Former American Idol winner and R&B singer Fantasia Barrino tried to kill herself. It is being reported that she took an overdose of aspirin and sleep medication in an effort to escape the media scrutiny related to her role in an alleged affair with Antwaun Cook, a married T-Mobile salesperson. Cook's wife, Paula, filed for divorce, naming his affair with Barrino as a factor and alleging that the two had made multiple sex tapes. Barrino maintains that there are no sex tapes and that Cook was separated, so she did nothing wrong.
Media coverage of the suicide attempt has been interconnected with relentless documentation of the illicit affair, including the fact that Barrino had Cook's name tattooed on her shoulder, which she later covered. Even in Charlotte, where I live when not in D.C., the media, which normally rarely cover the North Carolina native made good, have been fixated on the attempted suicide and tawdry details of the affair. I'm wondering: If they know that this type of scrutiny is what drove her to try to commit suicide, why would they continue badgering her in the press? But that's another story.
What I found to be most interesting is that Alicia Keys has been able to escape this type of media scrutiny in the mainstream press, even though she reportedly was engaged in a three-year affair with a married man, which ultimately resulted in the demise of the marriage. Keys also became pregnant and engaged to super producer Swizz Beatz while the man was separated but still married nonetheless. She then married Beatz weeks after his divorce was finalized. The black press have let both Fantasia and Keys have it for their indiscretions, but the mainstream media took to the Fantasia story like a rabid dog while ignoring the illicit actions of Keys.
They painted Keys' wedding as a fairy tale, even though she allegedly did what many women other than Angelina Jolie consider to be the unthinkable: steal another woman's husband and get pregnant before the divorce is even final. Most women on the receiving end of that behavior would take the pregnancy as a great big open-handed slap to the face. Of course, we don't know if Keys "stole" Beatz from his wife — no one knows what goes on in marriages — but it appears that she was romantically involved with someone who was married. Beatz's wife, Mashonda, maintains that she was blindsided by the affair with Keys, who was even a guest at her baby shower.
I'm wondering why the mainstream media are so willing to let Keys off the hook for what many would call socially unacceptable behavior at best, and immoral behavior at worst, while taking Barrino to task for similar behavior.
Is it that Keys is too pretty to be pummeled?
The biracial beauty, raised by a single mom in Hell's Kitchen, hails from humble beginnings. She is loved throughout the world for her musical talent, charity work in Africa and overall "go get 'em girl" personality. Her inspiring anthems, including "Superwoman" and "Empire State of Mind" with Jay-Z, solidified her place in American pop culture as an icon en route to what is sure to become legendary status. The girl who graduated as valedictorian of Performing Arts High School at age 16 and dropped out of Columbia University to pursue a music career has done extremely well for herself. So this isn't a "hate on" Alicia Keys piece.
The sad truth is, even in 2010, skin color and conventional standards of beauty play considerable roles in these real-life soap operas. Keys fits those beauty standards; Barrino does not. The message boards were brutal when Barrino played Celie on Broadway in The Color Purple; "ugly" was a common descriptor. Now, Barrino might not be a cover girl, but she is far from ugly.
Like Keys, Barrino also hails from working-class beginnings. (She shares a hometown, High Point, N.C., with jazz legend John Coltrane.) Barrino has been vocal about her challenges: poverty, being molested as a child, becoming a teen mother, having an abusive relationship with the child's father, illiteracy, and recent financial and family challenges. These challenges have been documented in her Lifetime biopic, Life Is Not a Fairy Tale: The Fantasia Barrino Story; her autobiography of the same name; and her VH-1 reality show, Fantasia for Real, not to mention the Oprah interview seen around the world.
And while Barrino is extremely talented, she has not enjoyed the superstar success of Keys, although the two share a record label and mentor, Clive Davis.
Keys, on the other hand, represents the New York aesthetic of cool. At a young age, she fought her way through the ultracompetitive New York music scene to get a record deal. Perhaps it is a regional issue? Beat up on the dark-skinned girl from the South. Love and admire the biracial girl from the North.
Are the media willing to lambaste Barrino because she seems to fit certain stereotypes about black people? That of the poor, downtrodden black girl singing her way out of the hood — or, in this instance, the country — whose laughter is clearly hiding a lot of pain? She does a little jig to make you feel better and sings her heart out while crying about her circumstances — she is as American as apple pie in terms of media representation. She's the girl who refuses to leave North Carolina, setting up shop in Charlotte instead of going to New York, Los Angeles or Atlanta, as many black music artists do who have hit the big time. She will not leave her past behind, even though, if you watch her reality show, you know it is her past that is getting in the way of her present and her future.
But even that doesn't fully explain why Barrino is being labeled a home wrecker while Keys gets a pass. It doesn't explain why Barrino's affair has been covered so much while Keys' has not. It has been reported that Cook reconciled with his wife at one point after the affair. Beatz, however, left his wife, divorced her and married Keys in record time. In the end, Keys got her man; Barrino didn't.
Clearly, Keys has a better publicist than Barrino. Maybe it's because the mainstream media would have to admit that this "perfect" woman, whose image they helped construct, is, in fact, far from perfect. How can you make a song like "Superwoman" and sleep with and get pregnant by another woman's husband? Supporting women isn't just about equal pay.
Keys has crafted a Teflon image that even the mainstream press won't touch, but Barrino is an open target. Some of you think that karma is swift and Barrino deserves what she is getting. You may be right, but the way she's being raked over the coals while Keys' actions are completely ignored exposes a hypocrisy in our culture. Both women are wrong. What's also wrong is the difference in the way their bad behavior is covered by the mainstream media. And that makes absolutely no sense.
Nsenga K. Burton is editor-at-large for, and a regular contributor to, The Root.