Fantasia Barrino Biography - Grew Up in "Shouting Church", Studied During Early Idol Rounds, Won American Idol Competition
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.
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
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