"SYTYCD" Winner Jeanine Mason: "I Was a Horrific Dancer!"

Cubana Jeanine Mason, the youngest winner of Fox’s dance competition So You Think You Can Dance (she's 18), gave me the scoop on her huge victory, what she was thinking seconds before she won the competition, why few people knew about her Cuban background and the fatty Cuban foods she and her fellow Cuban roommate Janette Manrara consumed privately in their apartamento! (As Brüno would say, they committed carbocide!). Plus, Jeanine opened up about the health scare that changed her life and confessed that she wasn’t always the brilliant dancer she is today.

So Jeanine, you’re up there on that stage last week in front of millions of people, down to the final two: What was going through your head when they said, “And America’s favorite dancer is ... ?”

Honestly, I was still in shock because I was standing on the Kodak Theater, which is my dream stage! I hope to be an actress one day, so every actress wants to stand on the Kodak Theater, and I was thinking, “Why am I here? Like, what am I doing?” And then I was like, “Okay, Jeanine, focus. They’re about to announce the winner.” I was so happy to hear my name, and my brain just exploded! And I was so ready to be in Miami to thank everyone for all of the love and support they’ve been sending me. I got back to the airport yesterday and all of my family and friends and family were waiting for me. It was the best moment ever. I’ve been gone for a long time. Three months!

But it was worth it. You became the first Cuban winner! I must be honest with you, I had no idea you were Cuban until you won the show. So who in your family is Cuban?

My entire family is Cuban: My dad’s family and my mom’s family! I am a first-generation cubana americana!

Wow! It just seemed that on the show, Janette Manrara was the only one anyone considered Cuban because she talked so much about her culture. Do you feel that was the case—that no one really knew you were Cuban?

Yeah. Unfortunately, when it’s a TV show, you have to have different personalities and you want to show a different light on every person. So that’s just who Janette was, and she was always talking about her Latin background. I never denied it. It was just never focused on as much as it was with Janette. But after Janette got eliminated, more people realized, “Wow, you’re Hispanic as well!”

But this is something you definitely picked up on during the competition?

Yeah. A lot of it had to do with her speaking Spanish, but she and I spoke Spanish to the other contestants! I would randomly start speaking Spanish to Janette, and it was our way of reminding each other of home. We were roommates, so it made it easier to feel like we were still back home. Our families were always sending us boxes. Her uncle sent us a box filled with plantain chips. (Laughs) And my aunt brought us pastelitos de guayaba y queso and croquetas. So we had a Cuban thing going in our apartment. I call her my big sister because she’s always taking care of me!

Is it true Janette let you cut in line at the Miami auditions?

I was the last person to audition in Miami, and she was there early in the morning. I was going to be there for hours, but she was like, “Come here,” and she let me cut in the line with her. She convinced me to stay. If it weren’t for her convincing me to stay, I wouldn’t be here right now!

How does it feel to be the youngest winner in SYTYCD history?

Oh, my God! I feel so honored to not only be the youngest winner, but also the first Latina winner! It’s amazing to represent Latinas everywhere. Hopefully they’re inspired by this, and hopefully they know there is definitely a place for Latina ballerinas in this world!

Many of the contestants on this season of SYTYCD were from Miami. Is there something in the water out in Miami that makes people better dancers than the rest of us?

(Laughs) I don’t think being from Miami necessarily makes you a better dancer, but there is this amazing passion for dance in Miami, and there’s such a flavor because of the culture that’s there. Being a Latina and growing up in a place where there is such an amazing Latin influence, I felt so much more at home and so much more comfortable moving my hips and trying to be sexy. Because I grew up in a place that always does that! That helped me out a lot. I couldn’t have done it without Miami!

There’s no doubt you can dance now, but was that always the case? I hear when you were younger, teachers refused to even work with you?

Yes. I was a horrific dancer! It was hard for me. I went through a lot of time where I loved dancing, but I couldn’t find somebody who was willing to train me because I was so bad. I looked like I had no promise. I was lucky after a couple of years to find a group of teachers who were willing to put in the effort, and it has honestly made all the difference. I never thought I would be at this point. I don’t think they did either. But they saw something in me, and now I’m here!

Another obstacle you had to face was the removal of a tumor from your left elbow. Can you tell me what that was like?

Yeah. I never talked about it on the show because I just felt like so many people have been through traumatic things in their life, and I didn’t want to be that sob story. I wanted my image to be because of my dancing, and not because people were like, "Oh, she has that problem with her elbow." So I chose never to speak about it. But it was my junior year that I stopped being able to move my arm. I realized there was something going on. I couldn’t dance as well. My arm was hurting all the time. I discovered this lump on my left elbow, and it kept growing and growing. And I couldn’t figure out what it was. I went through six months of meeting with doctors: Drawing blood, CAT scans, MRIs. Finally, they figured out it was a tumor. And I went through two surgeries to have everything removed. The summer before my senior year I spent every day getting radiation, so it was not the ideal way to spend my summer—but it saved my dancing career.

I hear you want to be an actress. Would you consider doing a musical?

I love West Side Story, and I would love to be a part of that project because it obviously has that Latin influence. But I love Chicago, Hairspray and Phantom of the Opera too.

Are you excited for the SYTYCD tour, which starts on Sept. 20?

I’m so excited! We go back to L.A. in a week and a half, and we have three weeks of rehearsal. It starts in New Hampshire, and we’re doing 40 cities. We’re coming to Miami, and I’m so excited and ready for that one! I love every person in the top 12. I’m excited to live on a bus with them!

What are you planning to do with what’s left of the summer?

I mean, I only have a couple of days. Right now I am in Miami. On Saturday, I am throwing the first pitch at the Marlins baseball game, which is something I never thought in a million years I’d be doing. I am going to spend time with my family, eat lots of Cuban food and see all of my friends. Never in a million years did I think I would be here and wouldn’t be going to college in the fall. But I’m blessed to be doing what I’m doing. I’m ready to go to college in the spring at UCLA, but for now, I’m enjoying this so much!