Fantasia Barrino opens up about her dark days and her painful healing process
August was supposed to be Fantasia Barrino's comeback month.
For three years, the "American Idol" winner had been working on her third album, recording 100 songs with a variety of producers around the country, selecting tracks that would speak to how far she'd come in her troubled life. To outsiders, everything seemed on track for the Aug. 24 debut of the album, "Back to Me."
But behind the scenes, something else was brewing that eventually led Fantasia to the sad events of Aug. 9, the day she tried to end her life by taking sleeping pills and an entire bottle of Bayer. In a lengthy interview with The Times in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Fantasia opened up about the events that preceded that dark day this summer when she couldn't fight the desire to "sleep forever" and the painful recovery process she just began.
"I always covered up everything so well," Fantasia said, sipping a glass of Malbec after she taped "Lopez Tonight" on Wednesday and returned to her Beverly Hills hotel. "I'm always the bubbly life of the party. And, for so long, I pushed and pushed and pushed. And, this day, I had no push in me. Look at all this stuff I've been through at the age of 26. All of it just overloaded."
Physically, Fantasia could still fool you into thinking that life is perfect. She showed up to the Times interview and photo shoot dressed in a sexy semi-sheer black top and tight pants and a new short hair-do. But when she opened up about the tragic turn her life took recently, it's evident it will be long before she conquers her feelings of shame, guilt, and confusion.
The 26-year-old single mom's well-chronicled life has never been easy. But she has always shared her struggles openly, revealing in a book and Lifetime movie how she had been raped as a teenager, dropped out of school and became pregnant two years later. Winning America's hearts on the "Idol" stage in 2004 changed her life, but it didn't necessarily make it easier. Her lifelong dream to share her singing gift with the world had come true, but with it came the perils of suddenly having money and being famous. Her first album, "Free Yourself," sold 1.8 million copies, but her sophomore set disappointed, posting less than half of those sales. Along the way, she earned eight Grammy nominations, landed the lead on Broadway in "The Color Purple," and faced more hurdles when she inexplicably missed shows. Eventually, Fantasia revealed she had two tumors removed from her vocal cords, which had threatened her singing career.
Once she recovered, Fantasia decided it was time to take chances again. Last summer, she began filming her popular VH1 reality series, "Fantasia For Real," an attempt to share her highs and lows as she prepared her new album, continued to be the sole caretaker of her entire family, readied to tour a final time with "The Color Purple," earned her G.E.D. and overcame her substantial financial problems. When her VH1 series premiered successfully in January, it seemed her fans were as ready for her return as she was.
Unfortunately, for the R&B and soul singer, her long-awaited album's launch on Tuesday was overshadowed by a disturbing turn in her personal life. What follows is Fantasia's account of what transpired in her Charlotte, N.C., home and what she's doing to heal herself.
For a few months, Fantasia had been dealing with rumors that she was seeing a married man she had met at a T-Mobile store near her house in the well-to-do neighborhood of Glynmoor Lakes. Photographs of Fantasia and Antwaun Cook, a T-Mobile salesman, hit the tabloids and Internet every now and again, and the singer had denied the relationship. It all came to a head on Aug. 4 when Cook's wife, Paula, filed for divorce and blamed Fantasia for the demise of their marriage. In the complaint, Paula Cook said her husband had been having an affair with Fantasia while living with her and they had videotaped themselves having sex.
This time, the news hit wide, from CNN to national magazines and the local North Carolina media. Strangers were driving by her house at all hours. Although Fantasia had been through worse in her young life, it proved too much, she said. Her mother called to express her pain and disappointment, and the daughter felt as if she was never going to get to a stable place, where her career was thriving and there was no personal drama. She started feeling sorry for herself, wondering why the media were always so quick to criticize and judge her. Nothing, not even thinking about her little daughter, lifted her. She couldn't stop dwelling on the cumulative pain of the last six years.
"At the time, I wasn’t thinking about anybody," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "I was so numb. I was so out of it. I’ve never been to that place before. It was so scary. It was the darkest place that anybody would want to be. I wasn’t thinking about anybody. Not even my momma. My momma usually has that power. She’s an evangelist, a pastor, she usually has the power to say a prayer and bring me out of something. She says she prayed for me that day. That’s how out of it I was — I didn’t hear nothing they were saying. And she can usually bring me out of things, but this day, I just kept thinking, 'I’ve been trying so hard. And every time, I get up, how many licks can I take? How many more punches? How many more blows?' That’s like a fighter when he’s in the ring. He can’t take but so many punches. Sometimes they take a punch that knocks them out. And I think that day I just got knocked out."
On the morning of Aug. 9, Fantasia was forced out of her hiding place to meet with her lawyers, trailed by cameras for the second season of her reality show, which premieres on Sept. 19. Because of the ongoing litigation, Fantasia has been advised to say little about her relationship with Antwaun Cook. But she stands by a press release issued by her manager when she was in the hospital, stating that she had had an off-and-on again relationship with him for 11 months and she believed he was separated from his wife when she met him.
"I just want people to know he was a good guy," she said. "I think everybody hates him right now. He’s like the monster right now. Whatever he’s done was OK because we weren’t really together like that. I was dating, doing my thing. I think when it blew up the first time, it kind of ran him away because when he met me, he was like, 'She’s really cool.' Most guys are intimidated by a strong woman, she’s in the limelight, she’s a celebrity. When he realized that I was cool, and I could chill and I could hang, I think he just took a liking to me.
"He was separated," she continued. "And I don’t think I would have been attracted to him if he wasn’t. I don’t have to have anybody else’s. He was very honest from the very beginning and when we wasn’t together, whatever he did, was what he did. But that’s all I can say about that. He’s not a bad guy. I’m not a bad girl and he didn’t do anything wrong. My grandma always used to say, 'You don’t miss your water until your well runs dry.' And I think when a certain person found out he was kind of attracted to me, maybe they wanted it back."
Fantasia says details that her lawyer gave her about the lawsuit that morning sent her over the edge. On the way home, she recalls telling her manager, Brian Dickens, she felt as though she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
"And he just said what they always say, 'You got it, Tasia. It’s gonna be all right. You’re strong. Blah blah blah,' " she said. "And he just couldn’t tell that this day that wasn’t going to help. I didn’t want to hear that anymore. I’d been hearing that for years and you gotta understand, I don’t have anybody to lean on. I’m the one — I’m the caretaker. I do everything. I can’t say, you know that I’ve got a lot going on today and I need you to take over. I can’t do that."
When she got home, she went to her bedroom and sat in a chair for hours. Her best friend, mother and her stepfather came in and talked to her at different times.
"I was in such a zone," she said. "Mouths were moving, but I didn’t hear [expletive] they were saying."
The one thing she does recall is asking her mother if she thought her music would endure and her mother wondering why that was on her mind.
"I've always looked up to Aretha Franklin. She's my idol," Fantasia said. "When she goes away, her music will forever be. And I always used to say I want to be like that. My mom said, 'Yeah, but you've got more to do." And then she went to babbling and babbling and babbling and I was just zoned out."
Fantasia asked everyone to leave, and when her cousin texted her that she was bringing Zion home, she replied that she needed more time. Dickens had gone to a Kinko's store nearby.
"I just wanted to go to sleep, at first. I already had trouble sleeping because I’m a thinker," she said. "That’s something my life coach told me — that I think so much. I’m always thinking about everybody else — how am I going to do this? I don’t give my mind a rest. So at first I just wanted to sleep. And after that, I was like, you know what? At this point, I don’t care if I go to sleep and never wake up."
She wrote a series of goodbye letters and texted her manager and her best friend that she loved them.
"I wrote to my brother, Teeny," she said. "He was mad at me at the time. He hadn’t talked to me for a few months over some money. So I said what I had to say to him. And my little brother’s been acting up in school, so I said something to him about how proud I would be if he went to college. I said something to Ricco because he’s been fighting to do his music for so long. I wanted to encourage him. I wrote a long something for Zion and I wrote a long something for my mom. And I sat it in a book. I made sure I wanted them to see it."
Then she took "a lot" of sleeping pills and an entire bottle of Bayer, and sat in her closet, staring at herself in a mirror.
"I felt like it was never going to end for me," she said. "They don’t ever let up on me. It’s either my hair is cute but my dress is ugly, or I didn’t like what she said, or look, she's kicking off her shoes. And you know what made it so bad? I had just received my high school diploma and it was something that I was so proud of and they didn’t say anything about that. And it bothered me because that was one of the things I talked about cleaning up and fixing. They didn’t run with none of that. But they always seem to find some drama about Fantasia. I just felt tired, tired, tired."
When she awoke in the hospital, she felt angry that she had survived and became anxious about what the media would say next. The excessive amount of aspirin affected her kidneys, she was hooked up to an IV, and there was a nurse assigned to watch her around the clock. But then she started hearing from friends like Missy Elliot, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Charlie Wilson, who soothed her by telling her they'd been through similar difficulties.
The nurse assigned to watch her, an older woman from New York, also helped immensely, she said. First, she distracted her with idle conversation, but then she showed her a photo of herself singing in a magazine, reminding her of what she loved to do most and that she needed to focus on the release of her album. She was discharged from the hospital under the condition that she undergo outpatient group therapy. At the countryside facility, she also met with a life coach.
"In the beginning, I thought this is not going to do nothing but send me right to the place I was at," Fantasia said. "But once I got there, and they took me around, I just started enjoying things about it. It’s a very old house. It has history so they take you through and tell you about the history. The floors are old wood. And I started realizing that it brings you back to life. It makes you appreciate being here. There was like 14 or 15 people in the classroom -- CEOs, lawyers, I think I was the only singer. But just being in there with them and seeing that, OK, these are people who are high-powered and have lots and lots of money and they all got to their breaking point. I’m not the only one, you know what I mean?"
Two days after she left the hospital, there was another media frenzy surrounding the beleaguered singer. This time, she had been photographed in a park near her house, filming scenes for her reality show with Cook. Fans and critics alike were alarmed that she was already back at work and allowing herself to be seen in public with the man at the center of her latest woes.
When The Times asked Fantasia about that day, she said the media had it wrong, and that those scenes had been filmed the week before she was hospitalized. But after The Times verified with VH1 that the shooting took place on Aug. 13, Dickens, her manager, said that Fantasia had confused that day of shooting with a previous one. Additionally, Dickens said that Fantasia's need for closure had surfaced in group therapy and that the singer got together with Cook for that purpose. That was the last time they saw each other, he added.
Fantasia was not available for a follow-up conversation, according to Dickens. But in her interview, she had explained why she returned to work so quickly, especially to face the media.
"They wanted me to be in [group therapy] much longer, but I realized that the record company and everybody was depending on me, and I had to come back," she said. "I had an album coming out. They started saying they were going to push it back again, but they've already pushed it four times. So I decided to pull myself together. And I couldn't afford to stay out, to be honest with you. I'm just now fighting my way out of coming out of all this debt. So I had to pick myself up and take baby steps every day."
This week, she appeared on "Good Morning America," and "Lopez Tonight," even though she says she was "very nervous and scared of stepping out." Her album, met with generally favorable reviews, is poised to end the week in second place, behind Katy Perry's new "Teenage Dream."
For the time being, she's going to pace herself in terms of facing more journalists, but says her therapy is teaching her to be thicker-skinned and is showing her how to make herself a priority.
"There's a little piece of my personal life that I want to keep to myself from now on," Fantasia said. "But I don't want to completely shut up and shut down and let people change who I am. I will continue to be Tasia and that's an honest, open book. What I go through makes me who I am. If I didn't go through anything, I probably wouldn't have anything to sing about.
"I don't want to be a robot. I want to be human," she continued. "I want to be able to walk into a grocery store and get in my car and go where I want to go. I want to be able to go to a home where there are young girls who have messed up and say, 'Look, just last week, look what I did' and hug them. I don't want to drive up in my BMW and say 'I don't understand why you girls are doing this.' I will always be Tasia, and with Tasia comes my trials, my tribulations, and my joy and my pain."
She plans to tour in November, which she's been dreaming about for years. In the meantime, she says she will continue to work on herself in therapy, realizing that she can't stop life's challenges but she can stop creating difficult situations for herself.
"I can make you this promise: I won't do that again," she said, fighting tears. "I gotta see my daughter walk across the stage and get her high school diploma and she's got to go to college. I got to see that! I've been a single mom for nine years. It's just me and her. There's so much I want to do. I can hang in."
She paused for a moment, looked down, and added, "I got it."
-- Maria Elena Fernandez
Photos: Fantasia Barrino in Los Angeles on Wednesday. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times
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