The seventh-season premiere of Dancing with the Stars was still hours away, but as Cheryl Burke got ready in her trailer she could feel her nerves building. A competitive dancer since age 12, she wasn’t worried about remembering her routines or having chemistry with her partner. What she was anxious about was the reaction she’d get when she stepped onstage in her body-hugging costume.
“Around the last week of summer, I started noticing my body was probably going to be an issue,” says Burke, who was the subject of unflattering tabloid headlines after being photographed in a bikini during her vacation. And while she admits “that, yes, there is no doubt I gained weight over the summer,” Burke—who says she doesn’t weigh herself—adds, “but it wasn’t a ridiculous amount of pounds.”
Tell that to the Internet body bullies, who in months past have terrorized everyone from Tyra Banks to Mischa Barton to Jennifer Love Hewitt for appearing in public looking less than Hollywood-perfect. Their latest target is Burke, and in the weeks since Dancing‘s Sept. 22 return, they have hit the message boards to mock her visibly fuller figure, with one blogger claiming the dancer was “approaching hogzilla proportions,” while another wrote that “she even had fat sticking out of her armpits.”
As the buzz grew louder, Burke, 24, checked out what viewers were saying about her—a decision that left her in tears. “It’s hurtful to have people call me fat,” she says in an interview from her Los Angeles home. “Maybe I’m not at my thinnest right now, but it’s a little bit like, ‘Wow, do you really think I’m fat? Would you call me fat, honestly?'”
Dancing‘s executive producer, Conrad Green, is quick to dismiss attacks on his show’s two-time champion, saying, “I haven’t spoken specifically to Cheryl about her weight because I don’t want to dignify a few mean-spirited Internet bullies by making an issue out of nothing.” Burke’s fellow pros have also come to her defense. “I told her, ‘Cheryl, seriously, don’t listen to that. It’s absolutely ridiculous,'” says Dancing‘s Kym Johnson. “In Hollywood, there is a lot of pressure on girls to be super-thin, which is a shame. Her body is incredible!” Adds Dancing judge Carrie Ann Inaba: “Whether Cheryl gained weight or not is not the issue. The issue is that people are being hurtful.”
Burke admits that all the negative chatter has taken a psychological toll. “I have gone home at night and cried about it,” she says. “How can someone write that someone who is not fat is fat? There’s no way I’ll ever be able to ignore it and pretend I’m fine.”
The vicious attacks tap into an insecurity the 5’4″, size-4 Burke has felt since she was 11 years old and her body began to change. “I did ballet before I did ballroom, and all I remember seeing is my friends in class. They were always stick-figure girls, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m starting to grow hips and thighs,'” she recalls. “I switched to ballroom right away.” Even so, she has continued to have body doubts. “At 18, I started getting more curves, and then I started to watch what I ate,” says Burke, who cites carbs, particularly pasta, as her biggest food weakness.
Dancing has always kept her body trim, but this summer, without a Dancing with the Stars tour, Burke traveled to Hawaii and Chile when she wasn’t hitting the L.A. nightclub scene. “I wanted to hang out with my friends and have a normal life,” she says. “I’m young and I want to have fun.”
With the show’s return, Burke is slowly getting back to her prime ballroom form. She eats when she’s hungry, following a low-carb, high-protein diet with lots of tuna, low-fat string cheese and egg whites. When she goes out with the cast on Monday nights after the show, she sticks to a single glass of red wine.
Just don’t expect her ever to starve herself to be a size 0. “Don’t get me wrong—there are times I wish I was skinny so people would just get off my back, you know?” she says. Then Burke shrugs off the idea and flashes the smile that has made her one of Dancing‘s most popular pros. “But I’m just a normal girl. And I love my body. I think it’s beautiful.”