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Brandi Burkhardt

Age: "My birthday is June 26."

Hometown: Pasadena, Maryland

Currently: Making her Broadway debut as beautiful Dickensian muse and the object of many men's affection Lucie Manette in new musical A Tale of Two Cities.

A Reluctant Star Is Born: Though she's been a beauty queen, a soap opera siren and now a leading lady on stage, the naturally shy Burkhardt was never in a hurry to put herself front and center. She made her theatrical debut at 14 in a community production of The Matchmaker, and even that took some prodding. "I went to the theater with my stepfather, who was the technical director, but I was too nervous to audition," she recalls. "My parents knew I really wanted to and practically pushed me onstage." Already a skilled pianist and budding singer, Burkhardt landed a non-speaking role "in the back," an experience that gave her the confidence to audition voluntarily and land the leading role in the company's next show. "From there, [performing] became my life, so thank goodness for pushy parents!"

There She Is: Around the same time, Burkhardt decided to use her piano talent in local beauty pageants: "It was something I had always wanted to do but hadn't because I was just so shy." Interestingly, the pageant experience pushed her to develop another area of performance. "The singers were always beating me," she says with a laugh, "so I said, 'No way! I'm going to start singing!'" The tactic worked, and Burkhardt was crowned Miss Maryland Teen USA. After high school, she studied opera at the University of Maryland, eventually transferring to N.Y.U.'s Tisch School of the Arts for acting. But pageant life came calling once more. "When I moved to New York I thought, 'I'm not doing any more pageants; I'm a serious actor now.' But my mom said, 'I'm paying for N.Y.U., and you have to do Miss America because you need to help out!'" Again, thank the pushy parents: Burkhardt won Miss Manhattan and Miss New York, going on to compete for the 1999 Miss America title. Though she didn't win the crown, the competition opened some fortuitous doors.

Take Me As I Am: While competing, Burkhardt met former Miss America and now Legally Blonde star Kate Shindle, eventually becoming her roommate. When Shindle was tapped for the recording of Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde: Resurrection, she encouraged Burkhardt to audition for the composer, who was looking for an Emma. "We were kind of taken with each other immediately," she says of Wildhorn. "But there's always that 'We're working together' thing. You keep your distance for a while." The distance didn't last forever: The pair are now engaged and living together, trying to find a break in their very busy schedules for a wedding. "I think we have similar souls, honestly," she says of the relationship. "We just get each other," As for their 20-year age difference, she declares, "It's not something I'm defensive about in any way. Once you've found something that satisfies you, why defend it?"

Wet and Wild: Shortly after graduating from N.Y.U., Burkhardt got a call to screen-test for the campy L.A.-based soap opera Passions. The test went very well, and the young actress landed the role of Siren, a singing mermaid. Yes, you read that right. "The first day they gave me 10 scripts. It really hit me how much I was going to have to memorize and spit out each day." The show, which Burkhardt emphasizes intentionally poked fun at soaps, gave her the chance to flex her new acting chops—and fins—for millions of viewers. "They literally put me in a tail and stuck me in a pool," she says with a laugh. "In [the film] Splash, there were moments where [mer-star Daryl Hannah] would turn back into a mermaid because she got wet. But I could get into a shower and make out with someone and not transform. Strange!" After 76 episodes, Burkhardt's character "ran its course," and the actress headed by to New York, hungry to get back to the stage.

I Love Lucie: After an L.A. production of Li'l Abner and a few readings in New York, Burkhardt found herself talking A Tale of Two Cities with show star and old friend James Barbour. The leading man suggested she try for the lead role of Lucie Manette, calling the show's casting director to squeeze her in for an audition. Again, the result was a whirlwind success: Burkhardt joined the cast, many of whom had worked on the project for years, on July 7, 2008, playing her first Broadway performance just six weeks later. "I was so intimidated my first day, but our director [Warren Carlyle] gave me the biggest hug and told me how excited he was that I'd be coming on this journey with them. We're like a family." The romantic role, poised at the center of one of literature's most memorable love triangles, is a dream come true for Burkhardt. "I couldn't have dreamt it better! To finally be on Broadway as a leading lady and creating a role? I don't think it gets any better than that. I'm just so thankful. Onward and upward!"

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