You'd be hard-pressed to find an artist who lives her life more openly than Fantasia Barrino. In the six years since she became the third “ American Idol,” Fantasia -- who, like Bjork or Madonna, needs no last name -- has published a bestselling memoir, starred in a top-rated Lifetime movie about her life, and now has invited cameras into her house for a VH1 docu-series, “Fantasia for Real,” which premieres Monday.
The way she sees it, her life is a "testimony," a way to help others even when it means sharing deeply personal and painful aspects of her life, such as her functional illiteracy or that she was raped at 14. But this time, when the 25-year-old single mother, who won America over with her rendition of on the "Idol" stage, opens her doors to public scrutiny again, Fantasia hopes to help herself most of all.
The last couple of years haven't been kind. There were media reports of missed public appearances, allegedly including 50 Broadway performances of "The Color Purple," which she helped to revive in 2007. Her second album's sales paled in comparison to her debut (though it did garner her three Grammy nominations, bringing her total to eight) and her appearance bookings dwindled.
Along the way, she had two tumors removed from her vocal cords, gained weight and became depressed and often felt like she wanted to give up on her dreams. But something inside her -- possibly the strength she derived from her mother and grandmother and even Miss Celie, her character on “The Color Purple” -- kept her from buckling.
"It was the time in my life that I could have hid under a rock and never come out," she said last month at the Orpheum in downtown Los Angeles, where she performed at BET’s “Celebration of Gospel,” which airs tonight, and earned the longest standing ovation of the night. "I decided, why not let people see me while I try to rebuild? Let me give it to you from my world."
What happened to Fantasia, in many ways, is an all-too-familiar Hollywood story. America crowned her its "Idol" when she was a 19-year-old single mother who grew up in poverty in High Point, N.C., her love of singing encouraged from a young age by her mother, grandmother and her church.
She knew nothing about the business, and it took her for a bumpy ride. In 2006, she said she cut ties with "Idol," dropping its 19 Entertainment management team, because they weren't booking enough jobs for her. Since then she's had two other managers and three lawyers and says her former accountant failed to pay her taxes, which almost resulted in a foreclosure on her $1.3-million home in Charlotte, N.C.
"My problem coming into this game was that I was very naive and very gullible," she said. "I can't continue to smile and believe that people are going to be the way that I am. And I'm not saying they're bad people. But you always have to be hands-on with your own stuff, and, unfortunately, I didn't know that and I didn't do that."
But it wasn't just strangers taking advantage of her "Idol" fame.
"So many people come out of the woodwork that are your cousins or your friends," she said. "People who want and need. And you wonder if people are being your friend because of you or because of who you are. So there's a lot that comes with that. I've lost a lot of people along the way, I must say. All over a dollar."
Slowly, last year, she started to feel "Tasia" was back. She started working out and eating better, she began studying with a tutor to earn her GED, and she was invited to tour nationally with "The Color Purple," which will make its last stop at the Pantages Theater next month. (Proof, she says, that reports of 50 missed performances were greatly exaggerated.) She also began working on her third album, which she feels "will make or break me," and decided to let reality producers World of Wonder (" RuPaul's Drag Race" and "Million Dollar Listing") follow her since August.
In conversation, Fantasia often refers to herself as "bubbly" and an "Energizer bunny." It's true that there is no way to miss her in a room, thanks to her childish voice, her hearty laugh and her generous spirit, but these days she emanates a quiet radiance that suggests a woman much older than 25.
"She's an amazing soul singer, and she lives her life the way she sings," said executive producer Randy Barbato, co-founder of World of Wonder. "It's all from the soul. It's all from the heart. To have that much soul, you have to have that much empathy. And so you connect with things on such a real way that it just knocks you out."
Now she is surrounded by people she trusts. But that doesn't erase "the blessing and the curse" that has come with her success, she said.
The reality series covers a lot of this sensitive ground. It shows Fantasia picking up the pieces of her career while juggling raising her 8-year-old-daughter and financially supporting her family of six.
"Her loyalty to her family is deep, so there is this conflict there of what comes first: my career or my family," Barbato said. "It's the dilemma for most working mothers and single mothers, but you multiply it by a few hundred because of the size of her career, and you mix fame with that and it can be very painful."
In particular, the series follows the ongoing problems between Fantasia and her 28-year-old brother, "Tiny," who does not have a job.
"I feel that it will be a reality check for my family," Fantasia said. "There's a lot of moments they're not with me and they don't see how hard I work and how much of a sacrifice it is for me to be out here on the road. And they need to see that. I hope it will be a reality check for Tiny, because he's spoiled. And I did that. I created that monster."
"Fantasia for Real" also tracks the relationship between the singer and Sony Music, which is releasing her third album. Although it has taken longer than producers hoped, both Sony and Fantasia are optimistic that it will be released in the next few months.
"Working with her is not necessarily the straightest road all of the time, but it should be worth it in the end," Sony General Manager Tom Corson said. "The key here is for her to be focused on getting the best material for her album and making sure she comes out with a couple of massive hits because, at the end of the day, she's a singer. Yes, she's a personality, and yes, she's got a big heart. But her career is about her voice, and if she nails that on this next record, which we expect her to do, I think she can really write her own story moving forward."