October 17, 2005 12:00 PM

Life hasn’t always been magical for Fantasia. The 2004 American Idol winner grew up in impoverished High Point, N.C., quit school in ninth grade and became pregnant at 16. In a new memoir, Life is Not a Fairy Tale (dictated to collaborator Kim Green), Fantasia, 21, makes more startling confessions: She was raped at 15, and, like an estimated 23 million other Americans, she is functionally illiterate.

When Ryan Seacrest announced my name as the winner of American Idol, my life changed forever. I would drive up to shows in different cities, and there would be American Idol signs all over. I noticed little girls had their hair cut like mine. Mothers were running to get close to the car I was in. I would shrink in fear of what they would do when they saw me. What if I didn’t look like I looked on TV? What if my lips were even bigger than they thought? What if they thought I was too ugly to be the American Idol?

When I was a child, I was always so skinny and I had big lips. People teased me. I used to go home and cry and tell my mother that everyone thought I was ugly. It’s lonely when you feel like you’re not good enough.

When I got a bit older, I wanted to be like the girls who had it “goin’ on”—the ones with fingernails, makeup and cell phones. I thought that if I was like them, I would be happy.

So after years of growing up in the church, I went astray. I started dating the pastor’s son who I’ll call B. He was 16 and I was 14. B. tried to convince me to have sex. I was thinking that if I didn’t have sex with the preacher’s son, he would find someone else who would. Finally, he convinced me. It wasn’t anything like I had hoped. It just felt like loneliness. I thought we were in love and he thought I was easy.

The next misunderstanding I had to deal with changed me forever. I want to share this because if I can save one of you from having to go through this, this story is worth sharing. One day a popular boy gave me more attention than I wanted. He was one of the guys I always wanted to notice me. Finally, he noticed me. He raped me in the auditorium after school.

I can barely recall the details. I shudder to think of how that single act changed me. I didn’t get out of bed for two days. When my mother asked me why I wouldn’t go to school, I said simply, “I’m not going.” I was too paralyzed to even wash the rape off me. I felt filthy. Finally my mom said, “Something has happened to you.” I told her what happened. She marched me into the principal’s office and forced me to tell the name of the boy. He ended up getting into some trouble, but not the trouble he deserved.

Later, a single mom barely making ends meet, she began confronting another source of anguish.

I met a guy. His name was J.B. He is the first man who showed me what respect is. J.B. wanted to help me gain my independence. He wanted to help me get my driver’s license.

This was when the fact that I couldn’t really read came out. I had gotten to eighth grade, but I had just slid by. When J.B. realized I couldn’t read well, he didn’t laugh. Instead, he would make me read things and sound out the large words. It only struck me that I needed to read when my daughter, Zion, brought over one of her books. I cried because I couldn’t read the large words on the colorful pages. I recognized most words, but didn’t know how to pronounce them. So I started attending a program to get my GED.

Dropping out of school was my biggest mistake ever, and I pay for it every day. I’m what I would call a functionin’ illiterate. I “get by” in life, but my readin’ isn’t what it should be. I am workin’ on it. I am still not confident enough. I recognize the common words, but most big words or too many words together scare me.

While I’m admittin’ things, I should tell you that I don’t even have a driver’s license. When I won the car on Idol, I was filled with joy, pride and the fear of someone finding out that I couldn’t drive. I was afraid that they would take the car away.

If you believe that God has a plan for you, you know that your pain is just God’s reminders. Today, I am trying my best to correct my mistakes. I am trying to get my GED and my driver’s license. And every day, I feel my confidence grow because I know a little more today than yesterday. I am blessed to have my music give me so much, but I know that my education has just started.

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