“I went through a lot of changes all at the same time,” Willett tells PEOPLE of coming up short on the NBC reality singing competition just before losing her father to cancer. “I struggled with a little bit of depression and bulimia and trying to figure out how to love myself. I just couldn’t do it.”
Though she’d “became comfortable” in her own “skin” while in college studying marketing, Willett says the public scrutiny she faced while on The Voice ate away at her confidence.
“I was 22 years old and just seeing the world for the first time, really,” she says. “And people are mean sometimes. Especially when they’re hiding behind a computer. For every 10 amazing tweets and comments, there would be that one that I would just focus on.”
Comments on her weight were what got to Willett the most: “When someone calls me stupid, I know that I’m smart. When someone says I can’t sing, I know I’ve done the work and I can sing. But when they call me fat, I know I’m fat,” she says. “I’d done things to put myself in that position and I didn’t want to be there anymore.”
As she continued to gain weight, Willett, now 26 and 238 lbs., turned to bulimia.
“I just think my life was out of control and I was trying to control at least control some aspect of it,” says Willett, who kept her bulimia a secret from even her mother and boyfriend until just a few months ago.
Ultimately, Willett says the shame of having to resort to bulimia in hopes of losing weight is what caused her to stop the dangerous practice of bingeing and purging.
“I’ve fallen apart,” she says. “Now, I’m here to rebuild myself in a more genuine way, a deeper way, a stronger way that will outlast the comments that don’t matter. I want to build a stronger relationship with myself.”
“I’m ready to make a change,” she continues. “I am young, and I don’t want the things that I’m struggling with now to carry on into my adult life. I want to have a fulfilling, happy, great life. I just need to get out of my own way. And I’m ready to do that.”
Season 17 of The Biggest Loser premieres Jan. 4 at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.