From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Melissa Rycroft is getting used to being hugged. In the past few weeks, the former Bachelor contestant turned Dancing with the Stars front-runner has been embraced—literally—by everyone from waitresses to fellow shoppers at the mall, to American Idol's top dawg, Randy Jackson. Spotting the judge as she walked from her trailer on the lot where both DWTS and Idol tape, Rycroft couldn't believe Jackson even knew who she was. "He was like, 'Heeeeeeey, how are you?'" the 26-year-old Dallas beauty says. And, then, of course, it happened: Jackson pulled her into a big bear hug. "She doesn't see herself as a star, but she is," says Tony Dovolani, Rycroft's Dancing partner. The woman herself is not convinced. "Just three months ago I was on the other side," she says. "I am so not a celebrity." But ever since her six-week engagement to Jason Mesnick on The Bachelor ended when he dumped her on national TV for runner-up Molly Malaney, she has become just that. Seven days after the televised kiss-off, Rycroft was on DWTS, where public sympathy—and her natural dancing ability—has made her a fan favorite. Yet despite her way with the waltz, fame was never part of Rycroft's plan. Instead? She intended to spend the months after her Bachelor split nursing her wounds. "I go through stages," Rycroft says of her grieving process. "I will shut down and lock myself in my room. And then I'll get to the point where I can't be by myself and I have to be around other people all the time. Otherwise I'll drive myself nuts crying. I cry it out. Then one day I wake up and go, I'm okay." If Rycroft sounds like an old pro at bouncing back after breakups, it's because Mesnick wasn't the first guy to let her get away. When she was 23, a seven-year relationship with her high school sweetheart ended. "How do you get over that?" Rycroft asks. "It was the first—that was heartbreak." Joining the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders in 2006 helped ease the pain. "It gave me something to focus on," she says. But last year Rycroft left the squad and says she hit a quarter-life crisis that put her at an all-time low. "Awful," she says now about those days. "I turned 25 and I went, 'Is this where I saw myself at 25?' I had this unrealistic image in my head that I would be married with 2.5 kids and a six-figure income, a house. I wasn't even close to having anything on my checklist." Rycroft had been dating insurance agent Tye Strickland on-and-off for a year but decided it was time for something new when the relationship fizzled. "We were never at the point in our lives where we could take the relationship 100 percent," she says. So, after being nominated by a pal, Rycroft jumped at the chance to go on The Bachelor. "I hoped it would jump-start my life," she says with a laugh. "Mission accomplished!" After Mesnick publicly rescinded his proposal in January, a shattered Rycroft returned to Dallas but didn't bear a grudge. "I have never been one to dwell on negative things or play the 'woe is me' card," Rycroft says. "It doesn't get you anywhere." The older of two children born to Mary and Bob, a Dallas businessman, Rycroft was considering her next move—pursuing teaching certification—when her old flame Strickland returned. "He was there to pick up my pieces," she says, adding that she resisted his calls for a month before she was ready to risk her heart again. "I needed him to show me why things would be different this time, and he did. He's my best friend." As for that Bachelor guy? These days he barely merits a mention. "That was a bit ago," says Rycroft simply. "I've bounced back." And how. Just as she got ready to settle down and start over, a phone call turned her life upside down. Access Hollywood host Nancy O'Dell, cast on this season of Dancing with the Stars, was pulling out due to injury, and the spot was Rycroft's—if she left immediately. A diehard Yankees fan who is more tomboy than a "girlie-girl," Rycroft wasn't sure the glitz and glamour of DWTS was her style. And having so recently seen one relationship vanish, she was concerned about how joining the show would affect her latest love story. "Tye said, 'Don't worry about me. I'm going to be there regardless, whether it's physically or emotionally,'" Rycroft says, noting that she had less than three hours to pack and say goodbye to her beloved chihuahua Riley. Since then, Strickland, as well as both of her parents, have cheered her on from the front row of DWTS. They're not the only ones applauding. Rycroft is more than just holding her own; she now appears to have a good shot at winning the coveted mirror ball trophy. Of course this second spin through the reality wringer has had its drawbacks. Critics—including some of the pros on the show—claim Rycroft's cheerleading and ballet background give her an edge over other contestants. But judge Bruno Tonioli isn't convinced. "Ballet technique is a great tool for any dancer, but ballroom and Latin techniques are different," observes Tonioli. "As for advantages, the same could be said for an actor's ability to inhabit a character, an athlete's competitive edge or a singer's musicality. The skill is using what you have to win." Now what Rycroft has—unmistakable star quality—has paparazzi following her around town, fans lining up after each show to get pictures and autographs and Hollywood talent and literary agents already thinking Rycroft is the next big thing. "From the moment that it got out that she was on this show, I've been flooded with calls," says Deena Katz, DWTS's senior talent producer. "She still thinks she's going back to Dallas and being a teacher and having her life there. Hollywood has a whole different idea for her." But Rycroft knows where her heart is. These days the homesick star is racking up her share of cell phone and texting charges to keep in touch with Strickland and her folks back home. "I'm probably not going to make it as an actress, and I don't really want to," Rycroft says, confessing that all she truly desires is "a husband and kids. I would definitely put that before a career." Her partner Dovolani thinks it's in the cards. "Tye's a great home-grown boy," says Dovolani. "He loves her endlessly. They have the utmost respect for each other." It's not where she thought she'd be by 26, but Rycroft isn't about to complain. "I have no regrets, looking at where my life is now," she says. "It's completely turned around." "I look at my life right now and I don't have a single complaint" —MELISSA RYCROFT REAL-LIFE MELISSAS TELL THEIR STORIES Three women who also suffered humiliating public breakups—and bounced back better than ever Raquell Neill, 33 Denver Lost her Fiancé—and 55 lbs.! The worst part of having her fiancé break up with her? It's hard for Raquell Neill to pick just one. There was the dumping itself, two weeks before the wedding, when Neill was in bed with a 103° fever. Her intended, Matt Repplinger, was supposed to go out for medicine. Instead he met up with friends and announced on his return, "'I'm not ready to get married,'" recalls Neill. Then, on what should have been the big day, she and three friends went to the church to catch any guests who hadn't gotten word. "It was so embarrassing," says Neill, a travel consultant. "I was heartbroken." (Matt's side: "I loved Raquell, but I wasn't happy.") Neill began working out, eating better and "hanging out with girlfriends, white-water rafting and playing volleyball." She eventually lost 55 lbs. Okay, maybe this was the worst part: When she saw Matt to return the ring, "He said, 'If you looked this way when we were together, we would probably still be together.'" Remarkably Neill, who's got a new guy, says she doesn't hold a grudge: "I've put the past behind me." REAL-LIFE MELISSAS Barbara Steward, 30 Columbus, Ohio Jilted on Facebook, rebounds on MySpace There are some 200 groups on Facebook dedicated to people who were dumped on Facebook. Playwright Barbara Steward did not expect to join one on (ouch!) her 30th birthday last May. But when her boyfriend of two years failed to call that day (he had already begged off the party) she logged onto the social networking site to find his status as "single" where it previously listed him as in a relationship with her. Worse, friends read it before she did. "My relationship ended at 2 a.m. and I had no idea," recalls Steward, who says the pair had problems. A few months later, she met musician Philip Nixon Jr. on, of all places, MySpace.com; they got engaged in December. Today, she says, "life is great." REAL-LIFE MELISSAS Kimberley Kennedy, 47 Atlanta Stood-up bride gets even with a book Kimberley Kennedy, then a local TV anchorwoman, had dealt with bad news before, but never quite like this. "I just can't do it," her fiancé informed her at the rehearsal the day before their wedding. Soon the news spread to their 400 guests, and within days the Atlanta celebrity found herself fodder for gossip columnists and morning deejays. "Every time I went to the grocery store, people would give me sad looks," says Kennedy. The upside, if any, was this: Back at work hundreds of cards awaited her from people with "their own stories of rejection." Emboldened, she later put her ordeal on paper; her book Left at the Altar was published in March. In it Kennedy, who is single, gives hope to other women like her. "I want to tell them, 'Look at me. I'm fine.'" "I am just me. I was during all the Bachelor stuff, and I am now. Maybe that's appealing to people because they can relate to someone being real and honest," says Rycroft (in Beverly Hills on March 28). "You have to think life is always just going to get better," says Rycroft. After the split, Neill (left, today, and trying on a gown in 2008) decided, "This is about me now." FROM TEARS TO TRIUMPH "We're like brother and sister," Rycroft says of DWTS partner Tony Dovolani (right). Below, Rycroft's earlier stint as a performer was as a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. "I thought, 'What am I supposed to do?'" Rycroft (during her televised split with Mesnick) says. Rycroft steps out with Strickland on March 21 in L.A. Steward and her new love, Nixon, plan to wed next year. "The smell of flowers makes me melancholy," says Kennedy (with her never-worn dress, in a church she now attends).