NASHVILLE, Tenn. Mandisa lounges on a brown suede sofa. A maze of unpacked boxes line the room; in the air, the smell of new paint lingers. The bright colors on the walls shout "happy," but everything about Mandisa says "calm." Less than a week into first-time home ownership, her T-shirt explains it all: "2 Blessed 2 Be Stressed."
This inviting townhome on the outskirts of Nashville, Tenn., is worlds away from where she's been.
In March 2006, two weeks after making it into the Top 12 on "American Idol," the most-watched program in television history, 29-year-old Mandisa commanded the stage, belting out "I'm every woman, it's all in me...." Despite her un-Hollywood image, every note she hit and every move she made convinced anyone watching that she was exactly what she sang.
Mandisa (who uses solely her first name) had been an avid fan of the reality competition since its first season, and when auditions for the fifth season of Idol rolled around, she had just one thought: I never want to look back and wonder what would've happened if.... So she flew to Chicago and, as more than 30 million viewers would witness during the show's season-openers, nailed Alicia Keyes' mega-hit "Falling."
Judge Simon Cowell, notorious for slamming contestants, was amazed, saying, "You were everything I hoped you would be." Soon Mandisa found herself on a plane to Hollywood for her chance at a dream that had been taking shape since she was a girl.
Growing up in Citrus Heights, Calif., Mandisa Lynn Hundley's life was anything but made. Her parents divorced, and her dad remarried and moved away. Her mother Ruby worked long hours to make ends meet.
"My mom is the strongest woman I know," Mandisa said. "I don't know how she managed to keep it all together, but she did."
While her mother worked, Mandisa went to school and after-school programs. But at home she sang along with Whitney Houston into her curling iron. And in the shower. With the radio. In her dreams.
In high school Mandisa tried to master the flute, but, she said with a laugh, "my lips got in the way." Instead, she joined the choir where she began to hear her potential.
"When I was singing in the bathroom, I thought I was OK," she said, "but when people started saying, 'You could be a professional,' it began to have an impact. Just a glimpse of encouragement really sticks."
Back then Mandisa hadn't been exposed to much in the way of faith, except for a few visits to church with her dad before he moved away. But she was seeking more. At 16, she was invited to a church to see "The Singing Christmas Tree." At the end of the program, Mandisa took her first steps toward a relationship with Jesus.
A couple of years later, she started attending church regularly when she got her driver's license and a car. "In fact," she said, "church was the first place I wanted to go."
When she moved to Nashville to attend Fisk University, Mandisa's spiritual life deepened. "Nashville was a culture shock, and I was miserable. That's when I began to rely on God. I was so desperate, I had to," she said.
After finishing her degree in music/vocal performance, Mandisa was hired to sing backup for worship leader Travis Cottrell at nationwide conferences with Bible teacher Beth Moore. That opportunity grew into studio session work, where she recorded vocals for the likes of Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill and Charlie Daniels.
She was excited for the opportunities to use her voice -- any vocalist would be -- but this young singer was eager to walk through whatever doors God might present to her. Eventually one door led to Hollywood.
Grace under pressure
From the earliest moments of her American Idol experience, Mandisa's character was tested. Although complimentary during the audition, Cowell later dealt a few low blows about her weight.
"I had no idea. I was watching the premiere with my friends when I heard the comments he'd made," she said. "I was devastated. I couldn't believe he said that because of what he'd said to my face."
Encouraged by producers to "let Simon have it" on camera, Mandisa told Cowell, "I want you to know that I've forgiven you and that you don't need someone to apologize in order to forgive somebody. I figure that if Jesus could die so that all of my wrongs could be forgiven, I can certainly extend that same grace to you." Cowell said he was "humbled" and apologized.
"They were expecting me to cuss him out or something," Mandisa said. "They weren't ready for what I said. But I knew what the Lord wanted me to say, and now I know why. My entire American Idol journey could've ended for me right then. That was redemption. To this day, it continues to be my favorite moment on the show."
That grace under pressure endeared her to the audience even more -- and made great television. So when she blew the roof off Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman," it was no surprise that Mandisa landed in the Top 12.
"I started out feeling calm and confident. No worries at all," she said of those early days. "I was careful to have my time with the Lord every morning. That kept me focused."
In the weeks that followed, the nicknamed "Mandiva" more than held her own in the competition. In fact, she was considered a sure thing for the final three. But a greater test would come.
For anyone who was watching, Mandisa's early elimination was a shocker. Despite her strong showing week after week, the singer was voted off the show two weeks after singing "Shackles (Praise You)," a gospel song that judge Randy Jackson "didn't get" and that Cowell called "indulgent."
But more than the song itself, Mandisa's introduction sparked a controversy that snowballed from a misunderstanding.
"This song," she said as the crowd cheered, "goes out to everybody who wants to be free. Your addiction, lifestyle and situation may be big, but God is bigger."
"I really was talking about my life, my addiction to food, my lifestyle," Mandisa said of that night. "You know how people say you shouldn't diet but have a lifestyle change? That was what I was talking about, but people partnered that with my admiration for Beth Moore and [her endorsement of] Exodus Ministries. The ill-conceived conclusion was that I didn't like gay people."
Afterward, Mandisa was swarmed by media interviews, most wanting to know her position on homosexuality.
"It wasn't until I was eliminated and began doing all the media that I was hit with it," she said. "It was difficult. I cried hourly. There were a few isolated events when I did interviews, and they really let me have it. People yelled at me."
But she's not holding grudges.
"I understand why the gay community feels bitter and ostracized because there are radical 'Christian' groups who say, 'God hates you' and 'AIDS is God's wrath against you,'" Mandisa said, "when the truth of the matter is that God loves gay people just as He loves me, just as He loves anybody.
"The thing that hurt the most," she added, "is that I was being associated with hate, and that's not who I am. That's not what I'm about at all."
In retrospect, Mandisa sees the hand of God in her situation, even in such a fiery end to her fairy tale.
"In the midst of it, I lost hope," she admitted. "I questioned why God would direct me to sing that song, to say those words, but you know, everything had to happen the way it did.... It forced me to deal with some issues I wasn't dealing with -- pride issues, trust issues. A lot of my ability to trust was circumstantial, and when those circumstances went away, my trust wavered. That was the biggest lesson in it all -- learning how to really trust God no matter what."
During the controversy, Mandisa's otherwise supportive fellow competitors were strangely silent on the matter.
"What I was left with," she said, "was being true to myself because I was alone. The only person I could be accountable to was God."
Wiser, stronger, free
To say that her best days are still ahead is no exaggeration. Even before the competition ended, Mandisa was offered a modeling contract with Ashley Stewart, a New York-based plus-size clothing line.
Then, after a grueling American Idol tour that hit 50 cities in three-and-a-half months, Mandisa hadn't so much as made it off the bus when offers came pouring in from mainstream, Christian and gospel record labels. After researching, asking advice and praying for God's guidance, Mandisa inked a contract with EMI/Christian Music Group and released her debut Contemporary Christian album, "True Beauty."
Though it wasn't always the smoothest road, Mandisa is nothing but thankful for her surreal journey.
"I wouldn't have the platform I have now had it not been for my experience on American Idol," she said. "I was happy doing session work, but this is the path God has for me, and He prepared me for it. I don't know what's coming, but I know He used American Idol as a catalyst to make a path for me."
Mandisa also released a book with Tyndale House called "IDOLeyes," a revealing look at "faith, fat and fame."
Now 30, she is one determined woman. She's working hard to get in shape and lose weight, and she's keeping her eyes and heart open for whatever comes next. But most of all, this "Everywoman" radiates a contagious joy that audiences caught only glimpses of on television.
Clearly God has graced Mandisa with wisdom and purpose, plus the vision and insight to take what she's learned from her journey and make it count for something that matters something even bigger than the 60 million votes that will crown the next pop star.
"My only focus is on Jesus. I want people to know what Christianity looks like. People have such a skewed vision. They see certain images and think we're all fire and brimstone, when really we're just like everyone else. We just have a relationship with the Savior," she said. "And so in everything from the book, the music, the fashion ads I want people to see what that can mean in a life. I want them to think, 'There's something about Mandisa. What is it, and how can I have it?'"
Melissa Riddle writes for Christian Single magazine, where this article first appeared. Reprinted with permission from LifeWay Christian Resources.