, meanwhile, placed second in a neck-and-neck finale last season, all but guaranteeing she’s fired up to try to win the Mirrorball trophy this time around.
Nick Carter (with pro Sharna Burgess)
Pros and Cons: The Backstreet Boys might be past their prime (sorry, anyone who attended the NKOTBSB tour!), but ’90s boy band members have a habit of excelling on DWTS (see: Drew Lachey). And, as demonstrated in Season 20 (with war veteran Noah Galloway), Burgess is a masterful choreographer regardless of her partner’s dancing skills. Combine Carter’s performance background with Burgess’ adaptability, and you’ve got one formidable duo in the ballroom.