They dominated the dance floor with jaw-dropping lifts and fancy footwork, and their social media campaign was second to none. But it was perhaps the sizzling chemistry between Samantha Hayes and Aaron Gilmore that clinched them the coveted Dancing with the Stars NZ glitterball trophy.
"I want to write fan fiction about Sam and Aaron," wrote one Twitter commentator, while another added that she expected to see the dancing duo confess to a real-life romance in the pages of Woman's Day.
Well, we're sorry to disappoint, but Sam tells us, "This isn't a love story. People will always speculate, but we're just good friends and we enjoyed dancing together, and the judges did tell me I needed to dial up the emotions, so that was where that chemistry came from."
Grinning, Aaron – dad to Ethan, 15, and Grace, 13, with ex-wife Jaimee – adds, "I'm proud that I made Sam feel safe and respected enough to get that out of her. I mean, we did spend 14 weeks together solidly."
"That was the best and the worst thing about this whole experience," laughs Sam.
Asked if she and Aaron are going to continue hanging out, the Newshub presenter replies, "After spending every day with him for three months, it would be so strange if we didn't. I miss the outdoors after being in the studio so much, so I want to get out and about in the bush. Once I actually get some sleep, we'll be out hiking together."
However, Sam – who split from geologist Jacob Anderson earlier this year – isn't ready to give up dancing yet. The flame-haired beauty says, "After giving myself a bit of a break, I'll look into going back to the studio and learning some new moves. Maybe I can talk Aaron into teaching me the tango!"
She recalls, "I was shaking. I thought I'd misheard it. It didn't seem real. When I signed up, winning wasn't really on my mind. I just wanted to give it a go and raise some money for Riding for the Disabled. My only goal was not to be the first person voted out."
The judges told Sam they expected to see her in the final after her foxtrot in the show's first episode, but what followed were "a couple of tough weeks" spent on the lower end of the leader board.
"That was crushing," the journalist tells. "I put my feet in the right places and I thought that was enough, but the judges told us again and again that we needed to do a lot more. I didn't know what to do."
The breakthrough came when The Breaker Upperers star Madeleine Sami dropped by to give Sam acting lessons. "She told me some hard truths in a brutal way," Sam tells.
"She said I needed to be vulnerable on TV, which is hard for me. When we go off script in the news and I'm under stress, my job is to stay calm, even though I'm so nervous.
"I've spent my whole career trying to keep it together, so it was a massive struggle. There were tears and I hit a wall on many occasions, but I finally got comfortable with being uncomfortable on screen."
Allowing herself to be vulnerable was "where the true Sam came out", says Aaron.
"When I met her, she was really good at doing what I told her to do, but by the end, it felt like she was actually dancing with me, not at me."
However, the star insists DWTS hasn't changed who she is. Sam smiles, "I'm the exact same person I've been the whole way through this. The difference is that people have gotten to know me and seen me having fun. What has been beautiful about the show is the positivity. Fans talked to me and showed a real love for the show. I feel a stronger connection with people now. It's remarkable."
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