American Idol Finalist Mandisa
Written by Kelli Gillespie
Mandisa Lynn Hundley, known professionally as Mandisa, captured the hearts of fans during her run on the fifth season of American Idol. The competition, in which she placed ninth, helped launch her career as an American gospel and contemporary Christian recording artist. Recently releasing her album, Overcomer, Mandisa is, by her own admission, happier and more content than ever before. This talented singer speaks candidly with Risen about her strong Christian faith, her battle with weight and what she feels is her responsibility to counter balance the many influencers reaching young people today.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Raised in Northern California, what was your upbringing like and what role did faith play at a younger age?
Mandisa: I grew up in Sacramento, my mom was raised in the church, but she really was gone so I was not raised in the church. Every other weekend or so, I would go to church with my dad and stepmom, until I was 10 years old. But really I became a Christian when I was 16 and I went to a performance of The Singing Christmas Tree at a church called Capitol Christian Center. We were invited by a co-worker of my mom’s and I’ll never forget just being really nervous and not knowing what my mom believes about the Lord, but just feeling like I wanted to make this decision to give my heart to Jesus. And I did. I raised my hand and walked down the aisle and started going to church two years later when I got my driver’s license.
I felt my faith was really strengthened once I left Sacramento and moved to Nashville to go to college. Something about being on your own makes you start to develop what you really believe in, so that was a big turning point for me.
Strangely enough, it’s always a neat part of the story, when I moved away to college. I started travelling after I graduated, with a woman named Beth Moore, who is an amazing author and speaker. She has really been a spiritual mentor for me. I was singing on her worship team and we did this event in Phoenix, Arizona, in November of 2001. I saw my mom give her life to the Lord at that event. She was just coming to visit and cheer me on. Now my mom is involved in BSF [Bible Study Fellowship] and she’s just a completely different woman. It’s a neat turn of events to see how that all came about.
Risen Magazine: How did the decision to try-out for American Idol happen?
Mandisa: If you asked anybody who was a singer – at least around that time, because there are several shows now – anyone who was a singer and watching that show was thinking in the back of their mind, “I wonder what would happen if I were to audition?” I think I could’ve auditioned the first couple of years, but at that time the age limit was 24 and I was passed that. So once the age limited was raised, Season 5 was my last year to be eligible; you couldn’t be over 28.
I just thought, “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and still be wondering what could’ve happened if… let me just give it a try and see what happens.” At that point I was still singing on Beth’s worship team, I was singing background for different artists, but I did it because I didn’t want to have any regrets. I’ll never forget; I walked off the stage for my last event with Beth, in Vacaville, December 2005, and [directly] hopped on a plane straight to Hollywood week. And my life has been on a wild roller coaster ever since. But it was really a neat transition to go from that [situation]into American Idol, it was good preparation for me.
Risen Magazine: You became a Finalist on Season 5 (2006) and were quickly thrown into the beast that the industry can be. Now, with some time and distance from it, what did you learn the most?
Mandisa: Any time that you are very outspoken about your faith in that sort of environment [Hollywood], you can sort of expect your faith is going to go through some testing. And it did. Honestly, in an industry that is most often focused on promoting self, and getting yourself ahead, for me, I said, “I am just going to put my life in the Lord’s hands and let Him promote me, and let Him take me where He wants to.” It made it different for me. Looking back, coming in ninth place, I don’t think there were a lot of expectations for me. But because I really let the Lord lead me in what direction to go, and didn’t take just any opportunity, by saying, “You know God, this is an open door, but is this a door you’re opening and you want me to go through?” [I found that] some of those doors [weren’t the right ones]. So really being guided in that direction made my faith that much stronger because you can’t really go through something like this testing of your faith and come out the same. It’s either going to go away, or [make you] come out stronger. And it became stronger for me. Looking back, I am nothing but thankful and I love that part of my journey. I like that I came in ninth place, honestly third would have been nice if I had my choice. I really left it in the Lord’s hands because it was like, “Okay God, if you don’t do this thing, then it’s just not going to happen.” And He did it.
Praying for You is a song that I wrote for my future husband, whoever and wherever he is. In the past I think the song would have been, Would You Hurry Up I Am Waiting and You’re Taking Too Long.
Risen Magazine: Idol gave you a platform to showcase your faith and use it to connect with Simon Cowell and demonstrate Christian attributes. How much responsibility do you feel using your fame to make a positive impact?
Mandisa: On one hand, it is who I am. I remember the producers on American Idol advising all of us, “Don’t try to be anybody other than who you are. If you try to pretend to be somebody else, the audience can see through that. And they are not going to respond to you.” This is really who I am. I love the Lord with everything in me. He’s the most important person in my life and I can’t hide that, nor would I want to. So it’s naturally who I am, but at the same time, there are a lot of “influencers” out there for young people and I feel a responsibility to show an alternate route for people to take such as not letting the way that they look, or the clothes that they wear, or show as much skin as possible be a way to define beauty for girls, and also not letting what we do for a living define our worth and our value. [I believe in] not letting decisions be made simply because they look like a good idea, but rather bathing them in prayer and only taking the path that the Lord has. I love that because I have done that, and these are lessons that I have learned and can teach to others. I want to help that little girl struggling with her weight in high school to know one, that her value does not come from outward appearance, and two; God cares about our bodies and wants us to use them to honor Him. Those were lessons that I never learned growing up. It was either you have no worth because you don’t look like [the girls] on the magazine covers, or you can have it your way and super-size it and have it any way you want to; just be happy and let your heart guide you. For me, those were the lessons that I learned. But I actually think those are contrary. I believe my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, I believe I can honor God with my body, so it’s less about looking a certain way – every girl wants to be cute – but for me, knowing I can honor God with my body, is my main focus. I never learned that growing up. And I also learned growing up that I could eat whatever I wanted to because I’m free and that’s what free people do. I’ve learned true freedom is when you don’t have to give in to everything you want. It’s where you can let the Spirit guide you as well. I feel very strongly about that and want to do my part to show people that there is a different way that they can live.
Risen Magazine: You’ve been open and inspired so many people regarding your one hundred pound weight loss and your transparency with the exciting aspects of your life as well as the harder times. What do you see fans connecting with most when it comes to your music?
Mandisa: Overwhelmingly, it’s the weight. It’s such a struggle, and so many people deal with it that I can honestly say on a daily basis I feel like I’m hearing how certain songs helped them in their weight [struggle], and I love that I can do music that has a funky beat that you can listen to on a treadmill, or even hear in Zumba class. I love that. And I love that there is an inspiring message behind it; because it’s a journey that I went through and telling them, they can do this. I also love that people have watched my weight loss journey and they may have felt hopeless, but seeing me on American Idol made a difference. Looking back I’m so thankful that Simon [Cowell, Idol Judge] made fun of me – because every fat girl that saw that said, “Oh my gosh, I’ve experienced the same thing.” Maybe not on national television, but every girl that has struggled with her weight has had somebody pick on her, make fun of her, embarrass her and made her want to cry. I am so thankful that happened to me, especially when I did forgive Simon, because I forgave him for so much and now seven years, later to be one hundred pounds lighter. I’m really thankful my journey has been chronicled on national television. I think it gives hope to those women who think they can’t do it. I’m living proof that if I can, anybody can. And my story is not one of, “I have arrived.” I’m still working, and I’ve come a long way, thank God I’m not where I was, I’m still on this journey, and I still have quite a ways to go. I kind of dig that my story is not, “Look at me I’ve made it.” But rather, “Look at me I’m making it and you can make it along with me.” I like that I can help others on a similar journey.
Risen Magazine: After your success on the show you release your first full-length album, True Beauty, which debuted number one on the Top Christian Albums charts, making it the first time a new female artist has debuted at number one in the chart’s 27-year history. How did that make you feel?
Mandisa: I had a lot of different offers and routes that I could’ve gone. I remember Randy Jackson [Idol Judge] saying on Larry King Live –with Ryan Seacrest, Katharine [McPhee] and Taylor [Hicks], just “Do the music that comes most naturally for you.” I had people wanting me to do an R&B thing, and I could have. Had I done that, I would be nowhere to be seen right now. [Laughter] It’s not the music that comes most naturally for me. The style of it does, and I think if you listen to my album you’ll hear that funky soul and it has a little pop, but I love that I can sing about the most important person in my life, Jesus. You know, there are no Christian chords, there are no Christian sounds, and it is just what we are singing about the makes it Christian. I love that I can have get-up-and-dance music, and have it be talking about the one that makes me want to get up and dance. I think that because I was obedient to that, the Lord has really blessed me. It really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and some of the things I’ve been hearing recently about where I rank, honestly it doesn’t make any sense. I’m just happy and I love that I get to do this for a living. It’s really hard to not judge my success by the chart stuff, and how songs are doing, and how albums are doing – every artist does, honestly. But to really [judge it] by the stories I hear from the people we were just talking about, who tell me what the songs have meant to them is what I really try to stay focused on for defining success for me. I feel like as I stay focused on that, and who I’m making the music for, and having it be true to who I am and true to who the Lord is, then everything else works out. And that has definitely been my story over the last seven years or so.
Risen Magazine: Releasing your fourth album this past August, the first in two years, called Overcomer, what are you most excited about when it comes to these songs?
Mandisa: I think this album is different for me, because I’m in a different place with the Lord. I’ve never been happier, I’ve never just been more content in all areas. I’ve been super-duper single my entire life, pining away for a husband, and this last year or so I’ve really been content with who I am and my relationship with the Lord. I am in a really great place, so that was reflected in this album. There are a lot of celebrate and I want to thank you Lord, you’ve been so good, songs on there. I think in the past, because I have had so many things that have been difficult, a lot of the songs have reflected that. There are still a couple of those [on this album], but this is really a celebration album and everything deals with very specific things in my life. Praying for You is a song that I wrote for my future husband, whoever and wherever he is. In the past I think the song would have been, Would You Hurry Up I Am Waiting and You’re Taking Too Long. But now it’s more like, you are going to come when you are supposed to come, and in the meantime I am going to be praying for you. I’ve never really been able to say that before. There are a lot of songs on there that are just praise and thank you Lord. Joy Unspeakable and Back to You are just worship songs and lots of great songs for the treadmill. It’s a thanking-to-God-for-all-He-has-done-in-my-life album.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Winter 2013