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Living a dream

Editor&39;s note: This story ran on Friday, April 11. For pageant results visit www.missusa.com.

Sitting in a small restaurant in her hometown of Saluda, Andrea Duke smiled and chatted with other people sitting at the counter drinking coffee.

At first glance, it was nothing out of the usual. It was friends chatting, catching up.

But for Duke, it was only two weeks away from when she&squo;d be standing on a stage in Las Vegas, fingers crossed, as they announce each state represented in the Miss USA pageant, which airs tonight at 9 p.m. on NBC.

When the announcer comes to North Carolina, he&squo;ll announce Duke&squo;s name. She&squo;ll stride across the stage as audience members, including Donald Trump, applaud.

&dquo;As a little girl, this has always been my dream,&dquo; Duke said. &dquo;(And then) I got older and understood what all the pageants are really about. You&squo;re given the opportunity to speak out about what you&squo;re passionate about.&dquo;

For Duke, that&squo;s going out and being an advocate for improving self esteem and self image, with a focus on eating disorders.

The 26-year-old Wofford College graduate was at one point bulemic and anorexic, and she doesn&squo;t shy away from talking about that fact.

Instead, she&squo;s sharing and using her story to inspire other women going through the same diseases. Duke overcame her eating disorders and went on to win Miss North Carolina USA.

&dquo;That, in itself, was a huge reason for me to compete in this pageant,&dquo; she said.

Duke realized that something had to change and that she had to beat the diseases when it got to the point that she had a hard time climbing stairs.

At East Henderson High School, Duke was a volleyball star and she went on to play at Wofford College, so the idea of having trouble climbing stairs didn&squo;t sit well.

&bsp;&dquo;I had to come to a point in myself when I knew I wanted to get past it,&dquo; she said. &dquo;I overcame it and I owe all that to God.&dquo;

She fought off the disorders, graduated from Wofford College and then got a graduate degree in business management from the University of Florida.

Her undergraduate degree was in French, with a minor in philosophy. She spent some time in France, enjoying local culture, while she was a student at Wofford.

&bsp;Since October, when she won Miss North Carolina USA, her life has been a whirlwind, she said.

The pageant was perfect timing for her. She won in October and graduated from Florida in December of last year.

Since winning, Duke participated in the National Eating Disorder week. She&squo;s toured the children&squo;s hospitals at Duke University and the University of North Carolina. She&squo;s toured a veteran&squo;s hospital. She has also participated in events with Special Olympics and organizations dealing with breast and ovarian cancer.

&dquo;(Life has been) crazy,&dquo; she said. &dquo;It&squo;s been a whirlwind, but it has been incredible.&dquo;

Duke has been in Las Vegas,&bsp; a place she&squo;d never been before, for nearly two weeks now.

Tonight at 9 p.m., she&squo;ll live out her dream in front of thousands in attendance and millions viewing from home.

If she wins, she&squo;ll compete in the Miss Universe pageant.

Saluda residents are pulling for her, Mayor Rodney Gibson said.

&dquo;I hear people talking about it on the streets,&dquo; Gibson said. &dquo;We&squo;re all very hopeful for her.&dquo;

Duke, however, is just enjoying the experience. The big stage, the interesting people she meets along the way, the help she hopes to provide people with eating disorders and the steps she&squo;ll take across the stage tonight are all parts of her dream.

&dquo;It&squo;s been an amazing journey,&dquo; she said. &dquo;I&squo;m
living a dream right now.&dquo;