Fantasia Presses Forward

American Idol tells of hard life, struggles with literacy in new memoir

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Fantasia Barrino had more to worry about than eleven talented competitors and an "arrogant," acutely critical Simon Cowell when she was a contestant on the 2004 season of American Idol. The twenty-one-year-old singer had difficulty reading the lyric sheets she was given on the show, and often couldn't pronounce the words on the teleprompter. And barely functional literacy is just one of the difficulties Barrino has survived, she reveals in her new, aptly titled biography, Life Is Not a Fairy Tale.

"After I won [American] Idol, people would come up to me and they'd just give me their life story," she says. "I had girls come up to me and say, 'I live from home to home, wherever I can lay my head,' or 'I'm on drugs, and I lost my baby a long time ago.' And they would tell me, 'I just want to say I love you and I commend you.' And I'd be thinking, 'Lord, what can I do?' And He was like, 'Give your life story. Show them where you came from and where you are now.' I just want people to know it's OK to mess up. You figure out a way. Music was my weapon."

In Barrino's book (dictated to "collaborator" Kim Green and published by Simon & Schuster), the singer describes the obstacles she faced growing up poor in High Point, North Carolina, in chapters like "Keep Your Head Up," "Learn from Your Mistakes" and "Never Give Up." After being raped as a freshman, she dropped out of high school and began hanging out on the street, without any thoughts for her future. By seventeen, she had become a single mother.

While still in school, Barrino says she "had a fear of reading" because she couldn't stand being teased. "I went through so much, like low self-esteem, not feeling like I fit in and not feeling like I was pretty enough," she says. "I just lost the desire and the hunger [to read], so it put me to the place where, as I got older, because I didn't work at it, it got worse."

Barrino often struggled with her limited reading skills while competing on American Idol. "If they gave us a sheet of music and said, 'Sing this song,' I couldn't," she confesses. "[But] play me the rhythm, tell me how it goes, and then I can give you what you need." She was also unable to read the show's contracts, and simply signed her name. Barrino is currently working with a tutor and pursuing her GED.

The singer drew strength from her four-year-old daughter, Zion -- in spite of advice to hide the fact that she'd had a baby at such a young age. Barrino recalls the Idol producers telling her, "You might want to hide the fact that you have a child . . . because people might not give you a chance or vote for you." But Barrino knew that she couldn't just pretend Zion didn't exist -- even if that meant she would be creating an image for herself that was nothing like the public's idea of an American Idol. "I was like, 'I'm not hiding my child. She's the reason I'm here. And if I gotta hide her, I might as well go home,'" says Barrino. "I said, 'You've got idols out there for everybody. Why can't you have idols for single moms?'"

As with her daughter, Barrino at this point has few regrets. "Faith Evans has a song out right now ['Again'] that goes, 'If I had to do it all again/I wouldn't take away the rain,'" she says. "Now that I'm here and looking back, I'm like, 'Dang! I went through all of that for a reason.' I wouldn't change nothing. It made me stronger."