American Idol Finalist Mandisa Sheds Weight, Gains New Perspective

California Native Finds Country Enlightenment and Christian Music Success in Nashville

What If We Were Real isn’t just an album title for season five American Idol finalist Mandisa. For her, it’s a newfound way of life.

During an interview with CMT.com, the talented pop and gospel singer opened up about her love of country music, the motivation behind her weight loss (120 pounds and counting) and her determination to honor God through a healthy lifestyle.

Prior to her stint on American Idol, the California native moved to Nashville to attend Fisk University, but she admits, “I didn’t know that Nashville was considered Music City when I moved here. I only discovered it after actually having been in college for a couple of years, so it was the perfect place for me.”

Living in Nashville, Mandisa began doing session and backup vocal work for artists such as Shania Twain and Trisha Yearwood. In 2005, she auditioned for American Idol in Chicago, ultimately finishing ninth during the show’s fifth season.

As for her fellow American Idol alumni, Mandisa says she’s an enthusiastic fan of Danny Gokey and gives Carrie Underwood distinct praise as “one of my favorite voices of all time.”

“I’m a fan of country music, which was new to me because I didn’t think that I ever would be. Let’s be honest, I’m a black girl,” she says with a laugh, “so you don’t see that a lot.”

Asked which country artists she’d be interested in working with on future projects, Mandisa picks Underwood, Jennifer Nettles, Wynonna and Kellie Pickler.

“I always tell Kellie I would love to do a song with her,” she notes. “I think we need to do a duet somehow. I would love for that to happen.”

In April, the Grammy-nominated singer released her third album, What If We Were Real, which she describes as her “most honest” and “edgiest” album. With tracks infused with uplifting messages of overcoming obstacles, coming to terms with your emotions and relying on God’s grace, the album is an enjoyable mix of pop, gospel, R&B and even a little bit of rock.

“I feel like my albums always reflect what’s happening in my life,” she says, “but it just so happens that what was happening in my life wasn’t all roses this time.”

At the time Mandisa began working on her album, the singer was struggling with weight issues.

“I weigh every two weeks, and I had been doing everything right for two weeks, and then I stepped on the scale and I gained 1.8 pounds,” she says. “And I was so frustrated that I was on my way to Zumba [a workout program] and I tweeted, ‘Forget Zumba. If I’m going to gain weight, I’m not going to gain it eating right and exercising. I’m going to gain it by going back to bed.’”

So she did just that. And when she awoke she found unexpected reactions from her fans. Many of the singer’s Twitter followers were quick to respond with words of encouragement, such as “Don’t give up” and “You can do it,” but other responses admittedly caught her off guard.

“I was surprised at the tweets that said, ‘I appreciate your realness’ and ‘I appreciate you sharing not just your good days but your bad days, too, because it lets me know that I’m not alone,’” she says. “Something about that made me realize people often think that [as celebrities] we have it all together. … And I just realized people are relieved to know that they are not alone.”

The feedback she received from her fans led to a transformation for the singer as she explains the effects of being true to herself and the public. “The more I was real and transparent and honest with people, the more free I felt, but then also I realized the power that that brings to people who are struggling in the same areas.”

Mandisa took that lesson to heart as she teamed up with her co-writers for the album’s title track.

“When I went in to write with my two co-writers I said, ‘Y’all I don’t feel like acting like everything is great in my life,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘What if we were real? What if we were just honest and show people the good, the bad and the ugly?’”

The singer’s willingness to expose her own weaknesses is bravely captured on her candid 11-song CD focusing on trials, encouragement and redemption. And along the way she scored her first No. 1 radio single of her career with the album’s first release, “Stronger.”

Along the way, Mandisa’s weight loss continued to be a main focus for her.

“My entire life I’ve struggled with my weight, and so I have often just done the quick fix fad diet, lose as much weight as I can really, really quickly,” she said.

While she realizes diet and exercise are important factors in maintaining her weight, the entertainer keeps her eyes on the bigger picture.

“It’s been about so much more than a number on a scale. This has been very much of an emotional and a spiritual journey for me,” she explains.

“I think the thing that’s keeping me motivated is looking at what this is really about, and for so long I’ve turned to food other than dealing with my emotions and other than turning to the Lord. So my biggest inspiration is just wanting to honor Him and just to be obedient to Him in my eating. Also I’m learning to actually deal with my emotions instead of just stuffing them down with chocolate, which is what I’ve done for so long.”

She concludes, “I want to be healthy — mind, soul and body.”