Once a Bachelor casualty, now the belle of DWTS, she talks about her spectacular comeback

Melissa Rycroft is getting used to being hugged.

In the past few weeks, the former Bachelor contestant turned Dancing with the Stars front-runner has been embraced – literally – by everyone from waitresses to fellow shoppers at the mall, to American Idol‘s top dawg, Randy Jackson.

Spotting the judge as she walked from her trailer on the lot where both DWTS and Idol tape, Rycroft couldn’t believe Jackson even knew who she was. “He was like, ‘Heeeeeeey, how are you?’ ” the 26-year-old Dallas beauty says. And, then, of course, it happened: Jackson pulled her into a big bear hug.

“Just three months ago I was on the other side,” Rycroft says in the latest issue of PEOPLE, on sale Friday. “I am so not a celebrity.”

Still Nursing Wounds

But ever since her six-week engagement to Jason Mesnick on The Bachelor ended when he dumped her on national TV for runner-up Molly Malaney, she has become just that. Seven days after the televised kiss-off, Rycroft was on DWTS, where public sympathy – and her natural dancing ability – has made her a fan favorite.

Yet despite her way with the waltz, fame was never part of Rycroft’s plan. Instead? The former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader intended to spend the months after her Bachelor split nursing her wounds. “I go through stages,” Rycroft says of her grieving process. “I will shut down and lock myself in my room. And then I’ll get to the point where I can’t be by myself and I have to be around other people all the time. Otherwise I’ll drive myself nuts crying. I cry it out. Then one day I wake up and go, I’m okay.”

And if Rycroft sounds like an old pro at bouncing back after breakups, it’s because Mesnick wasn’t the first guy to let her get away.

To read more about Rycroft’s new life, her strategy for coping with heartbreak, and all about her new boyfriend, pick up the new PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday