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Dandridge was born in Okinawa, then moved to Beale Air Force Base in Sacramento, California, then to the Strategic Air Command Base in Bellevue, Nebraska, where she spent the majority of her childhood. She attended Papillion La Vista High School and participated in the play production class and theater department there.
She then attended Roosevelt University (currently called the Chicago College of Performing Arts) with a scholarship that she earned at the International Thespian Festival. While there, her love of acting developed.
According to Valve's Bill Van Buren, Merle was chosen among the last five over more than one hundred actors auditioning for the part. The team wanted "someone with a beautiful voice, who could be charming, very feminine, and warmly intimate, but could then go into intense circumstances and be a strong, confident, and believable action character."