Tony Cummings reports on the latest gospel hitmaker MANDISA who has risen from the ranks of American Idol to become a best selling singer and author
The phenomenon of the TV talent search shows no sign of abating quite yet. In Britain Will Young, Shane Ward and most recently Leona Lewis are enjoying TV-promoted CD sales success while in the States Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and several more are today some of the biggest CD sellers around. While the Christian music industry should be thoroughly ashamed of its blatantly derivative Gospel Dream TV series, one big Christian talent has been catapulted to the Big Time through the American idol TV programmes, Mandisa. Not only has the soulful singer's album 'True Beauty' debuted at number one on the US Christian charts, Mandisa's book Idoleyes: My New Perspective On Faith, Fat & Fame has become a best seller. Ironically, it was an infamous TV incident when the notorious Simon Cowell made highly disparaging remarks about Mandisa's weight which was the pivotal point in the singer's unlikely rise to American fame. She told Cross Rhythms broadcaster Mike Rimmer, "Simon gave me a hard time over my weight. But I believe that came about because I was so vocal about my faith. And the fact of the matter is that all things can work together for good to those who love the Lord. Even the difficult things that I went through, I would go through all over again because I feel closer to the Lord now, and I feel like a stronger person now than when I went in to American Idol. I would say that Simon is often right in what he says but wrong in the way he says it. I think people wouldn't be quite so upset and would listen more to what he had to say if he would say things in a way that would make it easier for people to listen to. After he made the comments about me, I forgave him. I told him I would forgive him because Jesus forgave me of all I had done wrong. That was just an example of me showing him, and showing the world, the principles that Jesus laid out for us."
A native of Sacramento, California, Mandisa's early life was hard. She was only a toddler when her parents divorced and by the time she was a teenager she had developed a food addiction. Mandisa Diane Hundley attended Nashville's Fisk University, where she performed with the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers and earned a degree in vocal performance. She honed her skills as a background vocalist with such talents as Trish Yearwood, Shania Twain, Take 6 and Faith Hill, and also worked in customer service at Lifeway Christian Resources in Nashville. She told Billboard magazine, "People would send in Sunday school orders and I would sit there and type them in all day long. I had my earphones on and I would just sing. I guess I was singing louder than I thought I was and people started hearing me and noticing that I could sing. Then, they started asking me to sing in chapel services."
In her book Idoleyes Mandisa recounted how she was mystified because she thought the Lord told her that she would be in the top three finalists, when in reality she made it no further than the top 10. Since then, she has come to realise God's purposes for her on the show. She told Mike Rimmer, "I've learned that you don't have to win American Idol to be successful from it. The fact of the matter is that when you are on that show and you make it into the top 10 you're guaranteed to go on the tour for the next three and a half months, and more importantly you have been seen by millions and millions of people. Just the exposure alone is enough, depending on what you do with it - that is enough for you to be successful. I think that it's important though, you just don't rest on your laurels and rest on the fact that you've been on American Idol but you actually have to produce something that is of quality for people to really respect you as an artist."
The task of making something of quality with the soulful voiced singer was entrusted to five sets of producers who worked with Mandisa on 'True Beauty'. Shaun Shankel (Beyonce, Natalie Grant), Brown Bannister (Amy Grant), Christopher Stevens (TobyMac), Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders (India.Arie, Jonny Lang) and the Double Dutch team of Robert Marvin and Josiah Bell (Mat Kearney, Matt Redman), all worked on the album. Mandisa also spent personal time with the album's writers before the songwriting process began, sharing her vision for the project and what she hoped to communicate through the songs. The end result is a seamless flow of tracks that create a diverse landscape for messages of hope, inspiration and faith.
The title track, which she co-wrote with producer Drew Ramsey and singer/songwriter Cindy Morgan, defines an essential theme in Mandisa's own terms: "Visions of perfection/Such a misconception/'Cause the real connection is deeper than the eye can see." "It's all about the fact that our view of beauty should not be built around our outside. An unfading beauty comes from a gentle and quiet spirit," Mandisa explained. "I really believe that someone can have an inward beauty that shines so much that it makes them even more beautiful on the outside. We chose this as the album's title because this is such an important message to me."
"Only The World" is the album's funky, energetic first single, which recently spent weeks on Billboard's Top Single Sales chart. Written by Matthew West, Sam Mizell and Clint Lagerberg, it captures Mandisa's joyful spirit well. "We all have difficult days we wish we didn't have to go through, but it gives you so much peace and joy when you realise that it's only the world we're living in, and one day we're going to go to a much better place," she said of the song's theme. "This song makes me want to roll down the window, turn up the volume, throw my hands up and just have fun."
About her food addiction, Mandisa is forthright. She told Mike Rimmer, "I have to face my stronghold every single day and so it makes it very, very difficult. I think that's part of the reason why so many people struggle with food related issues, because sometimes it's more accepted to be addicted to food than to be addicted to another kind of a substance. All of it is unhealthy and all of it is bad for you. Anytime that we are turning to anything in order to satisfy, to fill that void that can only be filled by God - that's what idolatry is and that's how strongholds are formed. It's a day by day process of the Lord breaking me free. It's not gonna happen over night. It took me 20 years to get like this and it's gonna take some time for the Lord to break me free of it. I do know that he's gonna do it and he's in the process of doing it now." The singer admitted that carrying on her fight against flab in the public eye is tough. "It's very difficult. It really does open me up to public scrutiny and I've sworn off getting on the internet and typing up my name because I've seen so many hurtful things written about me and said about me that I don't want to see any more. It made me stronger, it made me not wear my feelings on my sleeve but that's the sort of the cross I'm called to bear. The Lord has allowed me to go through this publicly because there are so many people who struggle with this privately and I believe he is wanting to show the world his glory and his grace in order to get somebody through these types of things. So I go through it because that's what he's called me to do and at the end of my life I will be able to know that my life had significance, even though it was difficult. I think it was worth it at the end to know that I was able to make a change in this world through my difficulties."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.