February 07, 2011 12:00 PM

Whether tangoing with Gilles Marini or doing the cha-cha with Chad Ochocinco, Cheryl Burke holds nothing back. But some nights, after the show has wrapped, the Dancing with the Stars pro-a two-time winner of the show’s mirror-ball trophy-finds herself driving home alone, haunted by thoughts of the one person she hopes was not among the 26 million viewers who watch her dance her heart out: the man who molested her two decades ago. “It creeps me out,” says the soft-spoken 26-year-old, who as a kindergartner testified against her abuser before he was sent to prison. He is now free, and Burke can’t shake the fear she might see him again. “My worst nightmare is to run into him,” she says. “Not until he dies will I be able to not worry.”

Since finding fame on the hit ABC dance competition, the intensely shy Burke has confronted a host of demons that for years hobbled her personal growth. Now, with 10 seasons of DWTS under her belt, a growing business empire (which includes a clothing line and two dance studios) and a memoir, Dancing Lessons, about to hit bookstores (see box), Burke is finally opening up. In addition to surviving sexual abuse, she reveals that she also suffered physical abuse by two high school boyfriends and has struggled with body image. But, she insists, “all the trauma didn’t stop me from realizing my dreams. There’s no shame.” Adds her mom, Sherri, 56: “Anyone who didn’t have a strong foundation would have gone the other way. She’s definitely a survivor.”

Growing up in the affluent Bay Area town of Atherton, Calif., Burke’s earliest challenge came as a toddler when Sherri, a nurse turned entrepreneur from the Philippines, split from her father, Stephen, a New York City-bred lawyer. “I felt so abandoned,” Burke says while sitting in a diner in San Francisco.

Early on, her mother worried she was deaf “because I never talked,” says Burke. A doctor concluded she was confused by the various languages in her house (her main caregiver, a beloved Filipino nanny whom she called Ima, spoke Tagalog). She eventually found her voice, and, after Sherri remarried in 1993, she forged a close bond with her stepfather Bob Wolf, 63 (whom she calls Dad), and older stepsister Mandy (half-sister Nicole was born when Burke was 9). But she continued to struggle socially. “I was lonely. I couldn’t really connect to anybody,” says Burke, who began ballet lessons at 4. “I was called monkey because I had big lips, big ears, darker skin.”

At the same time, Burke was secretly falling prey to a torment far more horrific than schoolyard taunts. Starting at around age 5, she was repeatedly molested by a friend of the family, a retired mailman who would sometimes pick her up from school and do odd jobs around the house. “It was lots of touching,” says Burke. “He would pull my pants down in his van or he would touch me in the living room while Ima was in the kitchen cooking.”

After the man was accused of assaulting other children, Burke acknowledged her own abuse (“I was in shock,” says her mother) and testified against him in court when she was 6. “That was the scariest moment of my life,” she recalls with a shudder. He was sent to prison, and she was left struggling with guilt and confusion. “I felt disgusted with myself for the longest time,” says Burke, who still recoils when she sees mailmen or vans in a color similar to that of her molester’s. “I knew what he did was wrong, but I wanted this older man’s affection.”

Coping with the help of therapy and competitive ballroom dance, which she discovered in high school, Burke slowly began to emerge from her shell. But after losing her virginity at 14, she went through a string of unhealthy relationships-including a boyfriend who once beat her with a belt (“I had huge welts”) and another who once forced her to have sex with him. Why did she stay? “I needed to be loved. The last thing I wanted to feel was abandoned,” she says. “Every time I’d say, ‘Okay, enough,’ I would feel so alone. I had no control.”

Talking about the abuse with friends-and finally finding a therapist with whom she really connected-helped Burke start to heal. “I owe it to myself,” she says of her weekly therapy sessions. “It’s a lifelong process.”

Joining DWTS’ second season in 2006, she quickly became a fan favorite, winning that season’s trophy with partner Drew Lachey. But she wasn’t comfortable being thrust into the spotlight at first. “There’s a vulnerability and a shyness to her. It takes her a while to warm up to people,” says Lachey. But with time, Burke has adjusted. “Now she’s much more outgoing,” Lachey adds. “It’s a night and day difference.”

The single Burke, who has a three-bedroom home in the Hollywood Hills, has also resolved to avoid the “unavailable men” she’s perpetually drawn to, like season 10 partner Chad Ochocinco. “It was so unhealthy,” she says of their flirtation last spring. “I knew he was seeing other women.” She remains optimistic about finding the One, but first, she’ll return to Dancing in March for season 12. While she has weathered several DWTS controversies-including criticism over her body (see box)-the show has been “a gift,” says Burke. “It’s made it possible to tell my story. All the hard things? You can move on from them. It’s your choice.”

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