The ''American Idol'' winner talks about the challenges of her sophomore album
Fantasia Barrino
Credit: Fantasia: Randall Slavin

Fantasia Barrino wants the world to know that she’s finally taken the pain of her past — the abusive boyfriend, the struggle with single motherhood, the destructive self-hatred — and put it behind her. On the eve of the release of her buoyant, flirty sophomore album, Fantasia (out Dec. 12), this certainly seems like a good place to be. ”The drama is over for me,” she declares. ”I’m avoiding it. And I wanted my music to represent that. I’m just ready to have a good time.”

She’s ensconced in a hotel suite high above New York City’s idyllic Union Square, the traffic below barely audible. She complains of feeling on the verge of illness, but like any good diva, Fantasia still manages to get the trappings just right. For starters, she conducts this entire interview from her bed, propped against a pile of plush white pillows. An impressive mound of Louis Vuitton luggage sits in the corner of the room. Her new companion, a 3-month-old bulldog named King, wiggles along the floor, chewing everything in sight. Fantasia clutches a tricolored track jacket, squeezes it to her chest like a security blanket, closes her eyes, and widens her mouth in a rictus of pleasure. ”I’ve got a [boy]friend, too!” she swoons, explaining that she met a paramour while filming the video for her new single, ”Hood Boy.”

After a bleak spell in which the unwed single mother wondered if she’d ever get out of her High Point, N.C., hometown, things finally started to go Fantasia’s way a couple of years ago. Her up-from-nothing backstory and raw, soaring voice touched fans of American Idol, which she won in May 2004. Later that year, her first album, Free Yourself, scored four Hot 100 singles, sold 1.7 million copies, and earned a quartet of Grammy nods. A 2005 memoir, Life Is Not a Fairy Tale, unexpectedly hit best-seller lists, and the TV-movie version — with Fantasia in the starring role — became the second-most-popular telecast in Lifetime’s 22-year history.

It’s been a dizzying, gratifying run. It’s also been nonstop, and this morning, signs of exhaustion are visible. Her eyes struggle to stay alert. Her voice barely registers above a soft rasp. The spirited, hyper young country girl is starting to fold under the weight of a grueling schedule that’s had her crisscrossing the country for weeks. More stressful for Fantasia, however, is the difficult, sometimes stormy relationship with her father that has again taken center stage thanks to a high-profile, $10 million libel lawsuit aimed at numerous passages in Fairy Tale, which he says are riddled with untruths about him. This could not have come at a more inopportune time. So shall we scratch all that stuff about letting go of the drama? The singer answers with a sigh: ”I’m always going through somethin’. It’s tough for 22-year-old ‘Tasia. Remember that.”

When she’s not in bed, Fantasia is — as fans of American Idol have long known — one hell of a live performer. Last month, she wowed a small but enthusiastic crowd at New York’s swanky Supper Club with a 45-minute set that featured new tracks and some hits from Free Yourself. When she strode out onto the stage wearing a sparkly gold minidress, kicked off her heels and went barefoot (it’s already a trademark move), the crowd went from happily sated to completely hog-wild. By the time she broke into a medley of R&B classics like Aretha Franklin’s ”Rock Steady,” Rufus’ ”Tell Me Something Good,” and Prince’s ”Purple Rain,” the room had taken on the air of a tent revival. There were moments when Fantasia sang so urgently that it looked as if she might burst her spleen. When she finished, tears and sweat dotted her cheeks. While touring with Kanye West last year, she had performed this medley every night. ”People got so into it,” she says. ”They would be in good spirits, moving and rocking…. I wanted my [new] music to feel like that. I wanted uplifting music.”

When Fantasia went into the studio last January to start her new album, she laid down that edict for an arsenal of producers and songwriters — including Swizz Beatz, Diane Warren, Babyface, and Missy Elliott — who crafted a collection of songs that exploit her ’round-the-way girl persona while also paying homage to her musical forebears. Capturing her personality was especially important given the ho-hum critical reaction to her solid — if uncharacteristically boring — debut album, which lacked a memorable hit that could have better distanced her from Idol. ”I didn’t have enough songs on Free Yourself for the DJs,” she says. ”All of the songs were slow ballads.” Which explains why she’s introducing Fantasia with the energetic ”Hood Boy,” an adventurous funk stomp that samples a blast of horns from ”The Happening,” a 1967 Supremes hit. ”We wanted to catch people off guard,” says Larry Jackson, the senior vice president of A&R at RCA Music Group. ”Both of us went after material that was daring and bold and different.”

So much so that they even cut one intensely personal song that, upon close inspection, probably says more about where Fantasia is at these days than any of the others. It’s a slower, emotional track called ”Solo (So Low)”; producer Harold Lilly and a partner wrote it after having a brief but personal conversation with the singer. ”’Solo’ is about how if it ain’t one thing, it’s another,” Lilly says. ”It’s like, ‘I’ve got to go solo because you’ve taken me so low.’ It’s about standing on your own two feet.” When he first presented it to her, ”it stopped her in her tracks. She said, ‘I feel like this song is about my father.”’

Fantasia was 5 years old when Joseph Barrino first pushed her on stage to perform at weddings, funerals, and home gatherings — both alone and with the clan’s five-member gospel troupe, the Barrino Family. She was especially popular at the church where her mother, Diane, and grandmother, Addie Collins, were ministers. Eventually, though, the preacher’s daughter grew bored and rebellious and says she ”went through a phase,” dropping out of high school and getting pregnant by her then boyfriend when she was 17.

In her autobiography, Fantasia candidly discusses life as a hopeless single mother, says the relationship with the father of her daughter, Zion, 5, ended after he allegedly physically abused her, and reveals her past struggle with functional illiteracy. She also writes that her father sometimes had a violent temper, and that he pulled her away from school when she was young so that she could perform.

Joseph Barrino was not happy. In September, he filed a $10 million libel lawsuit against Fairy Tale‘s publisher, Simon & Schuster. He claims that Fantasia’s grandmother, Collins, is the book’s ghostwriter and charges that the aforementioned disclosures — along with sections that touch on everything from alleged substance abuse in his family to ongoing financial struggles — have damaged his reputation with his employer and in his community.

Joseph insists he has no direct beef with his daughter, and says that they still speak regularly. The lawsuit, he tells EW, is simply about ”clearing my family’s good name.” He also says that when he confronted his daughter about the disputed passages, ”she said to me, ‘Daddy, I didn’t write that.’ She said that the publishers put that stuff in there without her knowledge.”

Fantasia and her mother (who is now divorced from Joseph) challenge these allegations. Both women say that Collins had no involvement in the writing process, and Fantasia denies telling her father that the publisher added particular passages. (Fairy Tale‘s editor declined to comment for this story, while a rep for Simon & Schuster would only say that the company’s collaboration with Fantasia was ”a great experience.”) Fantasia is mystified by her dad’s decision to sue: ”I don’t know what his reasons are. I don’t understand it.” Says Diane, ”[Fantasia] came home and said, ‘Mama, I feel like somebody put a knife in my back and twisted it.”’

Still, she’s not ready to write him off altogether. ”My father brought a lot out of me that I didn’t know I had,” Fantasia says. ”After I won Idol and was on my own, I wasn’t going to [him] for protection anymore. He wasn’t helping me with my music or managing me, and he still wanted to be there. That’s where all of the trouble started. All I can do is sit back and love him from a distance.”

Still propped up in her hotel-room bed, Fantasia may say she’s not feeling well, but when Prince’s ”Call My Name” suddenly blares from her cell phone, she brightens and politely asks if she can answer it. Seems it’s her special somebody on the line, since all other calls announce themselves with ”SexyBack.” She tells her mystery man that she’ll call him when she returns home to Charlotte — where she owns a house — in a matter of hours.

Barrino says she opted to stay near home after her big win to preserve her sanity, which was probably a good idea. For a time during the 2004 Idol tour, she began experiencing anxiety attacks, and a doctor prescribed Valium. She chose not to take it, but says she sympathizes with former Idol contestant Clay Aiken, who discussed a similar problem earlier this year. ”I know what Clay is talking about,” she says. ”Everybody, everywhere you go, knows you. They want a piece of you. It’s very tough.”

To avoid the loneliness of the road warrior’s life, Barrino recently adopted King (her other dog, she says, is too ”uppity” to go on tour, which must be why its name is Diva). And she stays tight with an inner circle of ”godly women” — Elliott, R&B singer Lil’ Mo, and gospel star Coko — whom she calls her closest friends in the industry.

Fantasia also heaps praise on ”my girl,” fellow season 3 Idol competitor Jennifer Hudson — though she reveals that when they first met, they ”bumped heads and had words.” Coincidentally, they were both up for a starring role in the film Dreamgirls, a part that ultimately went to Hudson, who’s already earning raves for her turn as Effie. ”I was a little hurt,” Fantasia says of losing the part. ”I had stayed up late reading that script, trying to get Effie in my spirit. I worked so hard. But it wasn’t for me. I remember calling Jennifer. She picked up the phone and I said, ‘Heifer, you took my part!”’

But lest you think a new feud is brewing, Fantasia makes it clear that the insult was a joke, and says she plans to see the film — ”I gotta take my grandmother” — when it’s released. She’ll have to make it quick: Four days after it hits theaters, Fantasia leaves for a five-week tour with singer (and Dreamgirls star) Jamie Foxx; in the summer, she’ll likely embark on a high-profile trek with Alicia Keys, though details are still being hammered out.

Touring keeps Fantasia away from Zion (who stays with Diane), but it pays the bills, and she’s determined to attack her busy new year on the road with gusto, even if — and when — the drama creeps back into her life. ”I’ll tour before I do anything,” she says. ”That’s my happiest time. When I sing my songs — especially ‘Free Yourself’ — I can’t even hear myself because the crowds take over. And being that I’m a voice for a lot of young people, knowing that they listen to me, I have to ask myself: Where do I go from here? I can’t stay down, I can’t stay hurt. It’s time to pick myself up. That’s where I am right now. I’ve freed myself.”