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Fantasia keeps working toward a happy ending

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PHILADELPHIA - Like Madonna, Beyonce and Liberace before her, she has landed an address in one-name divadom. Her celebrity is such that customers walk into her hometown beauty salon in Charlotte, N.C., and ask for the "Fantasia" cut. Every time she's on the road, her A-list status entitles her to a manicurist and pedicurist on demand.

She may be an "American Idol," but until she revealed it this month in her new memoir, "Life Is Not a Fairy Tale," Fantasia Barrino kept an unenviable secret: She's a functional illiterate.

"I can't even read a fairy tale to my 4-year-old daughter," she wrote.

That revelation from her book might almost have gone unnoticed if not for her recent appearance on "20/20," which advertised her as being "an illiterate."

"They made me look dumb. I can read. I call myself a functional illiterate because I'm not a strong reader," says Fantasia, who dictated "Life Is Not a Fairy Tale" (Simon & Schuster, $21.95) to a free-lance writer. "I had a fear of reading out loud because I didn't know whether people would laugh at me or help me."

That fear, she says, paralyzed her. Growing up in High Point, N.C., she missed out on jobs because she was afraid to fill out applications. "Whenever I tried," she wrote, "I left so many questions blank because I couldn't read them so the applications always ended up in the garbage. The private part of my shame is that I want to be as smart as everyone else. I want to be wise about my own money, I want to be able to understand a contract... and not have to ask someone else what it means. I want to be able to read a script ... instead of needing someone to go through it with me."

It was only because she was familiar with many of the songs she performed on "Idol," Fantasia wrote, that she was able to get through to the final rounds without relying on lyric sheets. Interestingly enough, a song she hadn't sung before, "Summertime," was the one that won her the title. She made sure to memorize the lyrics when she learned the song with the show's voice coach.

Fantasia's life started out like that of many: poor, uneducated and bored, with no adult role models to push and encourage her. "I'm angry that my parents couldn't control me better," she wrote. "I'm angry I have already missed opportunities in my life."

As she painstakingly recounts in her book, she was a rape survivor at 14. A high school dropout at 15. A single mother at 17. A survivor of physical abuse, at the hand of her daughter's father, at 18.

And by 19, miraculously, thanks to a third-season "American Idol" win, in which she beat out 70,000 contestants, she had been transformed from a struggling gospel singer into a multiplatinum-selling R&B artist - "the next Mary J. Blige," J-Records chief Clive Davis predicted. "Free Yourself," her 2004 debut, sold almost two million copies.

Since then, Fantasia has been on a skyrocket to fame. She has even lent her mouth to a M.A.C. Cosmetics lipstick campaign - the same lips she once cursed as being too big to be beautiful.

All the while, she has worked on becoming a better reader. During last year's "American Idol" tour, Fantasia hired a tutor to help her pass the GED.

"Lord, we went over so many things over and over," she remembers. "But guess what? I failed. But I'm going to take it over again, and if I don't pass, I'm going to take it again."

It was a confident Fantasia, casually chic in jeans and a suede bolero jacket, a tattoo playing peek-a-boo out of her shirt, who signed books for fawning fans last week in Philadelphia. She greeted each well-wisher with a "Hey baby!" and a broad smile, showing off a mouth full of clear braces.

It was noon, but it would be dark before she accommodated the hundreds in a line that snaked through the aisles of Barnes & Noble.

To her fans, it didn't matter. "I like her glow," said Nylo White, 24, a single mother of four boys, from 1 to 8 years old, who stood patiently near the end of the line.

"I like that she's had all those weaknesses and was able to overcome them ... my kids love (her single) 'Baby Mama.' They want to sing it to her."

Pundits both black and white railed against her for what they said was a glorification of single motherhood in that hit ('Cuz now-a-days it's like a badge of honor/To be a baby mama). She says "American Idol" questioned whether she should have been on the show.

Because of her willingness to tell her story, Fantasia has become a poster child for young people like herself.

"Fantasia's story sends a strong message to young people," says JoAnn Weinberger, president of the Center for Literacy, a Philadelphia agency that provides literacy services to teenagers and adults. "The fact that she's acknowledged her struggles - and is doing something about it."

Since her book has been out, Fantasia says, people "have been telling me stories you wouldn't believe. One 53-year-old lady told me she couldn't read or write, but she was going to learn ... . People make us feel like if you're this or that, you're nobody. If you slip up and have a baby, you're nobody. I wanted to be bold and say I had those situations, but look at me now."

Just this week, she was nominated for a pair of American Music Awards. But, admittedly, Fantasia is still a work in progress, studying to retake the GED and get her driver's license. She gave the Ford Focus she won on "Idol" to her mother. "What they should have gotten me," she wrote, "was a tutor."

Her most triumphant moment occurred in February at the Soul Train Music Awards, which she hosted with Brian McKnight.

"I was scared," she admitted. "I was thinking, 'What if the teleprompter goes too fast?' But I took my time and read every word and I conquered it.

"I called my mother and was like, 'Mama, did you see me?' And she said, 'I seen you, baby.'"


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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