Like the porcelain dolls she sells on the QVC shopping network, Marie Osmond is an all-American sweetheart. But can she waltz off with the trophy on "Dancing With the Stars" on dimples alone?
This mother of eight from the Mormon mega-family of entertainers got her start as a toddler on television's Andy Williams Show in 1963.
Now, at 48, Osmond has fended off better dancers to reach the season finale of television's popular reality show "Dancing With the Stars." But it's fan power, rather than talent, that's keeping her afloat, say critics.
Monday night, dressed as one of her dolls and dancing like a windup toy, Osmond earned seven out of a possible 10 points from judges — the lowest score of the night.
"This is the loopiest thing I've ever seen," said judge Bruno Tonioli. "It's like Baby Jane and the Bride of Chucky!"
In the Oct. 30 episode, Osmond beat out "Cheetah Girls" star Sabrina Byron, who had earned a perfect 10 from the judges.
The homespun singer has been buoyed by her devoted fan base -- many of them baby boomers -- who have watched her faint on stage and weather personal tragedies. Osmond's favorite charity, Children's Miracle Network, has publicly urged its supporters to "cheer on" the star.
Osmond and her partner, professional dancer Jonathan Roberts, have waltzed past nine other couples, despite lower dance scores by the judges. Now she will compete against Spice Girl Melanie Brown and Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves.
"I think Marie's fan base has been growing since she was a kid," said show host Tom Bergeron. "She came in with a sizable fan base, but she's proven herself to be a talented dancer. Sadly, things happened to her on a personal level that only strengthens that base and gives her a collective hug."
Open About Her Personal Life
During the show, Osmond openly has talked about her divorce, the death of her father and her son's struggle with drugs.
But some critics say Osmond's personality has trumped her dancing ability, and voting could start to look like another similar reality show, "American Idol."
Earlier this year, seemingly tone-deaf contestant Sanjaya Malakar triggered a campaign to rig the vote in his favor when radio host Howard Stern urged voters to support Sanjaya for laughs. Sanjaya was eventually voted off "American Idol."
Osmond has been largely buoyed by her earlier fame. Dubbed "the youngest Osmond brother," she was only 13 when her pop song "Paper Roses" topped the music charts. A weekly television variety series with her brother, "Donny and Marie," ran from 1976 to 1981.
In 1991, Osmond developed a successful collectible doll brand. Her 2001 book, "Behind the Smile: My Journey Out of Postpartum Depression" opened her personal life to fans, and by 2007, she made a public comeback on "Dancing With the Stars."
It was Osmond's ability to connect with viewers that sealed her popularity, according to media critics.
"She has the spirit of attacking dancing with a can-do attitude," said Julie Hinds, a pop culture writer for the Detroit Free Press. "We know a lot about her life's ups and downs, and some women and fans can identify."
The show's judges give Osmond a score based on several factors, including technical ability. Viewers vote by phone or text message, and the scoring is divided evenly between both judges and viewers.
Each week a contestant is dismissed, and when two couples remain, the final dance-off determines who wins the trophy.
"I think it's premature to call a winner," said host Bergeron. "Even though people say the vote is a popularity contest, that changes over the course of the season. People shift their allegiances, though initially your fans move you along heavily."
While critics say Osmond relies more on personality, Bergeron insists a number of factors yield a winner. "You can't isolate those things," he said. "It's almost like eating soup. You can't figure out which ingredients are most important."
Internet blogs show that Osmond's biggest fans are her contemporaries -- like Lita Kaler, a 48-year-old Illinois mother and entrepreneur.
Knows What She Likes
"I know nothing about ballroom dancing, I only know what I like, what entertains me and makes me smile," she wrote ABC News. "The 'best dancer' is opinion."
Kaler comes from a big family -- seven siblings and "untold nieces, nephews and greats," so she relates to Osmond's persona. "I get the big family thing, which, if you don't come from one, is hard to grasp. If you grew up with the Osmonds, you soon realized you were not simply a fan, but part of a huge family," she said.
"We grew up with her," said Kaler. "We feel as if she is a long-lost distant relative. She seems to exhibit that 'can do' attitude. She is a genuine article, what you see is what you get."
Dave Wagner, 47, of San Jose, Calif., said Osmond will win the competition not just because she is a "household name" but because she has learned the dance moves. Meanwhile, Wagner's girls, ages 18 and 14, prefer contestants Castroneves and Brown.
"She just has this endearing quality about her that attracts people," said Wagner, a statistics professor. "She has the whole package, not just good dance scores. Everybody can identify with her trying to be a moral person and raise kids."
The show's producers understand that the buzz surrounding Osmond's talent -- or lack thereof -- is the perfect recipe for a successful show.
"It's such a hit they don't want to mess with it," said television critic Mike Duffy of the Detroit Free Press. "Marie Osmond has been a walking goldmine. There seems to be a well of affection for her. And when she fainted on the show, she seemed so plucky and had a sense of humor. She's not a prima donna."
But, adds Duffy, who at 62 has lived through all the variations of the Osmonds, there are those who view the heartland family as "kitch and silly."
His colleagues on the entertainment pages of the Baltimore Sun call Osmond "endlessly chipper."
The newspaper has officially declared her a has-been, citing 10 reasons why Osmond should not win the competition. Among them were "They might invite Sanjaya to dance next," and "Empowered by the win, the family (all 300,000 of them) could rise up and form a United States of Osmond."
A New Interest in Dance
Still, dancing isn't all about technique, according to Angela Prince, public relations director for USA Dance, the national governing body for ballroom dancing, who said "Dancing With the Stars" has boosted interest in dance.
"If it were all about the steps, we wouldn't have so many people involved in dance," said Prince. "It's not about how good you are, but the fact that you are dancing. It unifies people and breaks barriers."
The show's executives are bracing for Osmond's potential win and are adamant that voting rules would never be changed to give more weight to the judges' evaluations.
"I don't think you invalidate the voting approach if you're not happy with who won," said host Bergeron.
"People have a history they bring with them, as with the Osmonds and Donny and Marie," he said. "So when I see her out there at 48 years old, doing a damn fine job dancing, you have to join that with the nostalgia factor."