Why Melissa Rycroft decided to step in to replace Nancy O'Dell on the dancing competition and why ABC is happy to have her

March 13, 2009 at 12:00 PM EDT

Time may heal all wounds, but who’s to say a spray tan and sequins can’t help speed up the process? On March 9, Melissa Rycroft — a.k.a. The Bachelor‘s most famous reject ever — closed out the season 8 premiere of Dancing With the Stars. Rycroft was dumped by Jason Mesnick after the March 2 finale of The Bachelor, and had already returned to Texas to resume her career as an event planner when she got a call four days later asking her to replace injured Access Hollywood cohost Nancy O’Dell, the latest in a long line of contestants who’ve hurt themselves. ”I thought, What is going on now? I thought it was over!” says Rycroft, who had just 48 hours to learn her debut waltz. ”[But] why not?” she shrugs. ”I signed up for The Bachelor, and while it didn’t go quite as I had hoped, everything worked out. This is definitely helping me to move on from everything.”

At first, ABC wasn’t in a rush to replace O’Dell; the network already had its patience tested by having to sub in The Girls Next Door‘s Holly Madison for another dropout, Jewel, just six days before the premiere. But the fallout from The Bachelor continued to generate attention, and ABC alternative-programming exec John Saade says he realized he had a solution ”right under my nose. Melissa is not playing the victim. She’s playing someone on the adventure of her life, and people are going to love that. She’s like Cinderella being called to the ball.” A well-attended ball at that: Monday’s show attracted DWTS‘ largest audience ever (22.5 million), which surely included plenty of Jason-hating fans who would like to see Melissa get her just deserts. (Even judge Bruno Tonioli called Mesnick a ”loser” on live TV.) All that rubbernecking worries fellow dancers like Jackass‘ Steve-O: ”I felt like people dropping out of the competition would be helpful…and then look what happens. It’s a drag!”

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