December 06, 2004 12:00 PM

Fantasia Barrino is flat out giddy. She’s bouncing around a Toys “R” Us on her daughter Zion’s third birthday, the two of them cuddling Dora dolls and hopping on electric scooters. “I’m like a big kid in here!” says Barrino, who charmed the employees at the Pineville, N.C., store into staying open an hour past closing—just long enough to fill two SUVs with gifts, including a Barbie Jeep that Barrino cried over last year because she couldn’t afford it. Says the American Idol winner: “Christmas is every day for Zion now.”

Life isn’t too shabby for Fantasia either. In June she bought a two-story brick house in Charlotte, N.C., and a month later her Idol showstopper “I Believe” topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. She’s chilled with Denzel and Pauletta Washington at their L.A. home. (“If Fantasia needs some food or words of comfort, I will always be there,” says Pauletta.) And with her new debut CD, Free Yourself, the 20-year-old single mom with killer pipes and a grin to match hopes to prove she’s worth her $1 million record contract. Missy Elliott, who produced three tracks, needs no convincing. “When she hit that first note [in the studio], I was like, ‘This is Fantabulous right here!’ ”

But any A-list afterglow is tempered by Zion, who’s usually back in Charlotte and has had her miss-you meltdowns. After an Idol concert in Winston-Salem, the toddler wouldn’t let Mom get on the tour bus. “We had to pry her away from Fantasia,” says the singer’s mother, Diane, 43, a nondenominational preacher who takes care of Zion when Fantasia is away. “She was clinging to her neck, her leg, whatever she could hold onto, screaming, I want my mommy!’ That was heartbreaking.” Says Barrino: “I cry. I miss her all the time. But Zion’s handling it better than I am. If she didn’t, I’d be torn up. It makes me want to work harder.”

Barrino herself grew up around heartache and poverty in High Point, N.C., which she and her brother Ricco, 24, dubbed the “Land of No Hope.” At 5, she first sang at the Mercy Outreach Church of Deliverance; three years later she was touring the South on a rickety bus with the Barrino Family singers, a close-knit group including Diane, Fantasia’s trucker father, Joseph, 42, and brothers Ricco and Joseph, 23 (and eventually Xavier, 11). But wanting to be more like her friends, she dropped out of ninth grade and soon was drinking and hanging out in clubs. By 16, she was involved in an abusive relationship—and pregnant. Zion’s father, Brandel Shouse, 22, pled guilty in April 2002 to beating and choking Fantasia. “We were kinda killing each other, fighting, arguing,” says Barrino, who’s not dating anyone now. “It made me realize I had to respect myself. If I let it go on, Zion would’ve grown up [letting herself be disrespected]. I’m cautious now about relationships. I won’t go through that anymore—no hitting, none of that.”

Breaking free meant moving into a small apartment to raise Zion alone. Though Barrino would pitch in at her grandmother’s daycare center and occasionally sing for pay, she often had only Oodles of Noodles for breakfast and dinner. “She wanted to do it herself, but ifs so hard,” says Diane. “Sometimes I’d have to borrow to see that the child had Pampers, but we made it through that.” Barrino credits her turnaround to her faith. “We fall down, but we get up,” she says. “Nobody’s perfect but the man upstairs. I put my life in God’s hands.”

Now Barrino hopes the Idol faithful will dig her R&B grooves. “Coming from a TV show, we have to earn our respect,” she admits. “Ifs time to let people know who Fantasia really is.” Which means embracing her hardscrabble past with songs like “Baby Mama,” an anthem for single moms. Says Missy Elliott: “To kids who’ve made mistakes, she’ll be their guidance counselor.”

Fantasia’s intent on raising her own standards too. After studying with a tutor all summer, she’s just two tests shy of her G.E.D. She’ll also bring Zion on the road soon. “I’m proud of me. I went from chilling to working all the time,” she says. “People ask, ‘How does it feel to be a star?’ I always say, ‘This ain’t no fairy tale. There’s a real-life story going on right here.’ ” And she’s planning to write her own happily ever after.

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