In the case of Christian recording artist Mandisa that identity was already formed before her success on the show three years ago. It’s the same identity that’s allowed her to openly discuss her battles with weight, her message to women and, ultimately, her faith.
“I do recognize that I will always be known as Mandisa from ‘American Idol’, ” Mandisa said. “No matter how long the show goes on it has such a big impact on pop culture all around the world. You can’t get away from that.
“Now that I’m going on my third album, I have many fans who saw me on ‘American Idol’, but I have garnered new fans who communicate with me they like my voice and my songs for the music I sing now. I’m thankful I was able to use ‘American Idol’ as a plateau for what God has done through me.”
Commercial success and notoriety for many former “Idol” contestants has been fleeting and limited to a few months or a year after their appearances on the show. That hasn’t been the case for Mandisa. Her first album, “True Beauty,” earned her Grammy and Dove Award nominations last year. It also produced the single “Only the World,” which reached No. 1 on both the pop and Christian music charts.
She knows whenever she goes on stage she will need to perform “Only the World” and “Shackles,” a Gospel song which still draws requests because of her “Idol” performance.
“If I’m completely honest, it does get tiring to be asked about those two songs,” Mandisa chuckled. “The way I look at it, it’s better to have two songs you are known for than not to have anything people want to hear.”
Being heard as a singer was something Mandisa, 32, had when she graduated with a vocal performance degree from Nashville’s Fisk University in 2000.
“Immediately after I graduated, there were not a lot of options for me to use my degree,” she recalled.
She ultimately began working for a LifeWay Christian store. The chain, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Conference, opened up opportunities for Mandisa she otherwise would have had a hard time envisioning.
“I went to work at LifeWay and felt very strongly that was what the Lord wanted me to do at the time,” she said. “I questioned it at times. I was doing data entry and customer service and thinking, ‘OK, here I am with a music degree and a desire to sing and I’m filling out Sunday School orders.’ When I look back at it now and realize the lessons God taught me through it I am so grateful.”
Her association with LifeWay allowed her to meet author and speaker Beth Moore and perform with her and musical collaborator Travis Cottrell. Those early touring performances helped her get backup vocal jobs in Nashville with the likes of established country music artists such as Trisha Yearwood and Shania Twain.
“It was a great experience,” Mandisa said of her early touring. “Beth and Travis were, and still are, two very influential people in my life. They were both very encouraging in getting me to try out for ‘American Idol’.”
The “American Idol” audition propelled Mandisa to Hollywood for on-stage completion. More importantly it anchored her faith in God and herself. To this day she still hears feedback from acerbic comments made about her weight by lead judge Simon Cowell. She used the commentary to serve as catalyst for her career.
“What Simon said really had a lot to do with why my first album was named ‘True Beauty.’ During and after ‘American Idol’, I had such a steep learning curve about so many things. Food and my reliance on it has always been a huge issue for me. Fighting that addiction and getting a grasp on where beauty really comes from other than someone else’s validation is something I had to learn.”
Mandisa’s struggles with weight and encouraging women to achieve the peace which can come from self-confidence and faith are central themes on her new album “Freedom,” which will be released March 24.
“The idea behind the album is truly about being free in many ways,” Mandisa explained. “Jesus set us free from sin through our faith in Him. For me, that has been has been not allowing my problems with food to not hold me captive any longer and achieve what I can through the Holy Spirit.”
Mandisa will be supporting her album by participating in the Women of Faith tour which draws large audiences of Christian women to venues across the nation. Her hope is to give the women and girls who attend a taste of her music and an opportunity to assess their beauty against stereotypical social portrayals.
“This is really what I see as my ministry. For women beauty and how we’re perceived is a struggle. There is a double standard, I feel, that exists for women. If I can help other women understand that they can see the gifts God has given them and how that pertains to their lives, then I will feel successful.”