The phrase "the best of the best" is used so often that it's become more than a little cliché. After all, how can one pick the very best when it's so hard to choose? Nonetheless, that's the position we found ourselves in when trying to rank the winners of Dancing With the Stars.
Over the years, the series has brought various stars of film, television, sports, music, and more to compete against one another in a new art form: dance. Each season is a fierce competition, and things got even more intense when we had to pick the best of the bunch. Did your favorite make the list? Did we, in fact, end up putting Baby in a corner? Here are our picks for the best Dancing With the Stars winners, ranked.
15. Melissa Rycroft (season 15)
Melissa Rycroft — a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and contestant on season 13 of The Bachelor — may not be our absolute favorite of the Dancing With the Stars winners, but when she emerged victorious in season 15, she was definitely one of the most impressive. After all, this was the show's all-star season, so she had to compete against many of the winners from previous pools. But she more than lived up to the challenge and finally emerged with a well-deserved Mirrorball trophy. Her victory was particularly fulfilling for long-time fans, who watched her nearly win season 8 only to come in third place. As with any other competition, there's nothing quite so sweet as a comeback story, and we were absolutely floored to see her take the title home.
14. Kristi Yamaguchi (season 6)
Kristi Yamaguchi is proof that someone's background is a powerful indicator of how they will perform on the show. As a former gold medal Olympic figure skater, she came into the competition with much more poise, grace, and (perhaps most importantly) competitive experience than most of the other contestants. Therefore, her victory wasn't as surprisingly sweet as Melissa Rycroft's would later be, but seeing her win season 6 was still an example of must-see TV at its finest. Each performance seemed more complex than the last, and we couldn't get over how she managed to top her previous dances every time she took to the stage.
13. Shawn Johnson (season 8)
At just 17 years old, Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson became the show's youngest winner in season 8 (until the later victory of Laurie Hernandez), and it was nearly impossible not to root for the underdog throughout the competition. Of course, "nearly impossible" also describes her actual victory, as she only won the vote against rival Gilles Marini by less than 1 percent. It's common knowledge that great competitors bring out the best in one another, and their rivalry remains one of the most compelling in the entire history of Dancing With the Stars. Johnson almost brought home yet another Mirrorball trophy when she competed in season 15's all-star roster, but in the end, Melissa Rycroft edged her into second place.
12. Laurie Hernandez (season 23)
As we noted before, 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez effectively dethroned Shawn Johnson as the youngest winner of Dancing With the Stars in season 23. She rose to fame as an Olympic gymnast, which you'd think would make her a shoo-in, but the blunt truth is that gymnasts on the show rarely go all the way. Hernandez was the exception, turning in performances that embodyied the athletic grace and emotional nuance of a true champion. In retrospect, we really wish the show would have done another all-star season, because if Hernandez was this good as a teenager, we're confident her moves would be absolutely mind-blowing after a few more years of practice.
11. Bindi Irwin (season 21)
As the daughter of the late and beloved animal icon Steve Irwin, many viewers were rooting for Bindi from the start of season 21. And those that didn't already adore her based on the family name quickly fell for her warm and bubbly personality. While there are many stars that managed to light up the screen with sizzling routines, Irwin, like her father before her, could do so with a single disarming smile or a kind word. Along with her warmth and compassion, she brought something to the table that dad never had: killer dance moves. Bindi was the real deal from beginning to end, and while her victory wasn't exactly a surprise, there was an effervescent joy in watching her succeed all the way to the end. And if you were a big fan of Steve, it was genuinely difficult not to tear up watching his daughter continue his artistic and creative legacy in a way that we never imagined.
10. Emmitt Smith (season 3)
It's fair to say that Emmitt Smith fully embodied the pioneering spirit of Dancing With the Stars in many ways. Much of the show's charm comes from seeing celebrities with wildly different specialties compete out of their comfort zones. Smith utilized his NFL background to show us how versatile his skills really are, and the truth is that he ultimately had both more skill and personality than previous football player contestant Jerry Rice. Seeing him take home the Mirrorball in season 3 ended up being even more fulfilling than watching this former running back help his team score a touchdown.
9. Charli D'Amelio (season 31)
To this day, Charli D'Amelio's season 31 victory remains controversial among fans of Dancing With the Stars. It wasn't because of her showing — even her biggest haters admit that the TikTok star had killer moves every single time she performed. But D'Amelio's previous dance training has led to endless debates about whether she was effectively a "ringer" competing against stars with no similar training. If you can get past that, though, her skills were undeniable, and it was nearly impossible to look away as she wowed us with one slick move after another.
8. Apolo Ohno (season 4)
Like later contestant Bindi Irwin, Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno was the kind of contestant who seemed destined to win his season. He consistently outperformed most of his fellow competitors and even brought in a perfect score during the fifth week of season 4. We're firm believers that you don't have to be surprised about who wins to enjoy watching them take home the Mirrorball, so we didn't mind seeing this clear frontrunner end up on top. Interestingly, he nearly repeated his sucess when returning for the all-star season 15, proving once and for all that the earlier victory was no fluke.
7. Amber Riley (season 17)
If you were a fan of Glee, then seeing Amber Riley win season 17 probably had you jumping off your sofa and cheering. (It wasn't just us, right?) But even if you weren't already an admirer of hers, this competition was enough to make you a believer. In addition to her top-notch dance skills, she had a relentlessly positive personality despite dealing with persistent knee troubles. She literally pushed through the pain to take home the prize, and that makes her a true winner in every sense of the word.
6. Jordan Fisher (season 25)
Jordan Fisher (The Secret Life of the American Teenager, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You) is another winner whose victory put a few fans' noses out of joint. After all, the actor's previous experience in dance and theater (as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton in Hamilton) made him more suited to take home the Mirrorball in season 25. As for us, we mostly cared about his performance — and his stage background helped him deliver that much more flamboyance and flair to each dance. This was a contestant who knew he was destined to win from the very first performance. Proving it to the world, ultimately, was little more than a formality.
5. Rumer Willis (season 20)
When actress Rumer Willis (90210, Empire) first appeared in season 20, it was easy for cynics to dismiss her as a wannabe riding the coattails of her parents Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. Those criticisms disappeared, though, as soon as she began to dance with all the fierce creativity and innovation of John McClane fighting his way through Nakatomi Tower. She even had her own Hans Gruber in the form of showdown rival Riker Lynch. These two kept going neck-in-neck, trading perfect scores in a back-and-forth battle for victory. But we were always betting on Willis to win, and her success was enough to make us shout of "yippee ki-yay!"
4. Meryl Davis (season 18)
Meryl Davis was inarguably the contestant to root for from the very beginning of season 18. After all, she had competed for much bigger stakes than the Mirrorball: Olympic glory. (Who wouldn't bet on the former world champion ice dancer to win a dance competition?) We weren't surprised to see her beat out the other contestants, but we were shocked that she exceeded even our most outsized expectations. Was it fair to pit less qualified performers against her? Not at all. But we wouldn't trade the entertainment value of each flourish-filled dance for… well… an Olympic medal.
3. Nicole Scherzinger (season 10)
When it comes to Dancing With the Stars, your personality can carry you just as far as your dance moves. Between two equally skilled performers, the Mirrorball typically goes to whomever brings the most charisma and pizzazz to the table. Fortunately, season 10 winner Nicole Scherzinger had that sparkle on and off the stage. This wasn't necessarily surprising: As the lead singer of The Pussycat Dolls, Scherzinger is no stranger to winning crowds over with her creative and energetic performances. As it turns out, that's a skill that transfers handily to the world's most famous dance competition, and we like to think the award looks nice next to her gold and platinum records.
2. Alfonso Ribeiro (season 19)
As longtime fans of the old-school hit The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, we may be a little biased, but it was insanely hard to watch Alfonso Ribeiro dance in season 19 without a huge grin on our faces. In fact, his stellar moves were like a kind of television karma. Fans have spent years mocking his character's Carlton Dance (which is even more infamous than Elaine's "little kicks" from Seinfeld), only for Ribeiro to find redemption by bringing "The Carlton" back on Dancing With the Stars. Perhaps the only thing greater than the veteran performer's slick moves was his warm and generous personality — and his victory was certainly enough to make us take back (almost) everything we ever said about him back in the day.
1. Nyle DiMarco (season 22)
Obviously, any ranked list is subjective. But when it comes to season 22 winner Nyle DiMarco, the top dog is obvious: Not only did he give the best performances, but he did it while overcoming the greatest challenges. The former America's Next Top Model contestant is deaf, and he's used his increasingly prominent platform to promote activism and acceptance throughout the world. And he certainly practices what he preaches, managing to win the Mirrorball in season 22 while having to do things like counting beats in his head to get the choreography just right. We're happy to give him the next best thing to another Mirrorball: a place of prominence as our No. 1 pick.