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Editor's note » This is the third in a series of occasional excerpts from "Mia Love: The Rise, Stumble and Resurgence of the Next GOP Star" by Tribune reporters Matt Canham, Robert Gehrke and Thomas Burr.

When Norwalk High choir teacher Marsha Hall heard Mia Love's velvety soprano, she encouraged her to audition. In her sophomore year, Mia landed two roles in the Connecticut school's musical production of "Barnum."

She got the biggest laughs playing the oldest woman alive in the circus freak show. It required a team of students to help the rail-thin teen into a fat suit and cake on thick makeup. Later in the show, she played a blues singer who belted out her songs.

It was on this stage, before a crowd that included her proud parents, that Mia saw her future. She wanted to be an actress and a singer and a dancer. She craved the spotlight and the gaze of a rapt audience. And living just 40 miles north of Broadway, she knew just the place where she could turn this lofty goal into reality.

When it was time to apply for college, she submitted papers to three with strong music-theater programs. The University of Hartford's Hartt School offered her a half-tuition scholarship for the fall of 1993. She covered the rest with federally backed student loans.

Mia, elected to Congress in 2014, was an apolitical college student. She didn't vote or consider herself a member of any political party. She didn't follow the news.

"You don't think about those things in college, and when they come up, you're always, like, up for the cause," she said. "If someone says, 'Do you want to help care for the poor?' you're like, 'Absolutely, you know, sign me up.'"

She said learning to act developed her sense of empathy for others, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs.

"I have always been a people person. I have always been a bleeding heart also," she said.

And yet some of her classmates, people who considered her a friend in their college days, are dismayed by her conservative turn.

One contemporary, who holds a job requiring political neutrality, called her a phony and a hypocrite in 2012, referencing her stance against federal student aid, which would be a point of contention in her campaigns. "If people like her were in office, there wouldn't be a Hartt School and she wouldn't be able to get a degree in musical theater."

Another couldn't square how Mia could become Mormon, a faith that takes a rigid stance against gay marriage.

"It would be hard for me to believe that she was unaccepting of that community because she worked with them for four years incredibly closely," said a fellow Hartt alum.

Mia says these college friends are misconstruing her views.

"I see people for the relationships that I have with them and how we can benefit each other and how we can help each other grow. There's no way I would ever discriminate in any way," she said. "It's no different than what I believed in in college, in high school or even growing up."

College years • During the summer of her senior year, she earned the role of Brenda in a traveling production of "Smokey Joe's Cafe," an opportunity that allowed her to spend weeks at a time performing the musical revue. She sang three sultry songs, including "I'm a Woman."

Classmate Rachel Mansfield, now a theater teacher in Connecticut, considered Mia talented, particularly in dance.

"My overall impression of Mia was that she was a very driven person. That whatever she wanted to do she was going to pursue full throttle. She was very intense with the way she approached her work in the theater, almost in a way that was a little bit off-putting to the rest of us."

Love and Mansfield played rivals in their senior-year production of "42nd Street." Love portrayed the fresh-faced Peggy Sawyer, who comes to New York City and finds herself thrust into the Broadway spotlight. Mansfield played the role of the aging actress Dorothy Brock, who is trying to protect her turf.

It is a tap-heavy production that played to Mia's strengths. Near the beginning of the show, she performed a duet with Kevin Duda, who went on to have a career on Broadway, including a run with the original cast of "The Book of Mormon."

Duda, who is a few years younger than Mia, called her a leader in the department.

"Whether it was musical theater or not, you knew she was going to succeed at something because she had such a strong will," he said.

The theater dominated Mia's life at the time, but in her college years, she became increasingly close to her older sister, Cyndi, who had just emerged from a soul-searching phase. Never feeling truly connected to the Catholic faith, Cyndi was looking for an alternative.

A couple of years earlier, she had driven a friend home from their jobs at a daycare when she spotted a pair of Mormon missionaries. Cyndi had seen similar pairs of young men in white shirts and black ties riding around on bicycles and thought they may be part of some Jewish sect. That day, her curiosity got the best of her. She pulled up to the young men and asked: "I'm just curious, what are you guys?"

She'd never heard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and she decided to check it out. It did not go well. People she asked said Mormons had multiple wives (no longer true) or were a cult waiting for a ship to take them to heaven (never has been true).

"When I started doing research, nothing I found was good," Cyndi said.

Still, she remained intrigued. When she went to her first Mormon service, it was held in the basement of another church because the Mormon contingent in New Britain, Conn., included only about 70 people, enough for a branch.

Though skeptical and not certain whether it was for her, Cyndi kept going to the three-hour services in the church basement, and then she started reading the Book of Mormon with a family that befriended her. Eight months later, she finished the book and was baptized.

While her Catholic family knew that Cyndi was spending a lot of time at the Mormon church, she kept her conversion a secret.

"That is the one thing they told me," she said. "'Don't get baptized, you are already baptized.' You know, I love my parents and I didn't want to disobey them."

Maxime and Marie Bourdeau knew nothing about the Utah-based faith and were suspicious. Their solution was to encourage Mia to follow her sister in as their spy.

Mormon mysteries • In the middle of her senior year, Mia tagged along with Cyndi to church. It was a testimony meeting, where Mormons, often emotionally, express their belief in their faith. Afterward, Cyndi let Mia know that she had received a calling to work in the church's nursery.

"What do you mean? What is that?" Mia asked.

"I got a calling. I'm going to go into the nursery," her sister said.

"Who does that? Who gives you a calling?"

"Ultimately, Heavenly Father gives you a calling."

Mia thought about that for a second and then asked what role the branch leaders played. Cyndi said: "They're going to go into a room and I'm going to get set apart."

Sensing her little sister wasn't getting it, Cyndi called over the branch president, who explained that he'd place his hands on Cyndi's head and say a prayer before giving her a church assignment.

The minute Cyndi walked away with the church leader, Mia rushed to a phone and called her mother in a panic.

"You've got to get her out of here. There's weird things going on, Mom."

"What's happening?"

"First of all, there's people who are crying. They're saying that spirits are touching them all over. I don't know. I can't see them. They're crying and touching them everywhere and making them cry," Mia said. "And Mom, right now she's in a room with guys and they're taking her apart and she was fine with it. She went into a room and they are taking her apart!"

Marie instructed her daughter to burst into that room and make sure her sister was OK. Mia dutifully did so, only to find the branch president saying a prayer and her older sister shooting her a confused look.

This was Mia's first experience in a Mormon church. It would not be her last, as she became disillusioned with the college party scene and decided to give it a try.

Conversions • She didn't leave her caution at the church door, having heard about polygamy. But it seemed that every man at Sunday services had only one wife, and she noticed they appeared more involved with their families than she was used to seeing.

She also liked that so many of the congregants were around her own age. It provided a built-in group of friends and a pool of boys to date. She made friends quickly and watched as they got married in their early 20s, as Mormons often do.

"You see these young people and you start seeing your life as not being so far away," she said. "You can relate a little bit more."

Shortly after she graduated from college in 1997, Mia decided she was ready to take a dip in the baptismal font and become a Mormon.

At the same time, she was trying to determine the next step in her professional life. She still wanted to become a Broadway star, but decided she couldn't stomach the standard route of waitressing in New York City, scrimping as she went from audition to audition. She came up with a plan: she'd become a flight attendant. It was a job that would let her travel easily from Hollywood to New York, and it would give her a sound financial footing as she transitioned into the performing arts.

Her religious and professional conversions coincided. She was baptized on a Sunday and the next day headed to Houston for six weeks of flight attendant training for Continental Airlines.

Mormon missionary Travis Hecker conducted her pre-baptism interview, and Mia mentioned her impending job training. His family happened to live in Spring, Texas, not too far from Houston. As Hecker tells it: "A short meeting ended up creating a lifelong bond."

The baptism itself didn't feel momentous. Making the decision to convert was the pivotal step, and it rattled her parents, particularly her mother.

"You, my most reasonable, how did they get to you?" Marie lamented.

Joining a faith, one that her parents didn't understand or trust, and then immediately flying to a strange city left Mia feeling unmoored and alone.

Then she got a call from Hecker's girlfriend. The two talked for four hours. That Sunday, his parents, Jack and Nancy Hecker, made the 15-mile drive to Mia's apartment and picked her up for church. They invited her to their home for dinner afterward, and it wasn't long before she felt like a member of the Hecker family.

"They became my LDS mom and dad in Houston, and to this day I am very close to them," Mia said.

When her flight attendant training came to an end, Mia said goodbye to her surrogate family and flew back to Connecticut. She went to a few auditions, but nothing came of them. Before long she gave into her curiosity about Utah, a state with, as she put it, a "temple on every corner." Mia had never been to a Mormon temple, where sacred rituals and marriages are performed. She was used to the ward houses where standard Sunday services are held.

When a friend from her singles ward said she was going to move there, Mia thought, "Why not give it a try for a few months?" It helped that her employer didn't care where she was based.

So in August 1998 Mia and her friend moved into a studio apartment in West Jordan, Utah.

Next • In the book's fourth excerpt, Mia Love discovers love and politics in the Beehive State. —

Tribune's book on Mia Love

O A news article is often called the first draft of history. The Salt Lake Tribune is providing a second draft of Mia Love's story, a deeper look at events that brought her to the halls of Congress. To buy "Mia Love: The Rise, Stumble and Resurgence of the Next GOP Star" as an ebook or paperback, visit