MELISSA RYCROFT, she was one of 25 women competing for Jason Mesnick's attention on The Bachelor. "I went on the show with an open mind and an open heart—and I think everyone knows how it ended!" the 26-year-old jokes. (In case you missed it, Jason proposed to Melissa on the season finale, then called off the engagement on a follow-up episode just six weeks later to pursue a relationship with the show's runner-up.) But instead of dwelling on that public disappointment, Melissa moved on. She nabbed an impressive third-place finish on Dancing With the Stars (DWTS) , became a Good Morning America special contributor, and reconnected with Tye Strickland, whom she'd dated off and on for two years. Then last December, Melissa and Tye said "I do" in front of nearly 200 friends and family members in an ocean-side wedding on Isla Mujeres, Mexico. "I still can't believe it," she says. "This past year, my life has been a fairy tale!" Melissa sat down with Shape to share what that "crazy" time taught her about falling in love, planning a wedding, and following your heart no matter what.
True love will find you
Melissa and Tye were a couple before The Bachelor, and their breakup was what prompted Melissa to go on the show. "I was completely heartbroken, and I figured it would get me out of Dallas and reintroduce me to life," Melissa says. "Plus, it gave Tye time away from me." Not long after the show's follow-up episode, she and Tye got back together, and they've been inseparable ever since. "We've had a crazy road, which is why our wedding song was Rascal Flatt's 'Bless the Broken Road,'" Melissa says. "But when we look back on it, we know it was all part of God's plan for us. Everything falls into place when the timing is right.
"I heard someone say that when you find your true love, you'll feel at home all the time. Tye is my home: He's my peaceful, comforting place, and I have a feeling of complete happiness whenever I'm around him."
There's no such thing as the perfect wedding
"I wanted my family and Tye's family to be happy witth the wedding, but of course I wanted to be happy too," Melissa says. "So I served a variety of foods and played a mix of music, and I made sure every guest detail from transportation to activities was covered." Her favorite tip for brides-to-be: Just relax and make it your perfect day. "My philosophy was that I was going to eat the food, dance to the music, and spend time with my husband—and not let little things like centerpieces or napkins stress me out. Even if my cake had shown up black and my flowers were all dead, my wedding still would have been perfect to me."
Your inner voice is always right
When it came to her wedding details—everything from having only four close friends in her bridal party to skipping a honeymoon—Melissa knew exactly what she wanted and trusted her instincts. "I went to Alfred Angelo for my gown, and I fell in love with the first dress I saw in their catalog," she says. "They had it shipped, I tried it on, and it was the dress. The store had me scheduled for a three-hour appointment, but I was out in 20 minutes!"
And as for the honeymoon, her gut was right about that too: "Tye was starting his business in January, so going away just didn't feel right," Melissa says. "Everyone said we had to take a honeymoon because of the symbolism, butour symbolism was we were starting over together."
Don't let fear hold you back
When Melissa was offered the opportunity to replace Nancy O'Dell (after the then– Access Hollywood co-anchor injured herself during show rehearsals) on DWTS, there was one catch: She had only two days to learn the routine. "I was terrified d kept thinking, 'Everyone is either going to love this or they're going to hate it,'" she says. "But when I stepped out onstage, the audience went wild. I could just feel my life changing at that point."
She was right: Her stint on DWTS led to Melissa's job as a special contributor on Good Morning America. "I almost asked the producers, 'Are you sure?'" she says. "But they said they wanted me to bring my personality into the show, and I thought, 'Well, I can do that.' It's been an amazing ride, and I can't believe it's still going."
Don't ever compromise who you are
Despite her new career in show business, this former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader has no plans to relocate to Los Angeles or New York City. "Our families, friends, and Tye's job are all here in Texas," she says. "We're going to keep our lives where they are and where they've always been." For the newlywed, that means many days on the road. "I travel several times a month," Melissa says. "Sometimes Tye comes with me, which makes it more fun. But when he can't, we have a rule that we won't be apart for more than four days."
Workouts should be fun
Training for DWTS required eight-hour practices, seven days a week, which left Melissa trim and toned—but exhausted. "I was in the best shape of my life," she says. "At one point I looked at my abs and I could count them! But that's not my natural body, and I knew I couldn't keep working out at that intensity." And after the show, Melissa completely stopped exercising. "I needed to step away from it, because I didn't want to lose the joy of working out. After a month, I started to miss it and I felt ready to start again." She now runs two or three miles four to six days a week, and strength-trains at home. And while looking sculpted is a plus, Melissa says that exercise helps her stay emotionally strong too. "It's a stress reliever, and it's my time to be alone and sort out my thoughts," she says. "After a run, my tension is gone and I always feel better the rest of the day."
Being healthy is a lifestyle
Melissa's not shy about admitting that her break from working out became a diet free-for-all too. "Tye and I would eat out several nights a week and have all kinds of fatty foods," she says. "But when we started exercising again, we knew we had to eat better too—it's crucial for getting results." Instead of dieting, the couple made simple changes, including having most meals at home instead of in restaurants. "Now we eat out only once a week—either on Friday or Saturday—and I cook on most other days," Melissa says. "For the past few years, I've just been taking care of myself, and right now I'm really enjoying having a meal on the table when Tye gets home— we'll see how long that lasts! I make a lot of chicken, but I just learned how to prepare ahi tuna, and it's delicious!"
Melissa has even found a way to eat healthy without omitting fast food. "When I really want something like chicken fingers and french fries, I just have a kids meal," she says. "It's enough to satisfy my craving."
There's more than one definition of sexy
Melissa has discovered the secret to feeling fabulous no matter how she looks or what she's wearing: self-assurance. "Confidence, and how you portray it, is sexy," she says. "I do it by smiling and being happy and bubbly. I'm not Megan Fox sexy, but I'm girl-next-door sexy—and I know Tye finds that very attractive. Everyone needs to find their own meaning of the word—and flaunt it!"