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Jessie Miller wants to be a "Design Star." She almost made it — twice — onto the HGTV competition series but didn't survive the final cut.

But Miller, 30, who lives in St. Louis and graduated from Fort Zumwalt North High School in 2000, gets what could be her big break Friday night on HGTV's "White Room Challenge." That competition, in which four designers per episode are challenged to decorate white-walled, three-sided boxes using various quirky materials, is considered a launching pad for "Design Star," whose winners get a show on the network.

Miller certainly hopes so. Her path to success has been rocky, both before and after she decided to follow her dream of being a designer.

After college (the University of Missouri-Columbia), Miller went to work for a real estate developer in downtown St. Louis.

"The real estate market was booming, and I was designing historic rehabs," she says. "I'd sell units preconstruction and do all the finish work, and I'd design displays. It was so much fun."

The crash of 2008-09 knocked the bottom out of the business.

"It was devastating financially, for me and everyone else," Miller says. After plodding along in a new job she describes as "corporate and boring," she had a talk with herself about what she really wanted.

"I'd always enjoyed working with clients, and I had a passion for design," she says. "I realized, I am good at this."

But going out on her own was a struggle. Thinking she needed a change, and "obsessed with HGTV," she looked on the network's website for job opportunities. Instead, she saw a casting notice for "Design Star."

Encouraged by friends, Miller sold belongings on Craigslist to pay her way to an open casting call in Philadelphia. Even though everything possible went wrong, including the airline losing the bag containing her portfolio, she made it through cut after cut.

"They flew me to New York for the last audition, but I was eliminated in the final round," she says.

The next season, the casting team called her and asked her to try out again.

"I'd been practicing," she says. "I'm an outgoing, pretty confident person, but being on camera is so hard. And watching yourself on camera is horrifying."

Again, she made it to the final round. Again, she was cut.

Back home, business was slow, "and I was flat broke," Miller says. She'd already lost her loft condo, and in the final straw, her car was impounded for unpaid paraking tickets.

This time, when the casting directors called, they wanted her for the one-shot competition "White Room Challenge." Miller said no.

"I didn't want to mess up my chances," she says. "I was holding out for a full season of 'Design Star.'"

The casting people, though, wanted her so much that they'd already scheduled her for an episode, without another audition. "And they told me this would actually help my chances of getting on 'Design Star,' so I said yes."

The episode airing Friday was shot last May and was "the best experience of my whole life," Miller says. She especially enjoyed working with mentor David Bromstad, the first winner of "Design Star."

"It's so hard to get honest feedback on your work," she says. "Your friends just say you're good. I really appreciated getting David's critiques."

Of course, she can't say how she did, but Miller calls the challenge "the absolutely perfect one for me." The five-day shoot included 15 hours of designing, eight on the first day and seven on the second, which took place in real time.

At the end, "I was very emotional," Miller says. "I genuinely needed that money! They were asking us how we'd spend the prize if we won, and I said I needed to get my car out of impound."

Since the experience, Miller has taken a full-time job in St. Louis as a designer and is also working part time on her own. She is also part of the team for KMOV's "Great Day Design Rescue," a series of occasional, sponsored specials with Virginia Kerr.

"I'm so relaxed on camera now," Miller says. "I really feel like an old pro."

"Design Star," here she comes. 


When 7 p.m. Friday • Where HGTV • More info

Gail Pennington is the television critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.