ET caught up with the 23-year-old dancer at the Los Angeles Police Memorial Foundation’s Celebrity Poker Tournament, supported by PokerStars Helping Hands, at Avalon in Hollywood, California, on Sunday. The glitzy event’s theme was Heroes4Heroes, and Bersten admitted that Gibson has become one of his biggest heroes.
“Debbie has been through Lyme disease, so she’s on the recovery, health wise, and to me it’s just inspirational that she even signed up for the show,” said Bersten, who was previously a member of the ABC reality competition's dance troupe and has been promoted to a professional competitor for season 25. “It’s one thing to heal from a disease like Lyme disease, where it’s excruciating on your body, but another thing to do it on live television, so it’s very inspirational that she’s even trying to do this. She’s inspiring me -- and hopefully Americans who are going to be watching -- to get up and really try to get back to the good place in your life.”
Since being diagnosed four years ago, Gibson has been fighting the bacterial infection, which is primarily transmitted by deer ticks and can cause flu-like symptoms, rashes, joint and muscle pain and limb weakness. The illness can cause major debilitation and is frequently misdiagnosed.
Bersten shared that her illness means the pair have had to tread carefully when it comes to rehearsals for the show, "so she doesn’t get injured [or hurt] her muscles,” he said. “She has a physician with her, who works on her whenever she feels pain. But we can’t rehearse for four hours a day every day, so we have to work smarter instead of harder.”
While challenging, Bersten said he "thinks every challenge comes with a reward and hopefully we’ll have a nice reward on Monday!”
Despite the added hurdles the pair are facing in the competition, Bersten noted how Gibson has remained upbeat, energetic and positive.
“She is literally the most joyful person to be around,” he gushed. “When we’re rehearsing, it just flies by because we’ve had so much fun. She’s been having concerts for these past few days, so we don’t have much time for rehearsals though.”
In fact, Bersten had just arrived back in Los Angeles after catching Gibson’s Washington concert on Saturday night. Landing on Sunday morning, he picked up a dapper navy-blue suit for the poker event, which raised funds for LAPD families who have experienced unforeseen catastrophic circumstances, and was also attended by Boyz II Men’s Nathan Morris, Shahs of Sunset’s Golnesa ''GG'' Gharachedaghi, UFC star Tito Ortiz and One Tree Hill’s Paul Johansson.
At 23, Bersten was born after Gibson’s musical heyday in the '80s, but says he was aware of the icon after she visited Las Vegas and was “inconspicuously watching” the Dancing with the Stars Live! show that he toured with. He has since done his research, “listened to all her songs,” and was incredibly nervous the first time he met the “legend.”
“It’s an incredible, exciting and nerve-wracking experience to meet someone you’re going to spend the next three months with,” he said. “It was amazing because our energies work very well together. I’m a super-excited person and she just has this zest for life and enjoys every moment and that’s extremely important.”
Working on the show is a dream come true for Bersten, who was a competitive ballroom dancer in Minnesota, before auditioning for So You Think You Can Danceat 18. Unexpectedly landing a part on the FOX series, he says the “cards fell into place” from there. He joined Dancing with the Stars as a troupe member and has previously filled in for dance pros like Maksim Chmerkovskiy, who needed Bersten to step in as actress Heather Morris’ partner while he recovered from a calf injury, earlier this year.
Yet, Bersten was so shocked and ecstatic that he burst into tears when he got the news that he would have his own partner this season. “I started crying just because the producer, who called me was crying because she was excited,” he recalled. “Then I called my mom and cried again. It was like, ‘Dreams come true!’”
“I never thought about it becoming a possibility,” he continued. “Through my dancing career, somehow I ended up here in Los Angeles on the show and now I have my own partner, who’s amazing. It’s still so surreal … I’m going to take this opportunity and use it to my advantage in every way possible -- showcase how amazing it is and how amazing I can be with the right guidance.”