EXCLUSIVE: Amber Riley Talks ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ Knee Injuries and Natural Hair
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Over the last eight weeks, Amber Riley has consistently remained atop the leader board on Dancing with the Stars. With coaching from partner Derek Hough, Riley has not only won the approval of the judges, but she’s won the hearts of the show’s fans too.

With just a few short weeks to go before the finals, and with the mirror ball trophy in close reach, we caught up with Riley to chat about everything from possibly winning and knee injuries to keeping her natural hair healthy through tough practices.

ESSENCE.com: In last week’s episode we saw you battling knee problems. How are you doing now?
AMBER RILEY: I just think it’s one of those things. I have hyper extended knees so that’s an extra issue. Even though they say it’s good for dancing, it kind of creates problems as ballroom is concerned. To go from doing nothing at all to going 100 speed is a lot on your body. It’s been really hard on my knees. Physically it’s been challenging, but I’m really enjoying it.

ESSENCE.com: We saw in last week’s episode that you learned by actually watching, not by doing. Is that regular?
RILEY: That’s actually something I do every week. I record it. The first time that we did it, was the first time I got my knee drained and I had to take two days off. I actually learned the dance from the video, so when I came in and could dance, I knew it was because I’m a visual learner.

ESSENCE.com: With all the dancing, you’ve really slimmed down. Are you afraid of losing your curves?
RILEY: No, not really. I feel like with dancing I’ve been building more muscle and getting firmer. Everything is getting tighter. I’m a curvy girl; I don’t think a couple of weeks will take that away! (Laughs)

ESSENCE.com: DWTS is known for pushing contestants to the limits both mentally and emotionally. How has it affected you?
RILEY: It’s made me a crier! I’m definitely not a crier, at all. And I definitely don’t cry in front of people. I don’t do the whole crying thing in public. It’s made me more emotional. Not often do people do something every day that they’ve never done before. That puts you in a state to be fearless every day. You have what you think your limitations are and you can’t help but grow as a person when doing something like that.

ESSENCE.com: What are three things you’ll do if you win?
RILEY: If I win, I’m going to Hawaii. I’ve never been before. I really want to go and relax. I definitely will do something for the people that voted — maybe like a YouStream or some kind of chat to thank everyone. The third thing is chow down! It’s the week of Thanksgiving, so I’m going hard.

ESSENCE.com: How are you managing your hair while juggling all of the sweaty rehearsals and show performances?
RILEY: I’ve weaved it up. None of my hair is out. And I’ve been going the more natural root, so I can wash my hair every day to make sure underneath the track is clean. I’ve also been wearing it really curly. I’m straightening my hair while I’m talking to you actually. I’m going straight this week for rehearsals. I have what’s called an invisible part—where it looks like my hair is out, but it’s not. I went to cosmetology school. I know how to do hair and take care of my hair very well.

ESSENCE.com: In between all of the DWTS madness, how did you find time do to Spell Block Tango with Todrick Hall?
RILEY: I actually went [to do it] after dance rehearsal. I was so exhausted, but Todrick and I are really great friends. He’s been asking me to do it and I was just like ‘I really want to do it but, I’m doing this, I’m doing that.’ I literally just said I’m going to commit to doing it and make it a priority and find time. I love Todrick. I really wanted to be a part of his movement because he’s doing things on YouTube that a lot of people wouldn’t be able to achieve. He’s so creative. He’s a genius and he’s so great at many different things. It was worth it.