Photo: Timothy White
Three years ago, Fantasia Barrino—then a 19-year-old single mother surviving on food stamps in the projects of High Point, North Carolina—arrived at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta with 50 borrowed dollars and an unlikely dream: becoming the next American Idol. Not that she didn't have the talent. At the age of 5, Fantasia, then the youngest of three children and the only daughter, was already mesmerizing churchgoers with her performances as part of the Barrino Family, a gospel group formed by her father, Joseph; her mother, Diane, wrote their songs. But as the group became more successful, Fantasia's schoolwork suffered. At 14 she dropped out of high school and moved out; at 17 she became pregnant. Unable to get a job, she went on welfare. Her story could have ended there; so many others have. But something in Fantasia refused to accept that this was all her life—and her daughter Zion's life—would be. One night she watched Ruben Studdard win the second season of American Idol, and something ignited inside her. A few weeks later, Fantasia was on her way to an open call for the show. She was among the few chosen from thousands of hopefuls, and as her fellow contestants were voted off week after week, she remained. On the final episode, Fantasia put everything she had left in her heart into a song called "I Believe." That night more than 60 million viewers lit up the phone lines to vote, and Fantasia became the third American Idol.
That was just the beginning. Since then she's released two albums, Free Yourself and Fantasia; written a book, Life Is Not a Fairy Tale; and watched her life story be made into a TV movie. Her most recent victory was taking on the role of Celie in the Broadway musical The Color Purple.
Since I discovered Alice Walker's novel years ago, I've loved this story of the triumph of the spirit in all its forms—as a book (it remains one of my favorites), a movie (I played Sofia), and a Broadway musical (I co-produced it). Yet when I saw Fantasia's transformative performance, I experienced this work in a completely new way. Fantasia—a rape survivor who is every bit as victorious over adversity as Celie—fully embodies the character. By the end, there is not a dry eye in the house as she sings Celie's famous refrain: "I'm beautiful, and I'm here."
Oprah: When did you first realize that you had a voice that could move people?
Fantasia: I've been singing in church since I was little; my grandmother is a pastor. When I was about 9, an elderly woman came up to me, crying, and said, "I want you to know that you touched me." My mother later told me that God had given me a gift, but I had low self-esteem. I seemed so different from other kids; I grew up in church and felt a connection with God, and a lot of kids my age really didn't understand that.
Oprah: We've all heard the story that you once couldn't read very well. Were you having problems in school?
Fantasia: Our family made two gospel albums that were pretty successful, and we were out on the road a lot, so I missed classes. When I realized I was having trouble reading, I was too embarrassed to ask for help. Some teachers believed in me, but I just wasn't focused on school—I was into the music and trying to please my dad.