LOS ANGELES (AP) — J.R. Martinez started out as the least-known member of the "Dancing With the Stars" cast, but as the season went on, America fell in love with the 28-year-old soldier-turned-soap opera star.
"Dancing" draws 18 million viewers a week who got a firsthand look at the Iraq war veteran with the infectious positive attitude. They heard his story: How he was severely burned over more than 40 percent of his body when the Humvee he was driving for the U.S. Army struck a land mine, how he underwent numerous surgeries over years of recovery — then they saw him dancing like that had happened to somebody else. The 28-year-old actor and motivational speaker radiates joy.
"You've got such a sparkling personality, you just light up this room," ''Dancing" judge Len Goodman said.
Earlier this month, Martinez was chosen as grand marshal of the 123rd annual Tournament of Roses parade. He was on the cover of People magazine and named one of its "sexiest men" a few weeks later. And on Tuesday, he became the new "Dancing With the Stars" champion.
Martinez and professional partner Karina Smirnoff claimed the mirrorball trophy over fellow finalists Rob Kardashian and Ricki Lake.
"We've been able to create a lot of magical moments on the show and to top it off with this is amazing," Martinez said, holding the glittery trophy.
"And my friend, she deserves it," he continued, looking at Smirnoff. "She's an amazing dancer and she should be in that category with the elite when it comes to this show and hold her own trophy up. The fact that I was able to be part of that journey, I'm excited about that."
The dance partners (and neighbors — Smirnoff and Martinez live near one another) already know where they'll put the mirrorballs.
Smirnoff wants to keep hers at her dance studio in "a space with a spotlight and I'm going to polish it every morning," she said.
Martinez will be keeping his trophy even closer.
"Right now I'm going to put mine in bed. I'm going to tuck it in, and it's going to roll around with me," he beamed. "And then after that, once we've kind of grown apart, I'm going to glue it to the hood of my car and drive around Los Angeles and honk my horn and it will be my own parade."
Kardashian, who came into the season finale in first place with professional partner Cheryl Burke, said he didn't mind finishing as a runner-up.
"I feel great. I literally did everything I could have asked myself to do and more," the reality star said after the show. Still, he said Martinez "deserves that trophy more than anyone."
It appears fans had the final say. Viewer votes combined with judges' scores determine the winner, and Kardashian and Martinez were just a point apart when all the dancing was done. As the third-place finisher, Lake was eliminated part way through the final episode.
"J.R. and Karina really deserved to win," she said after the show. "And Rob and Cheryl, I'm so impressed with them both, so it's great to be among the three best."
After a quick trip to New York with his fellow finalists to make an appearance on "Good Morning America," and maybe some dance-free downtime over Thanksgiving, the former soldier and current "Dancing With the Stars" champ has a full roster of activities planned.
"I want to focus on writing a book. I want to tell people more in-depth the story of who J.R. Martinez is and what I've been through," he said. "And at the same time, I want to continue acting, continue doing motivational speaking and, from time to time, call Karina and say, 'Let's go dance.'"
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Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.