February 08, 2010 12:00 PM

Fantasia Barrino says the moment she knew she “had to change things” came in early 2008, when she wanted to order takeout. “But I didn’t have the money,” recalls the singer, who in the years since her 2004 American Idol win had been supporting not only her daughter Zion, now 8, but also her mother, three siblings and several other relatives. “It was so bad I couldn’t even order a pizza!”

That was the low point in a series of personal and financial setbacks—nearly losing her home, having fans question her professionalism after she canceled a number of Broadway performances and packing on 30 lbs.—that had left her wondering, “How is this happening to me?” she says. “Things were going downhill.” But with the same drive that took her from high school dropout to pop star, Barrino, 25, set out “to rebuild my dynasty,” she says. In the last 18 months, she has put herself on a budget (buh-bye, platinum card!), started studying to get her GED and lost 30 lbs. (see box)—a journey now being chronicled on her new VH1 reality series Fantasia for Real. “I am trying,” she says, “to get my life together.”

For a time it seemed as if there were simply too many obstacles for her to overcome. As her family’s “sole breadwinner,” Barrino’s expensive tastes—”Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Jimmy Choo, I love them”—quickly got her into debt, especially after her money-management team, she says, failed to pay her taxes. “When I got into this game, I was very naive, and I think people saw they could get over on me.” Even worse: She could no longer count on her voice to bail her out, after a 2007 Broadway run in The Color Purple left her throat injured and prompted her to repeatedly miss performances. The ensuing fallout—producers had to refund nearly $1 million in tickets, angering fans—”hurt my feelings,” Barrino says. “It wasn’t like I was out partying. I put everything into the show.”

It wasn’t until Barrino left Purple that Beverly Hills throat specialist Dr. Shawn Nasseri discovered a large hemorrhagic polyp on her vocal chords. “It could have permanently scarred her ability to sing,” says Nasseri, who successfully removed the growth; in fact Barrino this month returns to The Color Purple in a Los Angeles production (“We are proud and honored to have her,” says Oprah Winfrey, one of the show’s producers) and is also back in the studio recording her third album.

“Right now I’m committed to my career,” Barrino says. She denies reports that she is dating a married man named Antwaun Cook, with whom she was recently spotted on vacation in Barbados, saying, “He’s a good friend, and he is not with his wife.” Barrino adds, “I’m not trying to be in a deep relationship. As hard as I have fought to come back, nothing can stop me.”

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