Nelly Was 'Surprised to Pick Up DWTS' Moves But Jokes 'I'm a Scorpio, We're Competitive'
It's getting hot in here for Nelly. After all, he's the iconic star behind countless hit songs and he wrapped up his incredible year by proving that he's a lean dancing machine.
Speaking with PEOPLE as the star of an all-new Lay's Flamin' Hot chips commercial, the "Dilemma" hitmaker and Dancing with the Stars season 29 finalist opened up about his experience on ABC's hit show, his unwavering love for performing and the secrets to his healthy lifestyle. He even shared his personal favorite relationship advice to those lovebirds out there.
"The most surprising thing I learned from competing on the show is that I picked up choreography," he tells PEOPLE with a laugh. "Getting into DWTS was me thinking, 'I can do whatever [I believe I can].'"
Adds the Grammy-winner (né Cornell Haynes Jr.), 46: "I have yet to meet a Scorpio that doesn't think they can be competitive at anything. We don't have to be the best, but as long as we're not the worst. As long as I wasn't the first or second one to get voted off, I felt great. To make it to the last day, I was stoked. You can tell by my facial expressions. Each time I made it, I was amazed. I was stunned, like, 'Are you kidding me?'"
But he explains: "All of it [was challenging]. Having to learn such a structured dance was tough — I needed all my hours of rehearsal and I rehearsed every day. I enjoyed it immensely and I didn't know I would have so much fun. Because the first day, I was like, 'Yo, what the hell have I done? There's no looking back now.' But I had a great partner in Daniella [Karagach] and the show was great. I didn't think I would have made it that far had it not been for my fans."
Nelly tells PEOPLE that his appreciation for his longtime supporters goes beyond measure. "I never get sick of performing any of my music because somebody paid to see me," he says. "When you're 20 years into any profession, if somebody is still paying to have your presence, that's a blessing. You have to take that in stride and I think as an artist, you can't ask for much more considering that fans have accepted you. Any time people have accepted you, what more can you say?"
Fans of DWTS got to see some sweetness between Nelly and his longtime girlfriend Shantel Jackson, who supported him throughout his time on the show. And the star has one piece of advice about keeping the spark alive in any romance: "Friends first. Being friends helps any relationship."
With friendship at the center of most things in his life, Nelly has gained plenty of pals throughout his decades-long career. The artist is making his return into country-influenced music with the upcoming release of his newest project, The Heartland EP.
RELATED VIDEO: Nelly Opens Up About Raising His Children, Niece and Nephew After His Sister Jackie Died of Leukemia: 'She [Had] the Family Smile'
In November, Nelly celebrated the 20th anniversary of his debut studio album, Country Grammar. He saw his first glimpse of genre-bending success (between hip-hop and country music) soon after with his collaboration with Tim McGraw on their track, "Over and Over." To date, the song's music video has far more than 100 million views on YouTube alone.
Looking back in retrospect, there is undeniable synchronicity between his love for country-influenced music and the name of his first album. "My appreciation for country music and the artists [is huge]," he explains. "Even going back to 2004 with 'Over and Over Again,' and the type of success [Tim McGraw and I] achieved with that. The Heartland EP is a project I've been thinking about for some time now and I'm able to bring it now."
On his recent country collabs, Nelly tells PEOPLE, "Working with Florida Georgia Line with our first single, 'Little Bit' [and] considering all the success we had with 'Cruise,' it's been great. It's been received really well and I feel really blessed."
The mega hitmaker is happy to see the latest generation of music listeners embrace new music that includes multiple genres. "If you look at the younger generation of country fans, I don't think there's a country fan who's in their late teens or early 20s and doesn't have some type of affinity for some type of hip-hop. It might not be their favorite music, but I'm sure they like some hip-hop somewhere, or some artist or vice versa," he said. Lil Nas X's Billboard record-breaking collaboration with Billy Ray Cyrus is a clear example of that.
As for Nelly's lean and fit physique, the star tells PEOPLE his secret to looking well below his 46 years. "It's definitely good genes," he says with a laugh. "I try to stay in the gym as much as possible. I haven't eaten red meat in over 25, 30 years so I feel really fortunate that this is all my hair and I don't dye anything."
"I try to worry about things that I can control and the things I can't control, I try not to worry about as much," Nelly says about prioritizing his mental health.
Nelly tells PEOPLE what he learned after the challenging year. "My biggest lesson of 2020 is patience. We all had to have it last year. No matter what it was, from one extreme to the next — it all took patience. We all learned that we need each other to survive, period."
The star also shares his condolences to those who may have lost loved ones — his sister Jackie died of leukemia and he has been raising her children ever since. "A lot of people didn't make it to see 2021, so I feel really fortunate that I'm here and I pour my strength and my blessings to anyone that lost someone in 2020 and is having a tough go of it," he says. "Hopefully, 2021 will be better."
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