If Cris Judd hadn’t been rejected for a date by a dancer when he was 21, the US-born actor, director and choreographer’s life would have taken a very different turn.
He certainly wouldn’t be working alongside OpShop frontman Jason Kerrison and supermodel Rachel Hunter, as the new judge on series two of hit TV One show New Zealand’s Got Talent.
“I was an athlete as a kid,” explains expectant dad Cris (44), who, along with Jason and Rachel, is poised to help make a dream come true for one talented Kiwi act, when the reality show begins this Sunday.
“I was All Star this, All Star that, but I was working at Disney World to supplement my income – I was playing golf tournaments by day, as I wanted to become a professional. Then, when I asked this girl, who was a dancer, on a date and she said no, I bet her dinner that I’d be a pro dancer within a year."
“I threw myself into jazz, ballet – every dance class I could possibly do. By the end of the first class, I knew that it was my passion – this was exactly what I wanted."
“Eight months later, I became a professional dancer, and I’ve been working ever since.”
Cris’ story is proof that if you want something badly enough, you can get it – which is why he’s the perfect judge for a show designed to help make somebody a star.
“Some of the most incredible moments that ever happen are those moments you don’t even realise are that significant at the time,” says Rachel (44).
“That ability to get up and give it a shot, to be willing to peel away the layers and really show who you are, to show your vulnerability – that’s when what you have isn’t just charisma or talent, that’s ‘it’. That’s what we want to see.”
There’s no doubt Jason (40), Rachel and Cris are qualified to judge the reality show, which will see acts from all over the country in a variety of performances, including singing, dancing, animal antics and magic shows.
All three have achieved excellence in their own fields, and totally understand the dedication contestants will have to display to shine above all the others. But it will be interesting to see whether they have the same level of passion as these judges – because this trio has it in spades.
Cris and Rachel have known each other for a few years (they are based in Los Angeles). Both appeared in Hollywood Splash, a coffee table book by celebrity photographer Veronique Vial. But Jason and Cris had never met before they began filming New Zealand’s Got Talent earlier this year.
As the trio repeatedly engage in friendly, but heated discussion, their enthusiasm and passion for finding talent is contagious.
They discuss whether or not the “it” factor exists (Rachel says there’s a certain charisma that’s unique to some people; Cris thinks everybody has it, but not everyone can release it),and what they want to see (Jason can’t bear sword swallowing, but quite fancies the idea of a dog or sheep act, while Cris really wants dance to do well this year).
They often have differing ideas, but this is a team with an entirely new dynamic to last year, when Rachel and Jason worked alongside UB40’s Ali Campbell.
“We have connected quite well – thanks to a random quiz from Rachel the other day, we discovered we even have the same favourite animals and colours!” jokes Jason, as Rachel laughingly explains that, “Honestly, it was a bit deeper than that,” clearly defending a private joke that has them all in fits of laughter.
“I’ve never visited New Zealand before, and I find it hard to believe it’s actually been so seamless,” admits Cris, who had to leave his wife Kelly back home in LA while filming – she is due to give birth to their first baby, a girl, on September 25.
“It can be pretty difficult, with your family in another country, and I really miss Kelly,” he says, proudly showing off pictures he’s posted on Twitter of his heavily pregnant wife.
“She’s had to handle the house alone, but I recruited all my friends to check up on her and make sure she’s OK.”
While Cris will be with Kelly for the big day – “There’s no way I’m missing the birth of my first baby!” he smiles – he will bring his new family to New Zealand as soon as they can travel.
“I’m so looking forward to them being here,” he smiles.
“It will be such a good time to bond. We’ll be shooting the show once a week, so I’ll be home with my girls the rest of the time. New Zealand is really beautiful, the food is great, and everyone’s been so friendly. It’s just perfect.”
By the time Cris returns from the US with his wife and new daughter, Jason and Rachel will have already lined up plenty of activities for the new family to enjoy in their home country.
“We’ve talked about going snowboarding together – I’d love to show Cris Queenstown,” says Jason.
“Quad biking on Muriwai – it’s amazing!” squeals Rachel, when Cris admits to a fascination with motorbikes. But first on their to-do list is to find the one act that will blow them all away.
“I have great faith in the programme,” says Rachel.
“I think last year everyone was a bit dubious about whether it would have legs, but New Zealanders have really started backing the show. I can’t wait.”
“New Zealand’s Got Talent isn’t just a singing show, we’re looking for the whole package,” explains Cris. “The winner will be someone who doesn’t just have the voice, or the moves. Can they entertain the crowd? Show a great personality that will entertain us? Make us become their fans? We want to be given a reason to watch.”
And does he ever think about that moment that changed his life, 23 years ago? “Well, I never got my dinner date,” he laughs. “But you make a choice, and sometimes it takes you down a different road. That random moment changed my life.
“There’s a certain irony to it, too – the girl ended up marrying a golf professional.“
Who's the new guy?
Choreographer, director, expert golfer, former yoga teacher and actor Cris Judd is a dark horse. Before becoming a judge for New Zealand’s Got Talent, the dancer – who has been named one of People magazine’s 25 Hottest Bachelors and is now expecting a baby with wife Kelly – worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest names.
He was Michael Jackson’s lead dancer on the HIStory tour, sang with Mary J. Blige in Rock of Ages, and has choreographed for Julio Iglesias and Usher. He’s also danced alongside Janet Jackson, Celine Dion and J-Lo – who he famously married in 2001 and divorced in 2003.
“A choreographer is essentially a director,” explains Cris, who teaches workshops for young dancers in the US. “They create the whole picture – how the set will be staged, how the show is presented. It’s about teaching people to be performers.”
This week, he begins his first role in New Zealand – but Cris is an old hand at reality shows. In 2006, viewers voted him winner of I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here. He has also hosted the reality version of Dirty Dancing and Your Momma Don’t Dance – judging pro dancers as they work with their parents.
Photos: Monty Adams. instagram • Stylng: Clifton Piper • Make-up: Krisztina Moricz • Rachel wears Yvonne Bennetti, Camilla and Marc at Mishka boutique, Zoe & morgan jewellery