Singer Fantasia Barrino was catapulted to fame by the television vocal competition American Idol when she emerged the winner in 2004. A powerful singer whose voice had the church-rooted overtones of Aretha Franklin, Barrino's life also echoed the classic American story of pulling oneself out of poverty. Barrino experienced some rough patches in her career after her American Idol win, but by 2007 she was on her way to making the transition from overnight sensation to recognized show business personality.
Named for a pattern in the Princess House crystal line, Fantasia Barrino was born in High Point, North Carolina, on June 30, 1984. Both her parents were involved with singing; her father, Joseph, was a truck driver who moonlighted singing in gospel quartets, and her mother, Diane, was co-pastor at High Point's nondenominational and emotionally uninhibited Mercy Outreach Church of Deliverance. Joseph Barrino recruited Tasia, as she was known, along with several other family members to form the Barrino Family gospel group. Before losing their band of backing musicians, they had some success, touring as far as Alabama and Florida. As a result of her years of singing for audiences as a child, Barrino was rarely nervous while performing, even before a nationwide television audience.
Barrino sang in the choir at High Point's Welborn Middle School and made the all-county chorus, but as a high school student she began to show a rebellious streak. "I thought I was grown," she told Kevin Chappell of Ebony. "I didn't wait on anything. I tried to move too fast. I was going to clubs when I was 14. I hung out with older women." She dropped out of Andrews High School as a ninth-grader. Soon she was pregnant with her daughter, Zion, and was living in an abusive relationship. Living in a rundown apartment, Barrino was caught in a downward spiral. While caring for her newborn daughter, she was frequently reduced to eating Oodles of Noodles or instant grits at mealtimes. "My family started giving up on me," she told Chappell. "They began to think that I wasn't going to do anything with my life. There was a point when I began to think that I wasn't going to do anything."
One realization that helped turn Barrino's life around was that she did not want Zion, who was born in 2001, to model herself after the relationship Barrino was in. "It made me realize I had to respect myself," Barrino told Cruz. "If I let it go on, Zion would've grown up [letting herself be disrespected]." Barrino made ends meet by working in a daycare center run by a grandmother and by taking singing jobs at weddings or funerals. Her religious faith remained strong throughout this period. "Even when I was out on the street, I still gave God honor," Barrino told Chappell. "I still thanked Him. There's a saying that when praises go up, blessings come down."
Friends and family persuaded Barrino to try out for the popular American Idol program at one of its mass auditions in Atlanta, Georgia, but her career almost ended before it began when a fight broke out near her in the line of aspirants and guards shut down admission to the building. A guard who had heard Barrino singing, however, talked a staffer into letting Barrino audition, and she impressed the show's usually caustic British-born judge, Simon Cowell, in the early rounds. As she advanced through multiple American Idol rounds, Barrino looked for ways to set herself apart from the crowd. She had always enjoyed gospel and rock music, but she turned to a song she had never sung before or even heard until shortly before her appearance: George Gershwin's "Summertime," from the 1937 opera Porgy and Bess.
Parts of Barrino's story began to leak out to the press, and while some viewers felt that her penniless, out-of-wedlock pregnancy made her a bad role model, her story resonated with many others. Barrino advanced to the final round against Georgia-born vocalist Diana DeGarmo, and on May 26, 2004, she edged DeGarmo among the record 65 million votes cast by American Idol viewers. Unknown just a few weeks before, Barrino plunged into a whirlwind of fame; her engagements included an appearance at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., in December of 2004, with President George W. Bush in the audience, and a spot as host of television's Soul Train Awards two months later.
For her first album under the recording contract guaranteed as a result of her American Idol win, Barrino came under the tutelage of veteran recording executive Clive Davis, and in late 2004 she released Free Yourself on Davis's J Records label. The album was a mixed bag stylistically, combining urban ballad sounds contributed by hot producers Jermaine Dupri and Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins with a new take on "Summertime" and "Baby Mama," a song seemingly drawn from Barrino's own life (the term means single mother in African-American, particularly Jamaican-American, slang). Nervous about the album's prospects, Barrino, who continued to live in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area, went to local Target stores with a hat pulled down over her face to ask anonymously how it was selling.
She need not have worried, for by most standards Free Yourself was a hit. It sold 1.7 million copies, garnered Barrino four Grammy Award nominations, and provided Barrino with her first number one single in "I Believe," the album's leadoff release. But she experienced problems after her first burst of fame had worn off and she had installed her mother, and often her daughter, in a new $500,000 house in Charlotte. She began suffering from anxiety attacks, as had previous American Idol winner Clay Aiken. "I know what Clay is talking about," Barrino told Nicholas Fonseca and Tanner Stransky of Entertainment Weekly. "Everybody, everywhere you go, knows you. They want a piece of you. It's very tough."
Barrino's memoir, Life Is not a Fairy Tale, was published in 2005. Written with the aid of a freelance author, the book was a bestseller. Later adapted into a special program on the Lifetime cable television channel (Barrino starred as herself), it became the second most popular broadcast in the channel's history. The book contained the revelation that Barrino had difficulty reading, although she overcame the problem with the help of a tutor. "The baby used to come to me and ask me to read a book and I'd tense up," she recalled to Marti Yarbrough of Jet. "Now I don't have the problem with reading out loud. I conquered that fear." Joseph Barrino filed a $10 million libel suit against the book's publisher, Simon & Schuster, in September of 2006, claiming that the book's depictions of his violent temper and other disclosures had damaged his reputation. "I don't know what his reasons are," Barrino told Fonseca and Stransky.
For the Record …
Born June 30, 1984, in High Point, NC; daughter of Joseph (a truck driver and gospel singer) and Diane (a preacher) Barrino; children: one daughter, Zion. Education: Attended Andrews High School, High Point, NC; later studied for GED.
Performed with family members in gospel group the Barrino Family ca. 1994; won American Idol television singing competition, 2004; signed to J Records label; released Free Yourself, 2004; published memoir Life Is Not a Fairy Tale (also adapted for television), 2005; released Fantasia, 2006.
Awards: Winner, American Idol television competition, 2004; NAACP Image Awards, outstanding female artist, 2005.
Addresses: Record company—J Records, LLC, 745 5th Ave., 6th Fl., New York, NY 10151. Website—Fantasia Barrino Official Website: http://www.fantasiabarrinoofficial.com.
Despite her problems, Fantasia's future appeared bright. Her second album, Fantasia, was released in December of 2006 and featured straight-ahead urban sounds; All Music Guide critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine contended that "it fully breaks Barrino free of her American Idol persona, giving her a sound and style she can build a career upon." As of early 2007 the album had reached the number three spot on Billboard magazine's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, and Barrino was looking toward new challenges with a starring role in a Broadway musical adaptation of the Alice Walker novel The Color Purple. Although she had lost a starring role in the film Dreamgirls to fellow AmericanIdol contestant Jennifer Hudson, stage and film seemed to offer an ideal outlet for Barrino's powerful voice and communicative gifts.
Free Yourself, J Records, 2004.
Fantasia, J Records, 2006.
Contemporary Black Biography, volume 53, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Fantasia, Life Is Not a Fairy Tale, Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Ebony, July 2005, p. 102.
Entertainment Weekly, December 15, 2006, p. 54.
Essence, August 2006, p. 63.
Jet, October 24, 2005, p. 16.
People, December 6, 2004, p. 159.
"Fantasia Barrino," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (April 1, 2007).
"Fantasia Barrino." Biography Resource Center Online. Gale, 2004. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Thomson Gale, 2007, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (April 1, 2007).
The third-season winner of television's American Idol singing competition in 2004, Fantasia Barrino, stood out from tough competition for two reasons. Above all, she was a vocal powerhouse, a singer with the kind of raw vocal talent the program's voting audience hadn't encountered before. And she made a strong emotional connection with that audience, showing a human side in addition to sheer vocal virtuosity. In both respects, Barrino's triumphant performances on American Idol were rooted in her pre-stardom life in High Point, North Carolina: as a gospel singer at Mercy Outreach Church of Deliverance, and as a single mother enduring and then overcoming domestic abuse.
Barrino was born in High Point on June 30, 1984. Music-making ran through both sides of her family. Her father Joseph Barrino sang in gospel quartets beginning in his teenage years. Her mother Diane, co-pastor at Mercy Outreach, also sang, as did two of her brothers, one of whom served as a church choir director. Barrino told interviewer Elizabeth Vargas of ABC television's 20/20 that "I've been singing ever since I was five years old. I would go in the bathroom and put my mom's clothes on, get something, act like it was a microphone, and just make my own videos." Tasia, as relatives called her, toured with the family gospel group, the Barrino Family, from the time she was nine or ten years old, performing as far away as Maryland and Florida.
Grew Up in "Shouting Church"
"Everybody that we talk to makes the comment that 'she seems so confident,'" Joseph Barrino told Winston-Salem Journal reporter Tim Clodfelter. "Well, yes, because she's been [performing] since she was a child." Even when performing for a national television audience, Fantasia Barrino told Clodfelter, she was never nervous. "I'm in a zone," she said. "When I'm singing, I'm in my own little world. I just tune [the audience] out. I really don't see them." The transcendent quality of Barrino's performances came partly from the worship style of Mercy Outreach, which Raleigh News & Observer writer Thomasi McDonald described as a "'shouting church,' led by pastors who stoke a holy fire and members who don't mind laying their burdens down." Barrino herself became choir director and praise team leader at Mercy Outreach.
At High Point's Welborn Middle School, Barrino made the all-county chorus. Shortly after she entered Andrews High School, however, she became pregnant and dropped out to give birth to her daughter, Zion. Barrino struggled financially, singing at weddings or wherever else she could to help pay the bills. And she was physically abused by her partner, Brandel Schauss, who was arrested at one point for punching and choking her. Barrino told Vargas that "things just started going really downhill for me. You know, I don't talk about it a lot…. Sometimes that abuse feels like love to you. Sometimes that's all you know."
Studied During Early Idol Rounds
Wanting to set a positive example for her daughter, Barrino finally mustered the strength to leave her abuser. She made plans to enroll in a community college to earn a high school equivalency degree (and she brought books to Los Angeles and studied high school course materials during the run of American Idol). Her up-and-down experiences gave her a depth and a level of self-confidence that many of her American Idol competitors lacked. Friends and family members persuaded her to enter the contest, an idea Barrino resisted at first because she was intimidated by the show's caustic British host, Simon Cowell. But Cowell was impressed by Barrino in the early rounds and set his usual critical style aside. "You have a lot of terrible people turn up," he told Vargas. "And then when one person comes in with what I call the 'X' factor, you just know you've seen somebody special. She just nailed it."
Controversy flared as Barrino advanced to the final rounds of the competition. Some viewers questioned whether Barrino's past made her a good role model. Her onstage confidence sometimes came off as cockiness. And in a well-publicized incident, singer Elton John leveled charges of racism against the show's organizers when Barrino and several other African-American contestants were grouped in one round in such a way that one was sure to be eliminated. Barrino, deciding that a dramatic move was needed, prepared a song that she had never heard prior to the American Idol competition. Her favorite music was gospel, and she also enjoyed the music of the rock group Aerosmith. But she selected the George Gershwin classic "Summertime," from the 1937 opera Porgy and Bess.
Won American Idol Competition
The effect on audiences was electric. "And so, on 'Summertime,' I was like, I'm going to go out and I'm gonna sit on that stage and I'm gonna humble myself. And people were actually crying in the audience." The normally unflappable Barrino gave in to tears herself. She advanced to the final round against Georgia teenager Diana DeGarmo, niece of 1980s Christian rock vocalist Eddie DeGarmo. Barrino delivered powerful performances in the final rounds and edged DeGarmo in nationwide voting on May 26, 2004. A record 65 million votes were cast. "I been through some things but I worked hard to get to where I'm at," Barrino said after winning (as quoted in the Memphis Commercial Appeal).
The victory brought Barrino ongoing fame. She went on a concert tour and made several special appearances, including one in a tribute to Elton John at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., in December of 2004. "There were so many awesome people in the house," she told Janice Gaston of the Winston-Salem Journal. "The president was there!" Closer to home, she was able to buy her mother a $500,000 home in Charlotte, North Carolina—and her daughter Zion a Barbie Jeep that she had been unable to afford the previous Christmas. In February of 2005 she hosted the annual Soul Train televised music awards program.
At a Glance …
Born on June 30, 1984, in High Point, NC; daughter of Joseph (a gospel singer) and Diane (a preacher) Barrino; children: one daughter, Zion. Education: Studied toward GED while competing in American Idol. Religion: Served as praise team leader and choir director at Mercy Outreach Church of Deliverance, High Point.
Career: Won American Idol television singing competition, 2004; hosted Soul Train awards show, 2005.
Addresses: Label—c/o J-Records, LLC, 745 5th Ave., 6th Floor, New York, NY 10151. Other—c/o American Idol, P.O. Box 900, Beverly Hills, CA 90213-0900. Web—www.fantasiabarrinoofficial.com.
Barrino's debut album, Free Yourself, was released (with the artist billed simply as Fantasia) in November of 2004 on the J-Records label, with direction from music industry veteran Clive Davis. Unlike earlier releases by American Idol winners, Barrino's was a cutting-edge affair that drew on creative contributions by hot hip-hop artists and producers such as Missy Elliott, Jermaine Dupri, and Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins. Her debut single, the gospel-flavored "I Believe," debuted at Number One on Billboard magazine's Hot 100 singles chart, and another track, "Baby Mama," seemed to draw on Barrino's experiences as a single mom. Teen listeners identified with the song, Barrino told Gaston; they came up to her and told her, "I'm a baby mama." "That's cool," Barrino would respond. But then she would ask: "What are you doing to try to better yourself?"
(as Fantasia) Free Yourself, J-Records, 2004.
Life Is Not a Fairy Tale (memoir), Touchstone Fireside, forthcoming.
Commercial Appeal (Memphis), May 27, 2004, p. A1.
Essence, September 2004, p. 292.
Jet, June 14, 2004, p. 56; January 10, 2005, p. 54.
News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), May 26, 2004, p. A1; July 5, 2004, p. C1.
People Weekly, December 6, 2004.
Winston-Salem Journal, March 14, 2004, p. E1; February 5, 2005, p. B1.
Fantasia Barrino Official Site, www.fantasiabarrinoofficial.com (June 29, 2005).
20/20 (ABC News Transcripts), November 12, 2004.
—James M. Manheim