One competitor, NFL great Jerry Rice, doubled over in amazement, and the studio audience let out a collective gasp when the host of Dancing with the Stars announced during Sunday night's finale that odds-on favorite Stacy Keibler was being cut.
But while Keibler and partner Tony Dovolani came up short in the ballroom dancing competition -- former 98 Degrees singer Drew Lachey copped the trophy -- the leggy World Wrestling Entertainment diva could very well end up the big winner in the long run from the exposure she received on the hit show.
"She's one of the most naturally graceful, talented nondancer dancers I've ever seen," said Katrina Szish, style director for Us Weekly magazine. "It doesn't take many people to look at her to say that she's beautiful, with long legs and a great body. But she can also communicate. She speaks well. She's the whole package of brains and beauty, more than just a pretty picture."
The Rosedale native said yesterday that she's been flooded with offers for movies, television shows and commercials.
"I'm actually meeting with the president of ABC on Wednesday to talk to them about possibly doing some things on the network," she said. "I have endorsement deals -- I'm doing the new Skechers ad. It's been crazy."
A household name to pro wrestling fans since she broke into the industry in 1999 -- coincidentally enough by winning a dance contest -- Keibler, 26, was introduced to a wider audience through her fancy footwork on the ABC show.
During the eight-week run of the program, the statuesque blonde with the 41 1/2 -inch-long legs seemed to be everywhere, from appearances on Entertainment Tonight and Larry King's and Ellen DeGeneres' talk shows to the covers of TV Guide and Stuff Magazine. And her controversial third-place finish no doubt has been the talk at more than a few water coolers.
But even though Dancing with the Stars is over, Keibler's crossover into the mainstream is just beginning, industry observers say.
"Basically, this has been a coming-out party for Stacy," Stuff Magazine editor Jimmy Jellinek said. "The rest of the world now knows what wrestling fans have known for some time. I see no bounds for Stacy. She has that combination of innocence and toughness, the way Julia Roberts had when she started out: Someone who can steal your heart and kick your [behind]."
As the show was progressing, Keibler was asked to try out for a role as a Bond girl in a coming film. "They ended up wanting someone with an authentic British accent, and I didn't have enough time to prepare and go in an audition and act like I could pull it off because I was training for dance," said Keibler, who retains a trace of her Baltimore accent.
Keibler, who is under contract to WWE until July, said she is "not really sure" whether she will renew it.
The track record of WWE's female stars who have tried to make it in Hollywood isn't particularly encouraging. Neither Rena "Sable" Mero or Joanie "Chyna" Laurer, two of WWE's most popular women, made much of an impact away from wrestling -- although Laurer has become somewhat infamous for bizarre appearances on The Surreal Life and The Howard Stern Show, as well as marketing a porn tape of her and her former boyfriend.
Unlike other female wrestlers, Keibler said, she has not been surgically enhanced. And she does look more all-American girl than Amazon.
"Rena Mero and Joanie Laurer both looked like cartoon characters," said Dave Meltzer, editor and publisher of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "They almost had to play weird roles. They just couldn't play the person next door. Stacy can play a lot more different things."
Ever since Keibler won a spot with a dance troupe that appeared regularly on the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling's televised broadcasts nearly seven years ago, the former Ravens cheerleader never hid the fact that she wanted to use wrestling as a stepping stone to an acting career. Before getting into wrestling, she appeared as an uncredited extra in Liberty Heights and Pecker, which were filmed in Baltimore.
Keibler moved to Los Angeles two years ago to pursue acting more aggressively. She landed a role as a Victoria's Secret clerk in Big Momma's House 2, but her scene ended up on the cutting room floor.
Keibler owes her biggest break to her mother, who suggested that she try to get on the second season of Dancing with the Stars.
She was a big hit with the show's three judges -- Bruno Tonioli breathlessly referred to her as "a weapon of mass seduction" -- but lost out when it came to viewers' voting. There was a bit of a backlash against her on Dancing with the Stars message boards, with some viewers saying her extensive background in ballet, tap and jazz gave her an unfair advantage over the other celebrities.
"It upset me because I put in over 250 hours of practice for this show ... and just because I had ballet when I was a kid, maybe it helped, but I was never the kind of dancer that I became during this competition, and I had never done ballroom dancing," Keibler said.
Her loss Sunday also sparked a spirited reaction on message boards, this time from angry fans who believed Keibler was robbed. Some talked of starting a petition to protest the outcome.
Keibler, who fought through an ankle injury and a pulled groin muscle during the past week, received four perfect scores during the series -- one more than Lachey -- but the judges' decisions and votes from viewers received equal weight. Keibler did not have the support to overcome Lachey or even Rice, whose judges' scores were consistently lower than hers.
"I think there were a lot of women out there watching and voting, and there were a lot of men out there watching, but not voting," Keibler said.
But despite her third-place finish, Keibler, who earned a perfect score for her final dance Sunday, said performing on the show was "the greatest experience of my life, and it has changed my life."
"I wasn't disappointed at all. I really was sincere when I said on the show that I was already a winner. I think we proved who the best dancers were [Sunday] night on the show."
Sun reporter Joe Burris contributed to this article.
Five moments that made Stacy Keibler a contender:
1. In the first episode, despite being told that her waltz was "all sizzle and no sausage" by judge Len Goodman, the other two judges disagreed, with Carrie Ann Inaba telling her, "I thought you looked like a prima ballerina out there. ... I think you've got a good shot at this."
2. In episode 2, she got two perfect 10s, the earliest 10s were given in the show, for her rumba. Goodman ate his words and said, "It was the complete package." Viewers saw Keibler in happy shock at the 10s.
3. After her foxtrot in week 4, Bruno Tonioli (the show's go-to guy for sound bites), said, "In 30 years in the business, she's got the best legs I've ever seen. You put the foxy in the trot." After judging, Keibler graciously asked viewers to cast votes for any of the dancers they enjoyed watching - not just for partner Tony Dovolani and her.
4. When she got to Latin dance for the first time after the previous episodes' ballroom styles, Keibler took home her first 30 out of 30 for week 5's samba to "Bootylicious." She garnered more sparkling comments from the judges: "I think that you're getting better than some of our professional dancers," Inaba told her, while Tonioli called her "a weapon of mass seduction."
5. The judges argued after week 7's quickstep; Inaba said she wanted Keibler to take more risks and stop being too "safe," and Tonioli thought that was ridiculous, calling the dance "a symphony of beauty."
Sarah Kickler Kelber
Check out Sarah Kickler Kelber's reality TV blog at baltimoresun.com/realitycheck.