LOS ANGELES – Kristi Yamaguchi is clearly the most talented contestant on "Dancing With the Stars." But the question still looms heading into Tuesday's finale: Can a woman win the celebrity dance-off?
Men have won the mirrorball trophy during the show's past four seasons. The only woman to take the "Dancing" crown was Kelly Monaco in season one. With a viewership that's 75 percent women, plus brazen displays of bare skin and sex appeal from current male finalists Jason Taylor and Cristian de la Fuente, the hit ABC show still has plenty of suspense for the final episode.
And it drew plenty of viewers to Monday's broadcast — 18.8 million, according to preliminary Nielsen figures. It was the most-watched program of the night by far, with the largest audience for a Monday edition of "Dancing" in six weeks.
"You obviously have to get the technique, but (also) compete with the personalities that all the boys have," Yamaguchi told The Associated Press after Monday's performances. "I think their smiles and their personalities melt hearts across the country."
Figure-skating champ Yamaguchi got a perfect score of 60 on Monday's show, and has regularly topped the judges' scoreboard throughout the sixth season of the ABC dance-off. But viewer votes count just as much, and the combination is what determines the winner.
Spice Girl Melanie Brown learned that fact the hard way last season, when the inferior dancer, race-car driver Helio Castroneves, collected more votes and took the title.
"I don't know if it's that women don't vote for women," Brown said Monday. "It's a very strange situation ... But at the end of the day, (Yamaguchi) is a brilliant dancer and so is (her partner), so I think if she doesn't win, that would be really sad."
Judge Carrie Ann Inaba acknowledged Monday that men have fared better on the show.
"The men are more easy," she said while judging one of Yamaguchi's dances. "They have a natural tendency to be more crowd-pleasers. And it's very difficult to keep up with that. But not tonight, girl!"
Still, with history on their side, Taylor and de la Fuente are holding out hope for victory.
"It's not only technique. It's not only being perfect. It's everything," said de la Fuente, who finished with 52 points. "It's having fun. It's enjoying it. You know, we worked hard and hopefully people will appreciate that."
Taylor landed in last place with 51 points Monday, but he's counting on viewers to keep him in the contest.
"We hope we impressed them enough and entertained them enough to get some votes," he said, "but obviously Kristi is a great dancer."
All three finalists cranked up the sex appeal during Monday's finals, incorporating playful spankings into their routines. Yamaguchi also kissed judge Bruno Tonioli on the lips — half-accidentally.
"We were planning to get him on the cheek, but then he turned his head," said her partner, Mark Ballas.
"It was a little more than I expected," Yamaguchi said.
But it fit right in with the night's other sexy moves. The actor de la Fuente began his freestyle dance with a derriere-shake that drew a televised close-up, and the massive football star Taylor ended his routine bare-chested after his partner, Edyta Sliwinska, tore off his shirt.
She admitted she was thinking of the voters when she planned that move.
"The majority of the audience are females and they probably vote a lot more than guys," Sliwinska said. "I guess those beautiful bodies and gorgeous guys make them easy to vote for."
Besides Castroneves, past winners have included NFL star Emmitt Smith, 98 Degrees singer Drew Lachey and Olympic speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno.
"The only thing I'm praying is that the rule doesn't change this season," de la Fuente said. "Next season a woman can win, but hopefully this season a man will win."
Ballas said ballroom dancing is harder for women.
"Everything that we do as men, the women have to do backward, in heels," he said. "The man's role is to be the frame and the girl's role is to be the cape, so the man just has to be strong and stable" while the woman is tossed about the dance floor.
But Brown said it's equally difficult for both genders.
"You've still got to learn dance routines, steps, choreography, the whole thing," she said. "For girls, maybe it's a bit challenging because they are the ones who can get thrown around, but again the guy has to hold the woman up and lead, so they both have different challenges."
Still, she said Yamaguchi "deserves to win without a doubt."
Voters were to make that decision Tuesday night.