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.
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.
Fantasia knows that many people don't understand how or why young women stay in abusive relationships. She tried to explain what kept her there. "Sometimes that abuse feels like love to you. That's all. Sometimes that's all you know," she said.
Shouse pleaded guilty to the assault charge and soon after, Fantasia said, she found the courage to leave him. For that, she credits her daughter.
Fantasia said, "If I don't respect myself, when she grows older no man will respect her." When she came to that realization, she said, "That was the day for me where I was just like I'm out of it. I'm gone. I'm freeing myself."
But the strong spirit that had helped Fantasia free herself from abuse sometimes came across on "American Idol" as over-confidence.
"I found out about it, and I was like, 'no, no, that's not me. That ain't 'Tasia.' I don't want people to take me that way," she said.
So Fantasia chose a song she'd never heard before but felt an immediate emotional connection to -- the Gershwin classic "Summertime."
"On 'Summertime,' I was like I'm going to go out, and I'm going to sit on that stage, and I'm going to humble myself," she said.
The audience -- and Fantasia -- were in tears by the end of the performance.
Viewer Voting Controversy
It was a turning point for Fantasia and she seemed to have won the audience back until there was a storm of controversy. There would be ugly allegations that the voting was racist and rigged in favor of less-talented singers who happened to be white.
The contest had been shaping up to be a three-way battle between Fantasia and two other vocal powerhouses, Latoya London and Jennifer Hudson, all of whom are black. The judges and music industry professionals agreed these talented singers were outstanding.
It was widely assumed that at the end of the competition Fantasia, LaToya and Jennifer would be the last three standing. Only, on this night the trio found themselves standing with the least number of viewer votes and one of them faced certain elimination. Even the judges were shocked.
At the end of the show, host Ryan Seacrest felt compelled to admonish the voting audience and make an impassioned plea.
"America don't forget to vote for the talent. You cannot let talent like this slip through the cracks," Seacrest told his viewers.
Backstage, Fantasia said, there was sadness and disbelief.
Some angry viewers even called in bomb threats, she said.
The incident ignited a virtual firestorm of protest. In a widely publicized press conference, Elton John gave voice to the outrage, suggesting that racism was behind the audience's voting choices.
Although the finalists were stuck in the center of controversy, Fantasia said they never turned on each other.
"We did not deserve to be in the top three every week. All those kids were talented. ... I was just like 'That's what's up.' We weren't competing with each other. We were a family," she said.
Now Fantasia is breaking free of her "American Idol" family and trying her chance at stardom. Her debut CD, aptly named "Free Yourself," is due out later this month.
Even the curmudgeonly Cowell has high hopes for her. "She definitely has the potential to be a big recording artist. She's arguably the best contestant we've ever had on any 'Idol' around the world. Now we have to hear her record," he said.
In the meantime, Fantasia said, she's pursuing her GED. She has bought her mother a house and for the first time opened her own bank account. She has also had some time to savor the moment that changed her life -- a moment she never stopped believing was possible.
Fantasia said, "It was the best day of my life. ... I just started thinking about other things that I had been through. And I just started: thinking no more struggling, no more hanging out in the streets. I'm ready to work -- and do what it is I love to do."