Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition has named it’s first champ — and she is 13-year-old Brianna Haire of Temecula, California.
In Tuesday night’s emotional final, the consistent, kind Brianna bested technical wiz Madison O’Connor and 7-year-old series lightning rod Asia Ray to win a $100,000 cash prize and full scholarship to the Young Dancer Program at New York’s Joffrey Ballet School.
Before naming her the show’s Season 1 winner, AUDC judge and Dance Moms star Abby Lee Miller praised Brianna’s warrior attitude and ability to take and apply correction. But it was the girl’s emotional openness on and off the stage and fearlessness in each performance that won over much of the Abby’s Ultimate audience.
I caught up with Brianna and her proud mom Kris Tuesday night, before the clearly-close pair hosted a small gathering of family and friends to watch the season-ender.
CGM: Congratulations, Brianna, on a hard-fought and well-earned victory! Are you glad that the last dance you performed on the show — and the last dance viewers saw you do — was such a personally meaningful one for you and your mom?
Brianna Haire: Yes, I am very happy that it was! I’m really happy that my last performance meant so much to me.
Kris Haire: I was very overwhelmed at that point — just to make it to the top three. Like I said in the show, no matter what happened at that point, we had already won just by being on the show. It was such an honor, and we were so blessed just to have made it that far that. No matter what the outcome might be, I was just so grateful at that point. And for Brianna to actually win it — like I said, I’m still speechless! I can’t believe that we did it. That she did it. She did it. Even to this day, it’s still surreal. I still don’t think it really happened.
CGM: Kris, that really was a constant for you throughout the show, making sure that Brianna knew that each day was an accomplishment and to dance for herself and not the competition alone. Brianna, did having that kind of support help take at least some pressure off for you?
Brianna: Oh yes! It definitely helped me. And I think what helped me get so far is that I could take one step at a time. We both didn’t focus on the end result of the competition and could stay focused on enjoying the experience. Because we knew it wasn’t going to last forever, so we wanted to enjoy it while it lasted as much as we could. So I think taking it one step at a time definitely helped us. And I think that’s why my last performance is still so surreal today, is because I was still focused on enjoying the moment and not focusing on winning at that point.
CGM: Even when Kevin Manno asked you if you thought your final performance was a winner, you didn’t focus on that and, instead, gave a really lovely speech about proving to the judges that you were there to learn from them and become a better dancer and to make your grandparents proud. Did you have some idea or what you were going to say, or did that come straight from the heart?
Brianna: Absolutely. I never lied once on the show. I never said anything that wasn’t true and something that I wouldn’t say in real life. Well, it was real life … but you know [laughs]. But it was absolutely heartfelt and I meant every word that I said.
CGM: To that end, you both shared a lot of personally painful stuff this season — Kris, the horrors that your ancestors suffered, and Brianna, the tough time your classmates sometimes give you at school. Was it important for you to show other kids who might be watching the show that you can rise above that and use difficulty and tragedy to drive something really positive?
Brianna: I think that you can rise above anything if you set your mind to it. With me, if I set my mind and tell myself that I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. And I think all of our personal stories definitely helped me in any dance that I did on the show, because either way, at any moment in time, I had a story to go along with the dance that I was doing and I was able to relate to anything. And I was able to be flexible and do these different dances, and I was able to become different characters and adapt to everything that I was given.
CGM: Kris, were you proud of her ability to use those personal stories to drive such great performances, as well?
Kris: Oh yes, absolutely! I was shocked when she shared her personal personal stories, the ones about school. That was very difficult. But they wanted reality — we were on reality TV — and that was her reality. This year, as far as school goes, she’s having the best year of her life. But I feel like the stuff that Brianna and I shared — it was our reality. It wasn’t made up. It wasn’t about us fighting with other moms and kids, or whatever …
Brianna: … we were showing people who we really were.
Kris: Yeah. That’s who we are. That’s what we experienced. That’s what we’ve been through and that’s all I can really say. It’s what we experienced.
CGM: Brianna, yours and Asia’s and Madison’s faces were priceless when the six eliminated contestants returned to dance in tonight’s finale. Were there any dancers you were particularly close to?
Brianna: Oh my gosh! [laughs] I was close to a lot of people. I loved everybody on the show and never really had any bad ties to anybody on the show. So I really had no problems with people. But I’d have to say the people on the show that I was closest with were probably Zack, Hadley, Elisabeth and Madison. I was close with Asia, too. And Jordyn.
Kris: …and Lexine, too!
Brianna: … and Lexine! And Amanda! I was close to everybody. [laughs] I didn’t really have one best friend. I was friends with everybody.
CGM: Best answer ever! But Kris, your experience was perhaps a tad different? We all know that dance moms can be a little unpredictable of temperament as a whole, but did you have any idea of the potboiler you were walking into?
Kris: Well I knew that I would end up in the middle of some situation. [Brianna laughs in the background]. I knew there would be drama — because, of course, with dance moms and this being competitive, of course there is going to be drama. That’s just the way it is. But I really did try to stay away from it, because, as I said in an interview on the show, that’s not what we’re about.
CGM: I think you are decidedly among those can walk away from the show feeling completely proud of everything you did and said …
Kris: Oh yes. Definitely. We do.
CGM: So what happens from here? When do you leave for New York and what happens once you are there?
Brianna: I will be going to the Joffrey School of Ballet, but I have no idea when I go yet.
Kris: We have no idea, but we are extremely excited! But we don’t have that information yet.
CGM: Have you decided what you’ll do with the prize money?
Kris: Some of the proceeds are going to go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and the rest will be for Brianna, for whatever she will need in New York…
Brianna: …for living in New York!
Kris: Whatever she needs in New York, that’s what we’re going to put it towards.
CGM: Kris will you be relocating to New York, as well, while Brianna is at the Joffrey?
Kris: I’m not 100% sure on that. I plan on going with Brianna this summer, or whenever she can go. LIke I said, we don’t have that information, yet, but I do plan on going with her. As far as the whole family, I don’t know.
Brianna: We don’t know what’s available yet.
CGM: Brianna, did you have a favorite choreographer or choreographers to work with, or were you just glad to learn from all of them?
Brianna: Definitely the last part! I loved all of them! I think that each one of them brought something different to the table — and the things that they brought that were different, I definitely soaked up and then used with the next choreographer. So, whatever Anthony told me, I applied it to Gina’s choreography. Whatever Gina told me, I applied that to Ricky’s. And the list goes on and on!
CGM: But I bet nothing could prepare you for the day you found out you would be performing in the silks. I felt so bad for you — “Hey! The other girls get to dance on solid ground, but you’ll be suspended from the ceiling by two strips of cloth!”
[Kris and Brianna laugh]
Brianna: It was a lot of fun being in the silks. I think the way I looked at it, Asia couldn’t have done it because she was so small …
Kris: … only because she’s so little …
Brianna: But she’s so sweet. So that left me, Madison or Amanda for the silks. But I have a lot of upper body strength that I don’t think they had, so I feel like I had to be in the silks. But it was a lot of fun, and actually I probably would have chosen to be in the silks.
CGM: Kris, what was it like for you to watch her practicing them?
Kris: I just kept calm and …
Kris: Yes. I have faith in you. I knew you could do it. But whatever happened, I knew I had to be calm. I thought, “If I’m calm, then she’ll be calm.” So that’s what I always tried to do — be calm.
CGM: We clearly only saw portions of the judges’ comments, which I suspect — while entertaining — may not necessarily have led to a completely accurate perception of them. Brianna, did you find each of them helpful to your progress as a dancer and as a part of this competition?
Brianna: Oh yes! Aaaaabsolutely! We were constantly learning from the judges and the choreographers, which is why I feel like I left the competition a better dancer that when I started the competition. Which is amazing! That was my main goal going into the show — to improve and learn new things and come out of this competition a better dancer, whether I won or not. I tried to consciously improve myself each week by listening to everything that anyone told me, whether it was Abby or any of the choreographers.
CGM: Do you also feel like the show gave you a better idea of what the actual professional dance world will be like, in terms of your never knowing what the people who will hire you may be looking for? One may be looking for a purely technical dancer. One may be looking for a super-expressive performer …
Brianna: Exactly! I feel like you have to have a good balance to be in this business. Because if you’re really, really, really, really technical and you’re a beautiful dancer, that’s amazing. But if you’re going to go for a hip-hop audition and you’re not trained in hip-hop, then you’re probably not going to get the job. And then vice-versa, if you’re trained in hip-hop and you’re completely amazing and you’re going for a ballet school, then again, you might not get the job. So I think that I improved in all styles of dance while I was on the show, and that prepared me for anything I might go for going forward.
CGM: Do you have particular aspirations in terms of your dance career? For instance, we know Chloe on Dance Moms wants to be a Rockette ….
Brianna: I’m not exactly sure what my desires from dance in the future are. Because it could be anything from being on Broadway to being like Chloe, wanting to be a Rockette — or being the actual star.
Kris: Being the actual star!
Brianna: Or being the Britney Spears …
Kris: The main event! You have to shoot big! [both ladies dissolve into laughter.]
CGM: Did you guys ever get a break from filming to enjoy yourselves a little or was it pretty relentless?
Brianna: Well, we got a day off each week, but it wasn’t really a day off. It was, like, practice and do costumes …
Kris: And that day wasn’t filmed. Which is good, because the costume day just about killed me [laughs]. I don’t do costumes. I have her costumes done. A lot of dance moms rhinestone, and I refuse. Because I get glue everywhere!
Brianna: But you still definitely improved. She had to do them, and let me say, I saw a very big improvement from the first week to the last week! She’s set for competition this year.
CGM: So there was improvement for both of you — not just Brianna!
Brianna: Oh both of us improved in many areas!
CGM: What surprised each of you most about actually making the television show?
Kris: Just making it on the show! That surprised us the most!
Brianna: That, or the first day we stepped into the theater. That surprised us a lot, too.
Kris: Yeah, that was a big one.
Brianna: I think the day that we stepped into the theater was the day we were most surprised. That seemed the most surreal.
CGM: Did you eventually adjust to having the cameras and the production staff always around?
Kris: Let me just tell you — I loved the crew. What’s the proper name for it? The crew? The staff? They were amazing. Very gracious. Very nice. I can’t say enough nice things about them.
Brianna: And the camera people.
Kris: Hair and makeup, wardrobe, camera, production, producers …
Brianna: …everyone was nice, everyone was gracious.
Kris: But I would also say that what shocked us most was finding out that Abby was even going to be on the show!
CGM: So you guys really didn’t know! I spoke with Yvette earlier in the season and she said the same thing.
Kris: We were shocked! But we were OK with it.
Brianna: I was excited!
Kris: We were both excited to see her and meet her and get to know her through the show. She’s really nice. She really is a nice lady. And she’s very pretty!
Brianna: And she’s very passionate!
Kris: When it comes to dance, she’s really hard on the dancers — because that is her passion.
Brianna: But she is fair.
Abby Lee Miller returns in Season 3 of Dance Moms premiering Tuesday, Jan. 1, on Lifetime.
Images: Lifetime/Kris and Brianna Haire