'American Idol's' Fantasia Frees Herself

If reality TV shows had a Super Bowl then the season finale of "America Idol" would be it. More than 65 million votes were cast and more than 31 million viewers tuned in to watch as 19-year-old Fantasia Barrino was crowned the winner.

Just four months earlier, Fantasia was a down-on-her-luck a high school dropout and single mother scarred by domestic abuse. For her, the "American Idol" competition was the ultimate Cinderella story and the culmination of a lifelong dream.

"Tasia," as her family calls her, had dreams of being a pop star but her roots are pure gospel. Her grandmother and mother are both preachers. Her family toured as a gospel singing group. Nearly everyone on both sides of her family sings, but despite the obvious wealth of talent, no one has ever made it big in the music industry.

Fantasia's family get-togethers are filled with song. "If we can't find a song, we'll sing a nursery rhyme. We could just get together, sing, crack jokes and have a good time," Fantasia said.

The 'X Factor'

Fantasia's family supported her when she decided to try out for "American Idol," joining the 70,000 other eager hopefuls vying for a shot at stardom.

Simon Cowell, the "American Idol" judge known for his merciless critiques, remembers that Fantasia stood out immediately.

"You have a lot of terrible people trying out. And then when one person comes in with what I call the 'X' factor -- they don't have to do a lot, but you just know you've seen somebody special," Cowell said.

Fantasia and 99 others moved on to the next round of competition. Week after week, Fantasia wowed the judges until the performers were narrowed down to the final dozen. Now it would be up to the viewing public to cast the votes that would decide who would move on and who would be eliminated each week.

Ruben Studdard, winner in the show's second season, remembers what it was like to reach that point. "What we see is the thousand people in the audience that are going crazy with signs with our name on it. You don't really see the 24 million people that are watching the television show at home," he said.

Those viewers calling in to cast their votes clearly embraced the teddy bear charm of Studdard and the girl-next-door sweetness of first-season winner Kelly Clarkson. With Fantasia, it was a different story. Viewers had trouble identifying with her rocky past.

"It was like, 'She can't be an Idol. She had a child out of wedlock. She hasn't even finished school yet,' " Fantasia said.

'Freeing Myself'

Fantasia says she heard a lot of that kind of talk back home when she dropped out of high school, got pregnant and had her daughter, Zion, at age 17.

Fantasia tried to hang on to her dream by singing at weddings to support herself and her daughter.

"What I did was I just blocked my eyes and ears from all negativity," she said.

But there was a darker side to her relationship with Zion's father, Brandel Shouse.

"I don't talk about it a lot but the relationship that I was in was very abusive," she said.

Fantasia said she was caught up in a cycle of domestic abuse. At one point it got so bad that Shouse was arrested for "choking her with both hands" and "punching her about the face and head," according to court documents.

"I looked in the mirror and I said to myself, 'Look at me. I can't see out of one eye. I have knots on my head. My lips are swollen.' And my little brother came to me one day and I remember he says, 'Oh, you look bad,' " she said.

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