When Cheryl Burke
first learned that her new Dancing with the Stars
celeb partner was someone named William Levy, she had the same reaction as most of America: who? "I'd never heard of him," recalls the pro dancer. "So I googled him and ... wow!" Flash forward a few weeks, and millions of the show's fans have joined her in doing a little googling and a lot of hyperventilating. Now the sight of the 31-year-old Cuban-born actor shaking his chiseled tail-feather routinely whips the ABC show's studio audience into a lather. "When William walks out there, it's Beatlemania," says judge Carrie Ann Inaba. "The girls start screaming-before he's even danced!"
Those eyes! That accent! And are you kidding us with what Burke conservatively calls 12-pack abs? No, you are not kidding. You are William Levy, an overnight star in America thanks to those swiveling hips and lethal salsa moves on DWTS
. But over the border, where once or twice (or okay, a thousand times), you've been called "the Latin Brad Pitt
," you've grown used to palpitations and hurled brassieres. "Girls have come up, ripped my T-shirt and all that stuff," says the soft-spoken Levy, who played the romantic lead in Triunfo del Amor
, a Mexican telenovela that drew an audience of millions in Latin America and Spanish-language TV here. Still, Levy, who despite his smoldering image is always laughing and grooving as if there's a song playing only he can hear, is bowled over by crossover success: "To come to this country and receive this kind of love from people you don't even know, it's amazing."
It's all part of what Levy calls his American Dream. Raised by single mom Barbara in Fidel Castro's Cuba, he grew up poor and malnourished in the fishing village of Cojimar (his last name comes from his grandfather, who was Jewish; Levy converted to Catholicism in 2009). "They give you a bread per person every day. They give you a quarter of a chicken per person every month," he says, still shocked at the memory. When he was 15, Levy and his family prepared to flee Cuba illegally by boat. "It was going to be very dangerous," he recalls. "I didn't know if we were going to make it, but it was a do-or-die situation." Just before their planned escape, his stepfather received asylum in the U.S., which enabled the family to legally emigrate. From watching movies, "I only knew that the refrigerators had everything," he says. "You open it and you'd see ham, cheese, Coca-Cola.... All I knew was my refrigerator was going to be full of stuff."
But Levy struggled as a newcomer in Miami, dropping out of college because he couldn't afford it-even with a baseball scholarship-and made ends meet as a construction worker making $50 a day. Then, on his way to pay his mother's driving ticket, he walked into a modeling agency and offered his services. "They said, 'Do you have a book?' A book? I had no idea!" It didn't matter: "The next day I was working."
He never liked modeling ("It's so not natural," says Levy, whose sizzling underwear modeling ads have resurfaced online) and switched to acting. Pounced on by telenovela casting directors, he landed his breakout role in the Latin soap Pasion in 2007. Last year he caught the eye of Jennifer Lopez
, who featured him in her video "I'm Into You." Their steamy beach scenes, as Lopez's marriage to Marc Anthony was crumbling, caused relationship rumors to swirl. "We were professionals," insists Levy. "I didn't know what was going on with her!"
It wasn't the first time his personal life had mirrored the drama of his telenovelas. In 2010 a 17-year-old California girl accused Levy of nonconsensual oral copulation and battery of a minor. She sued for $75,000; Levy filed a $10 million civil suit against her for defamation. Police found no evidence to support the claim, and the case was dismissed. Levy now says he has "moved on." That same year he and actress girlfriend Elizabeth Gutierrez-who have son Christopher, 6, and daughter Kailey, 2-ended their eight-year romance. Gutierrez and Christopher cheer him on weekly at Dancing
, but he won't say if they have reconciled. "As a couple, you go through ups and downs," he says. "So now we say, whatever we do as a couple, let's just keep it in the family."
When it comes to his kids, however, Levy has no qualms about proclaiming his love. In 2006, when a then-pregnant Gutierrez craved cereal in the middle of the night, he ventured out to buy milk. Suddenly he broke down crying in his car, thankful to live in a country where he could go out in the middle of the night and buy milk for his unborn son. "It's such a little thing: milk," he admits, but ever since, "I find joy in everything I never had before. I try to give my kids everything I never had."
And he wouldn't mind some more good fortune of his own, especially if his Dancing
success helps "the Latin Brad Pitt
" become a bonafide Hollywood movie star. "It's a dream I've been having since forever." Still, Levy insists that no matter how loud his adoring fans get, he'll always stay humble. "God brought me over here, and I appreciate that every day," he says. "There's no way I could lose my feet off the ground: My heart is too heavy for that!"
- Additional reporting by Monica Rizzo.