'Tall Girl' 's Ava Michelle on Online Bullies, 'Dance Moms' and her New Movie: 'I've Overcome' So Much

The dancer-turned-actress opens up about her journey from reality TV to Netflix and her new movie Tall Girl 2

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Photo: www.shannonwrightphoto.com

Ava Michelle has come a long way from her small town roots to Netflix movie stardom.

The Tall Girl star, 19, was born in the town of Linden, Michigan, comprised of "mostly lakes and farms," she says, and grew up dreaming of being a professional dancer.

"I had a very normal, small town upbringing," Michelle tells PEOPLE in the latest issue. "My mom owned a dance studio that was like my second home. I danced, went to school, danced some more. It wasn't until I was like 10 that I started pursuing it seriously. And then that's when Dance Moms happened."

Michelle appeared on seasons four through six of the reality competition show, during which she experienced intense bullying online and was exposed to the sport's size bias (Michelle is 6'1" 1/2 and was 5'10" at age 13).

"Dance was my life. That's what I lived and breathed and did every day," she she says. "The social media bullying hit me hard. The things that people can say when they're behind a computer is just, it's insane. And being an 11-year-old and having people saying that I was anorexic and that my mom wasn't feeding me, it's really hard to understand the fact that they're not true."

After leaving Dance Moms, she tried auditioning for dance roles in Los Angeles, but was almost always cut because of her height.

"It's definitely a short-dominated industry," she says. "People think that ballerinas are taller, but they're really not. I started resenting dance a little bit in that way [because of the bias] and I didn't want that, because it really was my first love."

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On a whim, Michelle started taking acting classes and loved them, right around the same time Netflix was starting to cast Tall Girl, a heartfelt film about a high school teen struggling to fit in because of her height.

"Acting classes were one of the best self discovery journeys I've ever done," says Michelle. "In dance I was such a perfectionist. I was so hard on myself, and everything had to be perfect. And I think with acting I can really just let that go."

She calls the storylines for her character Jodi in Tall Girl and its sequel Tall Girl 2, "literally my life. I feel like Jodi and I are on the same emotional journey," says Michelle. Filming the new movie, costarring Sabrina Carpenter and Griffin Gluck, was "awesome" because she got to combine all of her talents for one project.

For much more on Ava Michelle, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday

"I was acting, dancing and singing," she says. "I would be on set and then go to dance rehearsals. It was the best."

Michelle says she's proud of how far she's come in a few short years.

"It took a lot of self-reflection and knowing who I am, that I am taking care of my body, and never ever reading the comments," she says. "I am really proud of myself because I've overcome so many obstacles. I was always told, 'dream big,' and what's happened is bigger than what I thought was big. And to me that is still the most mind-blowing thing ever."

She's also proud that her work is reaching audiences of all ages.

"I was in New York waiting for a light to change and a man my mom's age got out of his parked truck and ran up to me yelling 'Tall Girl! Tall Girl! I watched [your movie] with my girlfriend and we love it!'" she recalls. "And it was just so sweet. I love when parents come up to me and [compliment] the film. That's always cool to hear."

Tall Girl 2 is streaming on Netflix Feb. 11.

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