The Emmy-nominated emcee of So You Think You Can Dance could teach a thing or two to Carson Daly, Jeff Probst, Heidi Klum, et al
Depending on which TV fan you talk to, Friday Night Lights' in Best Drama nod was not the most overdue Emmy nomination this year. To those who have watched So You Think You Can Dance over the past seven seasons, the most welcome, long-awaited recognition went to Cat Deeley's work as the show's emcee in the Best Reality Host category. The presenter is first and foremost a fan of the show she hosts (to a degree that borders on geeky), clearly engaged with the dancing contestants, genuinely excited for the guest performers and judges each week, and refreshingly professional about her job. In other words, she's the perfect reality show host.
With Project Runway starting up again next week, hosted by the stilted-yet-weirdly charming Heidi Klum, and new X Factor host Steve Jones hoping to help Simon Cowell's new singing competition squash American Idol, here's a look at what the effervescent Deeley does best, a de facto guide to what makes a good reality TV host:
1.) Stand out
American Idol's Ryan Seacrest, Survivor's Jeff Probst, The Amazing Race's Phil Keoghan, Dancing With the Stars' Tom Bergeron, The Voice's Carson Daly: All are variations of the same. Athletically-built white men with $300 haircuts, radio voices, and impeccably tailored dark suits. They all slow down their delivery dramatically and Emphasize. Important. Words while their eyes are forcibly glued to the teleprompter. Cat Deeley, on the other hand, saunters out each week dancing dorkily, a gigantic smile on her face that even fellow bombshell emcees Klum or Padma Lakshmi (Top Chef) only muster roughly once every third season of their shows.
Her adorably askew features cap off an unparalleled individuality. She even styles herself for the show. She's goofy in a way that lightens parts of a telecast that can traditionally be quite leaden, while still remaining put-together and professional. She boasts the loose silliness of Bergeron and the poise of Klum without suffering from the multiple personality disorder that plagues Tyra Banks on America's Next Top Model. Simply, she has fun while doing her job—well.
2.) Watch your own show
It may seem like an obvious part of a reality host's job description, but it's a requirement that so few of them meet. On DWTS, Tom Bergeron sneaks in a few glib quips that hints that he—or somebody feeding him lines in his ear piece—actually watches the various D-listers waltz across the ballroom. The greatest part of Nick Cannon's hosting on America's Got Talent is the backstage camera that catches his jaw drop while watching some of the acts in the wings.
But with Deeley, you get the feeling that she's not just watching the show because she's forced to—she's watching it because she enjoys it. After each performance, she rushes back on stage firing off remarks about why she loved the routine she just saw. She clearly does not know a pirouette from a paso doble, which makes her immediate, obviously ad-libbed observations all the more endearing. She's the voice of the viewer, saying what all of us non-dance people are thinking just after watching each routine. It's another opportunity to engage audiences, one that talent competitions in particularly don't often take advantage of.
3.) Keep the show running smoothly
The kind of hosting that Deeley, Seacrest, and Bergeron do is a whole different animal from the likes of Probst, Keoghan, and Klum. Their shows are live. They're tasked with rolling with a series of unpredictable punches each week, unlike the carefully framed, taped, and edited Survivor, Amazing Race, or Project Runway. They must stall when shows are running short, speed up segments that are running long, and react on their feet to what the judges and contestants are saying. Seacrest and Bergeron do it well. Deeley just does it better.
During an episode when hip-hop dancer Twitch was getting a particularly loud crowd reaction, Deeley spontaneously milked the moment by putting the grillz he was wearing in her own mouth. It was unexpected, perfect live TV. This is also the woman who during a judges critique got on her knees and literally placed one female contestant's pinkie toe back in a dance shoe it had uncomfortably come out of. Bergeron gets close to that ease, but is often slowed by co-host/robot Brooke Burke's speed bumps. Hosts like Klum, Keoghan, and Lakshmi, though appealing in their own ways, are merely there to tediously explain rules and spit out catchphrases. Others, like The Biggest Loser's Alison Sweeney or America's Next Best Dance Crew's Mario Lopez, just seem to slow an episode down.
4.) Strike up a rapport with the contestants
Deeley is clearly invested in contestants' journeys in a way no other presenter appears to ever be. Her hyped-up introductions of each dance come off as earnest encouragement. As the dancers are critiqued by the judges, she routinely has one arm around them, in ready position for an extra squeeze should the criticism be especially harsh—or a congratulatory pat on the back for high praise. And as just-booted contestants begin to cry, Deeley clutches their heads to her bosom in a consoling, motherly gesture, a rare acknowledgment by a host that there are stakes in the competition they host. Dreams and life-long goals are being dashed, and their are emotional ramifications to that. She humanizes the contestants' departure in a way Probst's expressionless delivery of "the tribe has spoken" or Klum's abrupt "Auf wiedersen" don't.
She's also a consummate interviewer. Seacrest's pow-wows with contestants routinely seem hell-bent on getting them to either cry. Bergeron milks his bits for any Us Weekly-suited sound byte he can out, while Daly takes the smile and nod at everything approach on The Voice. It's no coincidence, then, that contestants' personalities shine brightest on So You Think You Can Dance. Deeley makes them feel at ease and engaged in the conversation. Even during the parade of weirdos that is every reality show's audition rounds, she is never patronizing or cruel. Not even while holding conversation what a man named Sex.
In an unprecedented move for reality hosts, she's even defended a contestant, interrupting the judges when they were doling out an unfair critique that contradicted something they'd praised another dancer for. Heck, she even invites the dancers to her house for a Fourth of July barbecue each year.
5.) Have charisma, humor, and "it"
There's a certain cheesiness that goes along with hosting a reality show. The key is to embrace the cliched spirit of the genre while still stopping short of corny. There's a difference, in other words, between Cat Deeley introducing a contestant dressed in cargo pants as a "warrior princess" and Carson Daly's cringe-worthy introductions: "She's a small-town girl with big-city dreams..." Hosts require a breezy sense of humor, the ability to toss off a pun without sounding like they're attempting stand-up comedy. It's all part of honing a likability factor, an almost undefinable quality that's kept Seacrest so popular, made Probst so successful despite his otherwise vanilla personality, and has won Deeley so many fans. Daly with his droll line-readings, Mario Lopez with his repetitiveness, and Cannon with his overeagerness don't have it.
Easily bantering with the judges, Deeley's charismatic wisecracks establish her as a personality equal to the panel of adjudicators. Idol's Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, Stars' Brun Tunioli, and The Voice's celebrity panel have larger-than-life personas that overshadow their shows' hosts. Some presenters don't have that radiance, per say, but at least have unquestionable authority, like model Klum on a show about clothes, or knowledgeable cook book author Lakshmi on Top Chef. But most importantly the best hosts look like they're having fun. Tune in for three minutes of SYTYCD and try to argue that Deeley isn't having a ball.
Now imagine that giddiness after she wins an Emmy. Your move, voters.