"I recycle and I'm concerned about detergent and water and all that stuff. And I try not to put food in the garbage," says R&B legend Gladys Knight. "I recycle my bottles," echoes comic actor Jaleel White, who is joining Knight as one of the dozen competitors on "Dancing With the Stars" Season 14. The two last worked together 26 years ago, when Knight played White's mother in the sitcom "Charlie & Co." "I've been watching him all during his career," she says, happy to see him, and he feels the same. "I'm thrilled to see Gladys. I was nine years old when we worked together and here I am, 35, back on TV with her. What amazing nostalgia that we made it this far," he says.
In the premiere episode, Knight and her partner Tristan McManus wowed the crowd with a hot cha-cha to The Emotions' "The Best of My Love," her backup Pips cheering her on. "I never do anything just for the prize, but I want to win," says the Empress of Soul, who received 23 points from the judges. "You take it week by week, and hope that people love you and vote for you. We're holding 'Dancing With the Stars' parties at our restaurants," adds Knight, who owns several chicken and waffles eateries and plans to mobilize fans via Twitter. Also in her cheering section was pal Niecy Nash, who encouraged her to sign up. "She's a big reason that I did this. She said, 'if you ever get a chance you should do this show.'"
Knight, who'll release a new album, entitled "Another Journey," in April and is juggling concert dates with her "Dancing" rehearsals, has high praise for her partner. "He's perfect for me. We hit it off right away. And the way he teaches, he's very patient," she reports. "I need a visual sometimes and he always comes up with a way for me to see what I'm doing." She'll be dancing the quickstep next week.
Still remembered by '80s TV fans as nerdy Steve Urkel from "Family Matters," White proved that he's come a long way from that awkward character by scoring a 26, tying for the highest score (with classical singer Katherine Jenkins) of the night that included two nines, a first for a "Dancing" premiere episode. In an effort to mitigate the pressure of going last, White avoided watching the score reveals and had no idea what the standings were, so finding out he was on top was a big surprise, especially since he has no prior dance experience. "I'm very much an amateur athlete. I try to work out and stay in shape. But nothing like this," he says, noting that he lost ten pounds in the first two weeks of rehearsal with partner Kym Johnson.
He'd seen Rob Kardashian, a basketball buddy, and pal Sugar Ray Leonard compete, but had "effectively dodged" informal invitations to participate, not wanting to get involved in any controversy or drama that the show often generates. But his mother and manager persuaded him, and he's glad he listened. "I'm really excited to be on the show and I'm blown away that fans want to see me. And I'm going to try to give them a good show," he vows.
Although he'd like to get his hands on the mirror ball trophy, he's just concentrating on taking it week by week and connecting with fans, "that's what I've always done," says White, emphasizes that he didn't sign on to advance his career. Having recently appeared on "NCIS" and "House," he'll guest on the March 21 episode of USA's "Psych," get a makeover on the April 2 installment of VH1's "Styled By June," and starting Apr. 25 will host the Syfy game show "Total Blackout," in which contestants must identify objects by touching them — in total darkness. It's scary for them, hilarious for the audience.
Also a writer, White penned the comedy "Parking Lot Pimpin'," about two guys who 'borrow' and lose a luxury car and have to locate and return it by morning. Ludacris and Kevin Hart are in talks to star. Meanwhile, he's logging a lot of rehearsal and treadmill time in preparing for next week's "Dancing." He'll be performing the jive.