LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Lil' Kim's favorite show is "Dancing With the Stars," but the real reason she wanted to be in the ABC dance-off? To make mom proud.
"My mom loves the show, and with me going to prison and everything, I feel like my mom has been through so much," says Kim, taking a break during a recent rehearsal. "I've seen her cry a million and one times. I've seen her look at me like, 'I know my daughter has potential. I know this is not what God wanted her career and her life to be.' So I look at her now, and if she has tears of joy, that makes me happy."
After opening last week's season premiere with a sultry cha-cha-cha and landing among the night's high scorers, Kim and her dance partner, Derek Hough, are in the dance studio to take on the quickstep.
Hough arrives first. Slender and taller than fans of the show might guess, the 23-year-old pro and last season's champ wears jeans, a navy sweater and white sneakers, which he quickly ditches for black leather dance shoes. He enjoys an easy banter with the film crew that captures their rehearsal, sharing stories about ridding his girlfriend's garage of clutter (Hough is dating Shannon Elizabeth, his dance partner from two seasons ago), and revealing that his current partner owns 2,000 pairs of shoes.
When Kim comes in about 10 minutes later toting two shopping bags full of shoes, Hough offers an I-told-you-so smile.
The pint-sized rapper promises that the heels aren't for fun and fashion, but for her performances on the show.
"My feet get so sore and swollen," she says, changing into a pair of size 6 dance shoes.
"That's probably the hardest part for me."
But the pain hasn't stopped her from practicing diligently, both at this neighborhood studio with views of the Hollywood Hills or at home after rehearsals wrap.
The 33-year-old entertainer, her famous curves barely concealed by a bright pink T-shirt and skintight jeans, has devoted herself to ballroom dancing.
"It's strategic," says Kim, her eyes wide and cheekbones almost unnaturally defined. "You have to hold your arms a certain way. You have to hold your head a certain way, or else it's a deduction from points. And I don't want any deductions."
The rapper transforms as she and Hough take to the floor. She lifts her shoulders and throws her head back regally, moving as though her jeans and T-shirt have become a flowing ball gown and long gloves. All hip-hop has disappeared.
Judges loved their cha-cha-cha, which Kim dedicated to "all my girls in the federal detention center," but Hough says their quickstep will be even more impressive.
"I don't think anybody's ever seen her do something like this," he says, "because it's all ..."
"Elegant and refined," says Kim, finishing his sentence. "I get to be very Marilyn Monroe-ish, very Old Hollywood, so I'm looking forward to that part."
Actually, she's been looking forward to the whole "Dancing With the Stars" experience for years. Producers first invited her to appear on the show a couple years ago. "But we all know, a couple years ago, my life was very, very hectic," she says.
Kim was facing a yearlong prison sentence then for lying to a federal grand jury about a 2001 gun battle outside a New York radio station. She served nearly 10 months and was released in June 2006.
"I prayed that the opportunity would come back around. Then they came and asked again this season," she says.
Now the timing couldn't be better. Kim has a new single out ("Download" featuring T-Pain), an album on the way, a clothing company in the works and an autobiography slated for release at year's end. Plus she's got her mom rustling up votes for her in her native New York.
"She's a manager, so at work she tells everybody, 'I'm coming to check your papers and your phones to make sure you voted for my daughter,'" Kim says with a smile.
And mom isn't her only hometown fan. Kim says her crew in Brooklyn is tuning in and casting votes.
"I can't believe how my 'hood is taking it on," she says. "All of these guys are thugs and stuff, and they watched it. Can you believe that? They watched it and they were happy. They were proud."
But as she prepares to learn her next dance and enjoy the popularity that comes with appearing on one of TV's top shows, she's also hounded by old tax liens. Newspaper and blog accounts are appearing about Kim, who was born Kimberly Jones, owing federal and state governments more than $900,000 in taxes.
"Ms. Jones has been paying off her tax debt and will continue to do so," says her publicist, Lisa Perkins.
Meanwhile, Kim wants to perfect her skills and please her partner, who she says is "like my fresh air." She was in the crowd last week when Hough performed with his musical group, the Ballas Hough Band, at a local shopping center, where they have a standing Tuesday-night gig. The rapper even hinted that she may join the group on stage at a future show.
For now, though, she's focused on dancing for an audience of millions.
"I think I had to get over that initial shock," she says. "Now I'm going to get used to my 20-plus million viewers."
Especially since she knows her mom is one of them.