When Michelle “Jersey” Maniscalco arrives at our cover shoot in Malibu, it’s clear that she’s come a long way since her days on MTV’s “Dancelife.” Gone is the clunker car that could barely get her to auditions; now her jazzy new ride sports gold rims and tinted windows. Her recent gigs have included a European tour with Rihanna, a role as a backup singer in the upcoming film Alvin and the Chipmunks, and a trip to Portugal with Jennifer Lopez for the “New Seven Wonders of the World” extravaganza performance. No doubt about it—Jersey has arrived.
Garden State Beginnings Though Jersey now resides in sunny L.A., most of her dance training took place in her hometown of Runnemede, NJ. Starting at age three, she spent her time in ballet, tap, jazz and tumbling classes, and at 11, she decided to take her dance future into her own hands. “My teachers told me I wasn’t ready for pointe, but I was dying to wear the shoes,” Jersey says. “So I went on pointe by myself. I wound up being better on pointe than off! When there’s something I want to do, I put my all into it.” Although DS doesn’t recommend putting yourself on pointe, in Jersey’s case the gamble paid off. She was soon cast as Clara in Ballet South of New Jersey’s The Nutcracker (a role she filled for two consecutive years).
Though on a promising path, Jersey began questioning her involvement in dance when she entered high school. “I had put a lot of pressure on myself, and when I turned 15, I needed a break from that whole world,” she remembers. For the next several years, Jersey stepped away from her dance training, but continued to perform as part of her high school cheerleading squad.
But she couldn’t resist dance’s magnetic appeal for too long. After seeing some underground dancers freestyling at a club, 18-year-old Jersey took a job dancing at several nightclubs, including Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal nightclub in Atlantic City. “[Working as a freestyle dancer] gave me more confidence and made me more of a performer,” Jersey says.
Along with her nightclub gigs, Jersey also successfully auditioned for the Philadelphia Eagles dance team. But halfway through her second season with the squad, she got some life-changing news. “Some dancers I knew told me about an MTV show called ‘The Wade Robson Project,’” she says. “I’d always dreamed of being a professional dancer, so I cleaned out my bank account and flew to California for the auditions.”
Once in Los Angeles, Jersey’s freestyle skills came in handy. (“At the auditions, I just showed off with what I would do at work,” she says. “I was totally fearless.”) After surviving two cuts, Jersey was chosen for the show and asked to fly back to L.A. one month later. Though she was ecstatic, her family wasn’t quite so sure about the opportunity. “When I told my parents I was going to L.A., my mom was like, ‘You’re crazy!’ My dad warned me, ‘These people can spin on their heads; they’re amazing.’ I said, ‘You know what, Dad? I’m amazing, too.’” Wade and friends agreed—Jersey was selected as the show’s first runner-up.
Hollywood Bound After nabbing Wade’s second-place spot, Jersey decided to stay on the West Coast permanently. “The show had been such a good experience and a huge stepping stone toward my dreams,” she says. “I didn’t want it to end.” Once in L.A., Jersey started taking up to five dance classes every day and feverishly hitting the audition circuit. Soon Wade came calling with an offer for her first professional gig: an industrial in Las Vegas for BellSouth Atlantic. “Wade used four kids from the show, and it was really fun to get the opportunity to work with him,” says Jersey. “He’s a genius.”
Wade’s offer opened the floodgates for Jersey, who began working steadily as a dancer. Along with a Target commercial, an Asics print spot and an appearance in Bring It On: All or Nothing, Jersey took a six-month gig in the then-new Pussycat Dolls Lounge at Caesar’s Palace.
Then, in May 2006, she got an unexpected call from MTV. “The producers wanted me to do an interview to talk about a friend who was auditioning for ‘Dancelife,’” says Jersey. “It turned out that my friend got a job in Germany, but the producers liked me and I wound up getting the job!”
Executive produced by Jennifer Lopez, the show followed the triumphs and trials of six dancers trying to make it in Hollywood. Now in talks for a second season, the show was a bona fide success. “I feel so blessed because the show took me to another level in my career,” says Jersey, who toured with Rihanna shortly after the show wrapped.
Now that she’s setting her sights on acting along with dancing, is Jersey destined to follow in J.Lo’s footsteps? “Jennifer is such a hard worker; she doesn’t even stop to pee!” laughs Jersey. “She’s a woman who knows exactly what she wants, and so am I. Ever since I was little, my dream has been to be a star. I didn’t know how I would get there, but I’ve always known one day I would make it.” This “Jersey from the block” is well on her way.