FARGO — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Audra Mari felt conflicted.
The pageant winner and model had been chasing her dreams in Los Angeles, the hub of the nation’s film and television industries.
As California shut down, along with the rest of the country, so did the talent agencies that represented her. The restaurant where she worked as a server for two days a week also closed.
The sprawling city felt more lonely and disconnected than ever as opportunities dried up.
Mari returned to her native Fargo, even though it meant putting her dreams on hold.
She was anxious at first, but the decision turned out to be a good one.
“Coming back home has been like a real blessing that I didn't think I knew I needed,” she said.
Mari, 27, has been able to see her family more, go back to school and start a new project that is fueling her creative fires.
She’s hosting a new video series called "Backroads with Audra Mari" that debuts on all Forum Communications Company news websites on Wednesday, July 7.
The project is produced by Click Content Studios, which is owned by Forum Communications.
Mari said the series is about unique shops, restaurants, breweries and other places in the region that are off the beaten path.
“Those stops along the way that if you don't know they're there, you just kind of bypass them,” she said.
Less talking, more listening
Mari’s career path actually began in early high school, when the avid hockey, volleyball and soccer player gave up sports to pursue pageants and modeling.
“I don't regret the decision. This was just a new phase, and it led me to where I am now,” she said.
At age 14, she signed with a Minneapolis talent agency, and when she was a junior at Fargo South High School, she took first runner-up in the Miss Teen USA competition.
After graduating from what was then the new Fargo Davies High School in 2012, she claimed more pageant distinctions.
Mari finished first runner-up at the 2014 Miss USA pageant in Baton Rouge, La., and won the 2016 Miss World America contest in National Harbor, Md.
Living in Miami for a while, she mostly divided her time between titleholder appearances and modeling but also had a chance to stretch her wings as a television host.
That opportunity sparked her move to Los Angeles and her passion for the "Backroads" video project.
“I'm used to being interviewed, so it's a lot less talking and a lot more listening, and I love that part of it,” she said.
The video pieces are casual and laid back, sprinkled with conversation with owners, managers and chefs, and at times, a sampling of craft beers or a glass of wine.
“Every place we’ve been … they’re so proud and so honored to be able to share their story,” Mari said.
Balancing work, school and love life
Despite moving back home, Mari has been able to keep her relationship with actor and fellow North Dakotan Josh Duhamel, 48, going strong.
The two, introduced in L.A. by a mutual friend, have been a couple since 2019.
Work travel sometimes keeps them apart, but they try not to go more than two weeks without seeing each other, she said.
Much of their summertime is spent in Minnesota’s lake country, where Duhamel and Mari’s family have cabins.
“It all flows and works because he's so down to earth,” Mari said. “Being involved in crazy Hollywood, it’s a breath of fresh air coming back here. We both agree with that.”
Mari was asked whether the two might get married.
“We’ll see. I’m very grateful that I found somebody like him,” she said.
Mari hopes to be able to move back to Los Angeles later this year, if the pandemic doesn’t flare up again and life continues returning to normal there.
For now, she’s a full-time student, taking online classes at North Dakota State University and hoping to finish a business degree in a year and a half.
Someday, she’d like to have her own business here in North Dakota.
Meeting other business owners through her "Backroads" project is proving to be inspiring and makes her optimistic about the project’s future.
“Hopefully it grows and we can travel all over the Midwest. That’s my goal,” she said.