“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, will abide in the shadow of the Almighty”: Psalm 91 is Fantasia Barrino Taylor’s daily prayer. Among churchgoing folk, it’s called the Psalm of Protection, and it’s no surprise this is her touchstone, as Barrino Taylor has had a tumultuous life—“all that stuff,” as she alludes to her history of abuse, struggles with literacy, and early motherhood. After winning American Idol at 19, the preacher’s kid from High Point, North Carolina, felt the unrelenting weight of stardom, and by age 26 had landed in the hospital for a suicide attempt. That was 13 years ago—through which she has risen from the proverbial ashes, fully spreading her wings.
Talking to Barrino Taylor feels like you’re sitting in a pew at a Baptist church, listening to a sermon. As she speaks through her life—its trials, its tribulations—I’m crying. She’s crying. If I’m being honest, I’m pretty sure the Holy Spirit was in the room. Maybe that’s what led Barrino Taylor to divulge that three angels have revealed themselves to her throughout her life.
The first angel appeared when she was auditioning for American Idol. She and her brother had befriended an older man the first day, talking for hours. “The next day, when we got back, they wasn’t letting anybody else in. We go to the other side of the building, and we see him. He says, ‘How did it go?’ I said, ‘It didn’t.’ He let me in.” She never saw him again, although after her win, “that would’ve been his time to shine,” she says, slightly bewildered.
The second angel, “an older lady, [with] all white hair, beautiful, natural long nails and full of gold, gold, gold,” Barrino Taylor says, came to her in a nail salon. Barrino Taylor was on tour at the time, talking to God in her head, and feeling lost: “Being on the road, it’s clubs. It’s drinking. It’s partying. I feel awful. I’m like, ‘Lord, just tell me you haven’t closed your ears to me. You’re the reason I’m here. I need you.’ We ended up sitting under the dryer together—the lady and me—and she looks at me and says, ‘Can I speak a word into your life?’”
The woman said Barrino Taylor’s ending was going to be better than her beginning. “At the time, I’m like, ‘What’s she talking about?’ I know what she’s talking about now.” As the stranger got up to leave, “she turns and says, ‘By the way, he told me to tell you he still hears you. He hasn’t closed his ears.’”
The third angel came to Barrino Taylor in the hospital after her suicide attempt. It was 2010—a mere two years after the star finished her Broadway debut in the central role of Celie in The Color Purple—and headlines were hot, not regarding her multifaceted talent, but rather, her complicated love life. “I’m already feeling down. I’m feeling stupid. This is not how I wanted it to end up. They already talking about me, and they really going to go in now,” she recollects.
Barrino Taylor woke up to a woman sitting in the chair in front of the door, holding a bunch of magazines with Barrino Taylor on the cover. “We became friends,” Barrino Taylor says. “She had to watch me. She let me know it is okay to keep fighting. I’ve never seen her again, sis. So, I believe in angels. I know there’s a God, and I know he got me.”
She would need that unwavering faith to rebuild. By this time, she had written a memoir and starred in its TV movie adaptation alongside Viola Davis and Loretta Devine. She had toured the country and appeared on Broadway. But due to mismanagement, and a manipulative relationship, she had lost it all. “I gigged for 20 years straight. Can you imagine being onstage just about every day the way I perform? Why is it that I ended up broke, twice, with nothing? They took it all, they took it all,” she says, shaking her head. “And I was taking care of my whole family.”
After a long pause, she fills the silence between us. “I was out here vulnerable, thinking that every man that says they love me, loved me. I’m in abusive relationships, getting my ass whooped. I’ve been spit on. My life is so much like Celie’s.”
At 39, she’s writing a new chapter. She’s happy. Fulfilled. Healed. And she’s having a career resurgence, playing Celie in the new movie musical adaptation of The Color Purple. “This Tasia is different,” she says with a reassurance that comes from lived experience. “It feels like Idol all over again, except that I’m a woman and I get it.” She knows she is getting a rare second chance at fame—“the right way, though, with the right team, the right king [Kendall Taylor, her husband]. I’m in a better state of mind. I’m ready for Hollywood now. I was not ready for Hollywood when I was 19.”
On the Hollywood moment that still amazes her
“When I won Idol. That was my first time getting on a plane, going to Hollywood. I’ll never forget that night when Ryan Seacrest said my name. Sis, things started breaking off me. My heel broke, my bracelet, my necklace. And my grandmother was there, may she rest in peace. She was my biggest fan. If she was living right now, she would be too tickled to see what I’ve done. But she told me when it all broke, she said, ‘Chains are breaking off of you.’ The day that I won Idol, chains started breaking. Went through a lot afterward, but I’ll never forget that moment.”
On her mentor Patti LaBelle
“I talk to Patti [LaBelle] a lot—and she’s always real with me. I love her. She’s just one of those women that you want to sit around all day. She’s a diva, but not a diva. You’re like, ‘Man, that’s Patti,’ but she’s not making you feel like anything other than you could be her niece. I’ve honored her several times. And I’ll never forget, we did her birthday party. It was in New York. I can’t remember where we were. And I think that was around the time when things were very, very bad in my life and it was very, very public. And Patti literally sat me down. I think we talked for hours, girl, just hours. She’s just giving me some of her stuff raw, not uncut, just very raw. She was speaking into my life but giving me some of her stuff, which a lot of people don’t do because we want to make it look so perfect.
“You ever heard about relationships that you look up to in the industry and then everything looks good? The pictures look good. Everything they do, you’d be like, ‘I want to be like them.’ And then you hear that they’re breaking up, and you’d be like, ‘What the—what happened?’ I believe it’s because we always try to make everything look so good instead of saying, ‘Today I woke up and I could not stand my husband. I had to get in the car and leave and pull out!’ How can we minister and encourage our other women if we are never telling them the real stuff? And Patti gave me the real.”
On the advice she has for people following in her footsteps
“Always remember it was your first love, so that you don’t get caught up in the rat race. There was a point where I didn’t want to sing no more because I just was like, ‘Why are my albums not going number one? Why am I not selling out? Why am I still showing up at the shows and the promoter ain’t got my money?’ I had to get to a place where I realized that I am the award, I am the trophy. Now my shows are sold out, but I don’t want to get caught up in it. And that’s what I would tell a young person: ‘Make sure you still love it.’ Don’t get caught up in all the hoopla—remember what you fell in love with.”
On no longer singing from a place of pain
“That’s where it used to come from. But now I’m singing from a place of other people. As a soul singer, I tend to pick up and carry everybody else’s stuff. I’m still singing ‘Free Yourself,’ but I ain’t in that place. So now the way I sing it and the way I set it up, it’s like, ‘Yo, maybe you want to be free from your coworker who pissed you off. You had a long week. You need to free yourself.’ And the beat drops and they’re like, ‘Ahhh!’ So, it’s not like bump a man or bump with it. I bring it from a different place. And now I feel like I’m a soul singer and I connect with everybody else’s soul and I’m singing to them now.”
On her entrepreneurial projects
“I have a wine coming out. I went back to school, so I got my sommelier certificate because I didn’t want people to think that I was just a Black girl putting my name on a wine to try to make money. I really love the process of it, and I also love to drink it because it’s good. I love the process of wine. I fell in love with it when my husband took me to a winery and I felt like, this may sound crazy, but I kind of felt like my life was like what wine has to go through—the pressing. I wanted to know more about it. We’re coming out with a red wine; we’re coming out with a rosé.
“I sketch out gowns that I want to bring forth, my grandmother loved robes and gowns. Back in the day, remember when the older mothers had their robes and their nice gowns? So, I’ve decided to put time into creating.”
On her husband
“He treats me like a queen. He tells me I’m a queen every day. It’s not a day I don’t wake up to him saying, ‘Good morning, beautiful.’ I wasn’t quite used to it. It made me feel very, very uncomfortable in the beginning. But he has reminded me of who I was. I was broken. It wasn’t until I met my husband and I started becoming a woman that sat back and realized that everything I went through was necessary. I started to learn how to play chess, not checkers. I started to realize that the business is the business. Kendall, he’s pretty dope. I didn’t think I was going to have that because I didn’t think I deserved it. But remember, I told you I didn’t love myself. When I started to love on myself, I was like, girl, yeah, you deserve, you deserve, you deserve.”
On how The Color Purple led to her moment of healing
“We did the last scene, which was the picnic scene. Do you remember that? When Nettie comes? We did that scene and Oprah and Blitz, our producer, they were like, ‘Something is missing.’ So they called us all back on a Zoom call, me, Ciara—love her, and the kids—the actors who played my children and my grandchildren and they asked us, ‘Do you guys feel like we got what we needed at the end?’ And we all were like, ‘Nope.’
“I started asking them, ‘How would you all feel if you haven’t seen your sister in years? Matter of fact, you don’t even know if your sister is alive? You think your children dead, you done gave up all hope. And all of a sudden, girl, they show up.’ That’s like somebody just on the ground just hollering, balled up, thanking God. It happens in different ways for different people. Especially in that time. It was hard back then. I said, ‘You guys need to just let us tap into what we need to tap into.’ So, for me, that moment there was a…I don’t know if you remember, I kind of cried out. It was like a wail.
“That was the moment for me. I needed them to give me a moment. Ciara did too. I believe that it was healing for all of us in our own situations, and we needed a moment. Everybody was quiet on set. Oprah sent me the longest text message. She was talking. I saved it. I’ll never lose it. And she said, ‘I can tell something broke off of you.’ But watch this, she said, ‘But I broke too.’ Everybody on set. Quiet.
“That was the moment for me. That one wail, I just needed to let it out because I did get everything back that I lost. Look, if I could just let you into my world for a day, you’d be too tickled. I got everything back that I lost.”
Hair by Nikki Nelms for Shea Moisture; makeup by Rokael at Rokael Beauty; manicure by Tameka Jackson at A-Frame Agency; set design by Bryan Porter at Owl and the Elephant; produced by Anthony Federici at Petty Cash Production.
A version of this article appears in the December 2023/January 2024 issue of ELLE.
This story is part of ELLE’s 2023 Women in Hollywood portfolio, our annual celebration of the women we loved watching this year. Click the link below for all the cover stories.
Digital Beauty Director
Danielle James is the Digital Beauty Director of ELLE.com. Previously, she was the Fashion and Beauty Director of HelloBeautiful.com and MadameNoire.com. She’s written for The Cut, InStyle, Allure, The Business of Fashion, Nylon, Essence, Good Housekeeping, and more. She enjoys sailing, thrifting, Japanese whiskey, Naomi Campbell’s runway walk, and Rihanna in the comment section.