NEW YORK — Not so long ago, rapper Lil' Kim perpetuated an X-rated public image that could make even the baddest girls blush.
Her raunchy roster of songs include the hit "Magic Stick" and lyrics much too graphic to repeat and she has jail creds, serving 10 months in prison for lying to a federal grand jury about a 2001 gun battle outside a New York radio station.
But now _ nearly two years out of jail _ Kim haunts the PG-rated pastures of "Dancing With the Stars." Watching her twirl like a princess in floaty chiffon and weep with joy after her successful Argentine tango, it's easy to forget the wild woman who wore a purple pasty on an exposed breast on national TV.
Viewers are rooting for Kim, along with more wholesome contestants like Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson. After her well reviewed performance Monday, the rapper said the ABC dance competition was "bringing out the sensitive side of Little Kim."
Which begs the question: Is "Dancing With the Stars" the new rehab? With each season, celebrity dancers of varying degrees of infamy seek redemption on the family show through a Total Image Overhaul. But witnessing, say, a formerly jailed rapper shake her bon-bon (and ex-con status) might be part of the cheeky fun.
"The strange thing is a lot of people have been on the show who do come from a more slightly edgy background or who have got a reputation possibly for being more edgy _ when they get on the show, tend to be very likable," says executive producer Conrad Green.
"There's something about the rosy glow of `Dancing With the Stars.' It's kind of hard (to resist) even if you're ... a bad boy, you start wearing sequins and playing the game."
The eighth season of the top-rated series recruited some other bawdy contestants: "Jackass" daredevil Steve-O, who recently completed rehab after battling drug addiction; Denise Richards, whose messy divorce from Charlie Sheen branded her a tabloid target; and possibly Holly Madison, former Playboy playmate and girlfriend of Hugh Hefner.
The show, which debuted in 2005, has a history of extending the spotlight and second chances to Hollywood oddballs, outcasts and others with sordid backstories. Some examples: actress Tatum O'Neal, who recounted her drug addiction recovery in a memoir; Heather Mills, who went through a nasty divorce from Paul McCartney; E! reality star Kim Kardashian, who rose to fame because of a sex tape featuring her and reality star Ray J; and Jerry Springer, the impresario of trash TV.
Green says the show had a "breakthrough" in the third season by casting Springer, an unexpected fan favorite, loving father and good sport.
"Everyone expected `Jerry Springer: King of Schlock' and all that kind of stuff for the show," says Green. "He showed a completely different side of himself, and he's a very likable, charming guy. And a really good story. And he really got into the spirit of the show. I think it's completely rejuvenated the public perception of him _ and I think it was really nice for him and it was really nice for a lot of our other celebrities to say, `You know what? You can see me much more as I am.'"
That certainly strikes a nerve with Kardashian.
The curvy beauty, who co-stars with her family on the E! reality hit "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," was eliminated early on last season but appreciated the chance to reveal her true self on "Dancing."
"Lil' Kim and I were talking about that: We were saying that we felt like there was this different identity out there of us ... but the show was a great opportunity to show who we really are," she says.
Kardashian, who was approached by producers to do the show, says millions of viewers "were able to see that I'm a lot more shy and reserved than people would probably assume. ... I'm not a performer. I'm so used to hiding behind my sisters."
Producers seek out celebs with interesting stories and build the rest of the cast around them, Green says. The challenge is to pick a variety of likable contestants who "you want to spend some time" with over the course of each season, he says. The bigger the fan base, the higher the ratings.
Green had considered Steve-O (real name: Stephen Glover) since the beginning but didn't approach him until "he entered rehab and sorted his life out." The "Jackass" star, who received decent marks this week from the judges for his Viennese waltz, recently joked on the show that he's not used to coping with high-pressure situations "without the help of drugs and alcohol."
Green says it might have been "too dangerous on a family show (casting) Steve-O like he was before. ... Perhaps I'm being unfair there but I'm rather risk averse, given the size of our audience and how easy it would be to offend them. But then when we met with Steve-O, he's a really lovely bloke."
Truth be told, fans of the kitschy ballroom dance show are probably not judging the contestants' moral character as much as how well they move on the floor. Sex appeal can lead to success on the show. Season-eight stud Gilles Marini exudes it. So does Lil' Kim. See also: the crackling combination of past partners Mario Lopez and professional dancer Karina Smirnoff.
Who'd complete Green's dream cast? Former President Bill Clinton and Michael Jackson, who have both weathered sex scandals far more humiliating than Lil' Kim's prison stint.
"Karina and Bill Clinton, now that would be dynamite," Green says, considering possible pairings. "I actually think he'd be quite a good mover."
ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co.
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