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Dancing with the Stars kicked off its ninth season Monday night with the eight male celebrities strutting their stuff in the ballroom. OK! was there to see Aaron Carter take the early lead, while Iron Chef star Mark Dacascos and show business icon Donny Osmond also look like serious contenders.

This is the ABC reality show’s biggest season ever, as a record 16 celebrities will compete for the top prize. And, in another first, the show began Monday night with the male dancers doing a solo routine and then a group “relay” number, in which the celebrities performed one after another so viewers could compare their efforts.

Carter, who danced with partner Karina Smirnoff, got the highest score of the night for his cha cha cha solo, which earned a score of 22 from the judges, and he also excelled in the group relay Viennese waltz, getting 10 points. The former bad boy was emotional after the show, telling OK! “I’ve been through some really hard times and for people to be accepting me like this again is my dream come true. I have a lot of good things I want to do in the future with the success I get from the show. I have a lot of emotions I’m putting into these dances from all kinds of experiences I’ve been through. My career’s been up and down. Now it’s back up and I want to keep it that way.” All of Aaron’s brothers were in the audience to cheer him on.

Meanwhile, Donny told OK! his pre-show jitters vanished, thanks to his partner (and OK! blogger) Kym Johnson.

“As soon as Kym convinced me to calm down, I was feeling fine,” he said. And the singer got a strong 20 for his All That Jazz foxtrot number and 10 points for his salsa relay routine. Donny smiled that his sister Marie Osmond — who finished 3rd on DWTS on season five and was there corresponding for Entertainment Tonight — “was sending sign language to me, constructive things like straighten your back, smile. And then she said, ‘I’m still a better dancer!’“

But Donny is doing more than listening to his sister: “You take what the judges say [and] apply it as constructive criticism.” He’s lost about ten pounds so far between doing DWTS and his Las Vegas show with Marie.

Mark said of his performance with partner Lacey Schwimmer—getting a strong 21 on his cha cha cha and an 8 on his salsa relay dance—“It was such a rush.” But he added, “I’m a little disappointed in myself because in one section of the cha cha, I totally blanked. It was actually an easy part, two martial arts moves. And I lost it!” Iron Chef “chairman” Mark said being a martial arts expert in some ways helps him in dance, but not in others: “I’ve been closing my body off and protecting my vulnerable points. For dancing, [it has to be] chest up, shoulders back. I’m having to relearn everything.”

Ultimate Fighting champ Chuck Liddell received a score of 16 for his foxtrot, with judge Len Goodman calling his style “aggressive” rather than graceful. Backstage, with his pro Anna Trebunskaya by his side, Chuck confided to OK! “I was pretty nervous and I’m not used to being nervous. I don’t get nervous before fights.” But the ballroom is much different from the ring! “You gotta smile while you’re doing it,” Chuck said.

Ashley Hamilton received just 15 for his foxtrot and 4 points for his relay salsa with pro Edyta Sliwinska, with judge Bruno Tonioli ripping him for a “lack of showmanship.” The tall actor — whose dad George Hamilton competed on DWTS and who watched from the audience with Ashley’s mom, Alana Stewart– told OK! after the show, “It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Taking a couple of hits tonight, low scores, wasn’t such a great feeling but to be able do that in front of my parents and 20 million people…that was amazing to me.”

Ashley said he’s overcome a lot, as he was in a coma at age 20 and temporarily lost the use of the left side of his body. “Edyta had to coordinate around that weak side in rehearsals,” he explained. The Hollywood hunk said, candidly, that he wants to stick around: “I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to go back to being unemployed.”

Football legend Michael Irvin admitted to OK! he was nervous but said, “there’s a sense of accomplishment” in showing he can dance and feeling the “warmth” of the ballroom crowd. The football great only got a 13 for his cha cha cha but rebounded with a 6 for his Viennese waltz relay.

Snowboarder Louie Vito said, ”I was happy. I did better than I thought I was going to do!” With judge Bruno calling him a “dancing hobbit,” the 5’5” athlete earned a 19 for his foxtrot with partner Chelsie Hightower. “I stumbled twice in the foxtrot, but my posture was good,” he said.

Former U.S. House of Representatives member Tom DeLay, 62, the oldest competitor, surprised the judges by doing a respectable job with his cha cha cha and group Viennese waltz with partner Cheryl Burke. Judge Len said of Tom’s cha cha cha, “parts were magic, parts were tragic,” but Carrie Ann Inaba insisted Tom was light on his feet.

“I felt great,” the politician told OK! after the show. “It was fun.” Tom was lucky to be competing at all after suffering a pre-stress fracture in his right foot before the show began. “I almost broke my bone in it. My doctor, Dr. Robert Bray, said if I’m not dancing I better stay off it,” he said. But Tom told OK! it won’t stop him: “I’m going to dance ‘til it breaks.” The ex-congressman said he’s lost about 20 pounds — 11 before DWTS even began and nine pounds while rehearsing with Cheryl. Conservative Republican Tom said he guessed everyone in Washington, D.C, was watching him on TV Monday night: “All of my political enemies and friends are having viewing parties.” Because of his age, “I’m the underdog,” he declared.

Tuesday on DWTS, the female celebrities will try to show that they have what it takes.

By Carole Glines

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