Skyrocketing into the national spotlight on Idol, she recalls, "I was this Southern girl, green and gullible and eager to please." And while her career initially flourished, bad decisions -- both professional and personal -- took their toll. The situation came to a head in the spring of 2010 during the divorce trial of her then-boyfriend, Antwaun Cook, with allegations and accusations of home-wrecking, pregnancy and sex tapes. The humiliating public scrutiny culminated on Aug. 9, 2010, when Fantasia attempted suicide by downing a bottle of aspirin. "I was a broken woman," she says.
Her personal rebuilding began when she channeled that pain into her first Grammy-winning song, "Bittersweet" in 2011, but that was just the start of the healing process. Daily affirmations posted on her mirror -- "You are strong," "You are wise" -- and a copy of self-help bible The Power of Now keep her grounded today. Hitting that low point, she says, "put me in a place where I know what I do and don't want, musically. If I can't do what I feel, then I quit."
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That determination made for a slow recording process. Having hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 right out of the gate with the Idol-fueled "I Believe" -- the soaring contemporary R&B ballad would become a template for later hits -- Fantasia was looking for something more soulful and life-affirming this time out. When her initial producer ("I'm not naming names," she says) didn't agree with her vision, she scrapped his demos and moved on. Inspired by her role in the jazzy Broadway revue After Midnight, she found a musical partner with Fair. Decamping to his Los Angeles studio, they hunkered down for two months, looking to acts as diverse as The O'Jays, Willie Nelson and Billie Holiday for ways to frame her voice, which conveys its owner's virtuosity and heartbreak with equal ease. (Music runs in the family: Her first cousins were in Jodeci, and uncles made up '70s R&B band The Barrino Brothers.)
At the same time, back home in Charlotte, she was experiencing a whirlwind romance with Taylor, 35. "Everything changed when I met him," she says. The connection was instantaneous: Just three weeks after meeting at a local club, the pair wed in 2015. The brief courtship was intense, fulfilling -- and celibate; they didn't consummate the relationship until their wedding night, she confides. "I just knew [he was the one]. I was getting ready to go on the road, and he got on his knees and said, 'Can I pray for you? I just want to cover for you down the road.' In the time I'd been fasting from relationships, I asked God for someone to pray for me -- someone that could cover me and my kids [Dallas, 4, and Zion, 14] and be the man of the house. That's when I knew." A year later, she says she's never felt stronger.
Maybe it's finally having her personal life on terra firma that has Fantasia focusing on the wider world. The recent wave of police shootings and the rise of Black Lives Matter have inspired her to create a new live show for her upcoming dates with labelmate Maxwell, featuring protest classics like Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" and Holiday's "Strange Fruit." "You can't look over it like it's not happening," she says. "I'm a mother, I'm a sister to three brothers, and I have a stepson in college. I wouldn't want to see anybody's child gunned down, no matter what color or race."
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But for Fantasia, this commitment goes beyond the concert stage. "What's more important is hitting the streets to say, 'Hey, we have to do things better.' " She recalls a recent drive through Charlotte when she and Taylor spotted a group of teenage boys fighting, and she insisted they stop the car. "My husband thought I was crazy," she says. "I started speaking, and one of the guys says, 'Oh, it's Fantasia!' And I'm like, 'Let's not worry about that. Let's talk about the fact that you guys are out here as brothers and you're fighting. So get home! And don't let me catch y'all back on the streets!' "
She plans to join her husband in mentoring young men in prison in Charlotte through a program called MOVE, in an effort to show them "no matter what you've been through, you can change." Fantasia, of course, is living proof. "Everything in life is a fight. Everybody wants this microwavable life, and it doesn't work like that. I'm here to say, 'See what I went through? Look at me now.' "
A version of this article originally appeared in the July 30 issue of Billboard.