Michael Schwandt, who choreographed this year’s Miss Universe pageant, has spent the past four years working with some of the sexiest women in the world. In this exclusive Guanabee interview, he tells us why Latin contestants dominate, what it was like teaching Heidi Montag to dance and the surreal experience of working with Donald Trump.
So, of course, we have to ask about Heidi Montag. What was it like working with her?
I’ve actually not seen most of The Hills, so I think that was a good thing going into this because, y’know, I heard from so many friends, “Oh my God I can’t believe you’re working with her.” But she was actually super, super nice and she was very driven on this project. She rehearsed her butt off. I think we had initially scheduled about fifteen rehearsals, which is a lot for a 2 ½ minute performance.
WITH HEIDI MONTAG BEFORE THE TELECAST.
So how many– how long was that rehearsal process? If you’re scheduling 15 rehearsals, what’s the total amount of time that’s going into that?
We kept them at about three or four hours, because I knew she was not a dancer and I didn’t want to overwhelm her. Plus, she’s got a busy shooting schedule. So we kept them to about three to four hours.
That performance was rehearsed for forty-five hours?
Yeah. We actually ended up adding more. She wanted to add more because she wanted to be more prepared. I actually only had two weeks of rehearsal with her and then I had to leave her with an assistant choreographer, and then that assistant had to go to join me at Miss Universe so then the dance captain took over for the last week, the lead dancer on the project. And the dancers themselves had, I think, four rehearsals in LA and then two rehearsals in the Bahamas. But she was very nice, very accommodating. Even all the way up to the moment we were backstage, she was just praising me for helping her get to that point, praising me for connecting her with the dancers who she loves and wants to use in the music video. It was all good. And I know that’s not what most people want to hear, but that’s the truth.
HEIDI MONTAG AND DANCERS BACKSTAGE BEFORE THEIR PERFORMANCE.
Did you see her after the performance? What was her reaction?
Of course I saw her right after and she was just on cloud nine. She was just ecstatic. I will say she’s not a dancer, and one of the reasons we worked so hard is because she wants to be a pop star, and she wants to be able to move. And I think, given that she’s never danced on stage before, I thought she did really, really well.
I try not to read what people say, and I looked at some of the YouTubecomments and things like that and there were people ripping her apart. And I’ve seen a lot worse performances by some pretty big name celebrities on award shows. I mean, really. Katy Perry is not the best dancer, and she did a pretty poor performance, in my opinion, at the Grammy Awards and nobody slammed her. And I think what Heidi did was actually pretty on par with some of the pop celebrities out there today.
I think people are being unusually mean to her because they don’t like her for whatever reason, but I honestly think that she did the best that she could, and I think that her performance, comparatively to a lot of other pop stars out there, was actually pretty much right on. And that’s how I feel about it. People are just being unusually mean to her because they don’t like her for this, that or the other reason. Whatever your reasons are, whether or not you think she deserves to have an album, that’s neither here or there. I look at it as what the individual performance was and I thought she did a good job.
Moving on, obviously we’re all about the Latinas who are competing in the Miss Universe pageant. What do you think, since you have a right up-close visual of it, what is their competitive advantage where they dominate the Universe?
Well, beauty is different in every culture of the world but when I think of “Miss Universe” I don’t typically think of blond hair and blue eyes. I don’t know why, even though that’s a look for Northern Europeans, that’s the look in Australia. When I think Miss Universe I think of a multi-ethnic look or more of an exotic Latin-inspired look. I also find that a lot of the Latin women just have a fire and a heat that you can’t teach, that’s a part of their culture. There’s just something that, I can’t put a name on it, but I find that a lot of the Latin contestants at this event have that extra oomph, that extra something, and they are not little girls. They are women.
You say that even with this year’s Miss Universe Stefania Hernandez—she’s only eighteen years old. She’s a baby.
–But she doesn’t look it! (Laughs) To me she doesn’t look it.
ON STAGE WITH THE LAST TWO MISS UNIVERSES, STEFANIA FERNANDEZ AND DAYANA MENDOZA OF VENEZUELA.
Do you find that to be true of her and of the outgoing Miss Universe?
Oh yeah. Dayana was amazing. And Dayana came to that event focused. One of the things I liked about her last year, I mean she stood out to me from the beginning. She was very focused and she was very driven and she was there to work in the rehearsal process, which not all of the women have that work ethic when it comes to rehearsal. Dayana also helped people. I like that a lot. Like, when other people were struggling around her, in her group, on stage, if she’s in a certain section Dayana would help them or she would let me know. She was very cognizant of what was going on and I appreciate that. But she came with her A game from the beginning. She came focused and ready to win.
So, she wasn’t trying to sabotage the other contestants or anything?
No, no. It wasn’t that way at all, because they’re not judged on the group numbers. It’s more about just being good, you know what I mean? It’s more about just putting on a good show.
THE CONTESTANS LINE UP BACKSTAGE, WITH EVENTUAL WINNER STEFANIA FERNANDEZ IN THE FOREGROUND.
What is, specifically, your role with the Miss Universe organization?
It’s actually a lot broader than what you think when you hear “choreographer.” One of the reasons I was brought into the event, to the organization, was to try and make it a little bit more culturally relevant to the youth and make it a little more hip and contemporary. And they wanted someone who had nothing to do with pageants to add a fresh perspective from the music video/artist realm and try to make it less pageant-y.
REHEARSING WITH FLO RIDA
I’m kind of like a stage director in that sense. If we have any musical guest artists, I stage direct their performances and choreograph them as well. I also am involved with the musical selection. So, it was my idea to use Lady Gaga last year. It was my idea to use The Veronicas for evening gown which, I had to fight an uphill battle for that. It was my idea to bring in Kelly Rowland and David Guetta for the evening gown competition, again, trying to make it different. It’s always been a ballad. I work with the set designer to try to make sure the set is conducive to our needs. Work with props, the lighting designer. So really it’s more than just choreography because I’m involved in all of those other aspects of how the show is put together.
Have you met Mr. Trump?
Oh yeah. I met him on the first show I did; I’ve done four shows so far. He didn’t come to Miss Universe last year in Vietnam because the Communist government wouldn’t give his plane clearance to land. He wouldn’t fly any other way, so he actually sent his son. And then Mr. Trump came to Miss USA this year and, actually, at this year’s Miss Universe he was the most present I’ve ever seen him at any of the events in years. He came and hung out the day before the show. He sat in on about five or six hours of rehearsal, which I was told he’d never done before. He came and hung out backstage at the dress rehearsal and talked to a lot of us. It’s kind of a surreal experience, actually. We all just kind of try to sit there and, you know — we get the phone call that he’s thirty minutes away and then we get the phone call that he’s fifteen minutes away and everyone’s trying to make it go smoothly.
Then he does do something that’s a bit odd. At all the shows, he pops in the day before the telecast and we line up all the girls in alphabetical order behind microphones. And they say their name, age and country. Then we line them up in alphabetical order in one single file line across the stage. And he basically walks by and has an assistant that takes notes on all the girls. And it’s just kind of common knowledge that he picks six of the top fifteen single-handedly. So, the other nine of the top fifteen are judged in a preliminary show the week before and picked by those judges, but he picks six of the top fifteen.
THE CONTESTANTS IMMERSED IN REHEARSALS.
So, he’s orchestrating at least a portion of the results? Right. And, his reason for doing so, as he told me and he’s told the girls before, is that he left it all up to preliminary judging in the past and some of the most beautiful women, in his opinion, were not in the top fifteen and he was kind of upset about that. And he decided that he would pick a certain number and let the judges pick a certain number.
Yeah – it’s kind of a surreal experience, actually. We all just kind of try to sit there and, you know — we get the phone call that he’s thirty minutes away and then we get the phone call that he’s fifteen minutes away and everyone’s trying to make it go smoothly. It’s a lot of work to get these girls that don’t speak English in alphabetical order. It’s kind of the last thing anybody wants to do but we have to do it.
You have an extensive resume with all kinds of entertainment luminaries. Who is the big fish that you would like to snag in the next couple of years?
Well, the one and only Madonna. I auditioned for her as a dancer and I didn’t make it to the day where she comes in and watches. I was so upset. That was back when I was dancing. I’ve submitted, for her last tour, three or four pieces of choreography that didn’t get selected because her creative director had already picked the choreographer at that point, so. It’s only a matter of time. She extended her current tour this summer, so she’s not going anywhere anytime soon and she’ll be the first to say that.
WITH DANCERS RUTHY INCHAUSTEGUI AND MELISSA GARCIA
There was kind of a special place in my heart for one of the dancers who actually danced for Heidi Montag: the girl with the Mohawk. Her name is Ruthy Inchaustegui and she’s Peruvian, actually. Ruthy is one of those legendary dancers in Los Angeles. She’s danced for everybody. She’s got such an extensive resume and I’ve always wanted to work with Ruthie because of how brilliant I think she is. But Ruthy was one of the dancers in Madonna’s Girlie Show tour at twenty one, twenty two years old. Ruthy was also one of the dancers in Madonna’s Human Nature video. Which, those two projects alone — the Girlie Show tour is one of the projects that inspired me to want to dance and the Human Nature video is one of my favorite videos of all time. So to have her dancing for me on this project was really a special thing in my heart. So it’s kind of the closest thing to actually working with Madonna. I was really excited about that.
So, even when Madonna’s 80—
Even if it’s when she’s 80! Obviously I would like to work with her sooner rather than later, but she inspired me and so many young dancers. That’s really what it would be about. Just the opportunity to work with someone who, even though I don’t know her personally, has given me so much.