FARGO - As an athlete, model and beauty queen, it might seem like Audra Mari has led a perfect life.

Though the Fargo woman has walked runways in New York, and her smile has lit up the cover of a regional magazine, 20-year-old Mari, the current Miss North Dakota, has also been the victim of bullying.

Her house was toilet-papered, her car and house were both egged, and some of the senior girls called her Sasquatch, she said, because of her 5-foot-10-inch height. At sporting events, she said the bullies chanted “Go home, Mari,” and held up signs that supported the team, but on the back facing the student section, told her to go home.

“It really can happen to anyone,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a star on a sports team, a pageant girl or a model. It’s happening to so many girls. … I think that if everyone joins hands and makes an effort to make it stop, that it really could.”

Some of the offenders have since apologized, but the worst ones, Mari said, never did.

“It was a horrible thing that I went through. I hated going to school or sporting events,” she said. “When someone robs you of your high school experience, it’s hard to look at them and think they just made a mistake.”

One of the reasons Mari said she enjoys pageants so much is when she’s competing or preparing for a pageant, she doesn’t focus on what she went through.

Mari was first runner-up at Miss Teen USA 2011, where her interview question involved bullying. Mari said she answered from the heart and her story was later featured in Seventeen Magazine. In the article, she talked about the importance of bringing bullying to the attention of people in authority. She is also an advocate for the STOMP Out Bullying organization.

Mari is now gearing up for the Miss USA competition, which airs June 8 at 7 p.m. Central on NBC. Mari was one of about 20 to 22 state winners the Miss USA pageant decided to feature, and a video crew from Miss USA recently visited her in Fargo.

“Pageantry, especially the USA system, it’s all about being yourself,” she said. “You need to make sure you’re extremely gracious and you’re living in the moment.”

Mari said she isn’t a “pageant girl” and didn’t grow up competing in pageants. The Miss North Dakota USA, Miss North Dakota Teen USA and national Miss Teen USA pageants are the only ones she’s done.

“To be on national television and compete for Miss USA has become one of my biggest dreams,” she said. “The doors that can open for you if you win Miss USA are incredible. It’s one of those stepping stones to helping you achieve what you want to.”

She never really considered pageantry, Mari said, until she was watching a friend compete in Minneapolis and a pageant coach recruited her to compete in Miss North Dakota Teen.

Mari played hockey, soccer and volleyball in high school, but she gave it up after winning the teen pageant to pursue modeling and pageantry.

Mari has modeled off and on since she was 14. She has modeled for Sherri Hill (a fashion designer who specializes in formal evening wear) for the past four years and was featured on the cover of Mpls. St. Paul (Minn.) Magazine’s 40th anniversary issue in 2012.

Mari’s goal was to become a professional model, but she said it was always about measurements and losing weight.

“For my body type to get that skinny, I would have to take drastic measures,” she said. “Another reason pageantry is great is I can be fit and healthy. They don’t take your measurements. It’s about confidence and having a healthy body.”

Mari is majoring in public relations and communications at North Dakota State University and said her goal now is to make the top 15 in the national Miss USA pageant.

“It’s been so rewarding. I’ve gained so much confidence through pageantry,” she said. “People think pageantry is kind of this cliché thing and we’re all pageant girls, but the life skills, and interviews, and confidence, all of those things I’ve really gained from pageantry, and I know they’re going to help me as I move forward in my life.”

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