By: As told to Lori Berger, Redbook
"Why don't you try out for American Idol?" That's what Crystal Bowersox heard over and over from friends and listeners at her local gigs in Chicago. For years, she resisted. What would the Hollywood glitz machine make of a girl with dreadlocks, imperfect teeth, and a raspy, soulful voice? Then, when she was 22, she found out she was pregnant. As soon as her son, Tony, was born, she wanted more than anything to be able to give him a safe, secure life. So she swallowed her doubts and auditioned for the Idol judges. Here, in her own words, Mama Sox tells us all about the wild journey--almost getting kicked off the show, her breakup the night before the finale, and the thrill of being able to give Tony all he'll ever need.
How music has shaped her life
"I knew from the time I was 6 or 7 that music was something I had to do. Growing up, my parents did everything they knew how to do to support me. My dad was always kinda my roadie; he drove me from gig to gig. But I got my own gigs. I was this 12-year-old kid, shuffling business cards, calling people, telling them I wanted to play.
"When I hit 20, 21, everyone was like, 'Well, what if music doesn't work out?' And I was like, Maybe I should have a backup plan. I was living in Chicago then, and I went to work full-time in a real estate office and went to school full-time at night. Every morning I'd go to the office, answer phone calls, dress up really pretty, and, you know, be somebody I wasn't. I was miserable.
"During the time I worked at that office, I had started dreading my hair. Two weeks after my boss saw them, I was let go for other reasons, but I know it was because of my dreads. But those people really did me a favor. I walked out the door and down the street, and Kingston Mines [a blues club] was hiring. I was a cocktail waitress, but I was in my world and I could be me. And on jam nights, when things weren't busy, I'd get up on stage and sing with different bands. I had the best time, and I felt like I was where I belonged."
On surprise motherhood
"When I found out I was pregnant, I was 22. It was really scary because I was working the music thing, and with a kid coming, you just can't live that life with a child. I was single, I was on my own--but I had a great group of friends who backed me up and helped me through the whole thing. My son, Tony, was healthy when he was born, but he had to be in the hospital because he was a little jaundiced; he was also about three weeks early. I called my dad crying, and I was like, 'How did you do this with three kids?' I was a juvenile diabetic, and I was sick all the time growing up, and in the hospital. I had a completely newfound respect and love for my parents and what they must have gone through. Having a kid makes you appreciate your parents so much more."
Mistakes she won't make
"I had what you could call a chaotic childhood. My parents divorced when I was 2; I went back and forth between my mom's and dad's houses for years.
"But, you know, my parents tried to do the right thing. As crazy as everything was, and as much fighting and everything, there was always a feeling of support from them. They were doing the best they could, and you understand that when you grow up. But I know now, through their example, what things I don't want in my child's life. When I was younger, my mom loved me so much that she didn't know how to handle it when I didn't do the right thing. And her disappointment would come out through anger. But you know what? I don't hold it against her. I'm not mad at her now. But that will never happen with Tony and me. You live and you learn and you come to understand that your parents have their own frustrations and issues that you don't know about or aren't capable of understanding when you're young. Just like now, my son has no idea of what I've just been through for him. But no matter what you're going through as a parent, you don't ever lay that on your kid. Children need to be surrounded by nothing but love, kindness, and support."
Her Ryan Seacrest pep talk
"I went into the Idol audition with no expectations; that's just the kind of person I am. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't hurt so badly, you know? But once I made it past the first round, and the second, and third -- I started to realize, Maybe my goals and dreams really are attainable. It was hard during Idol because there were times when I didn't even get to see Tony awake. Toward the end of the show, [my ex-boyfriend] big Tony and little Tony were living with me. I'd wake up early to leave for rehearsals, and my son would be sleeping. Then sometimes I wouldn't get home until 10 to 15 hours later, and he'd already be in bed. It was hard, and I did go talk to Ryan [Seacrest] at one point because he works 24/7 and I knew he would understand. He gave me the best advice: He said the best thing I could ever do was work hard enough now so I could take care of my family. And it's true. Sometimes you have to work really hard and make sacrifices so you can provide for the people you love."
The truth about her breakup
"I really want to clear up some misunderstood stuff about Tony's and my breakup the night of the Idol finale, and let people know how amazing he was through the whole process. I feel like he's getting portrayed as this person who up and left me on the biggest day of my life, and that's not the case at all. I mean, he's getting hate mail and horrible messages online. So I want to make clear how amazing, kind, and generous a person he is, and that he truly considers my son his son and little Tony loves him. He's been there since my son was about 3 months old. And in a lot of ways, he's the perfect man; he really is. But ultimately, we both knew it wasn't going to work out, considering the different lives we were leading. And it's better to come to that realization than to have an unhappy relationship. Mommy and Daddy need to be happy in order for baby to be happy."
Her scariest Idol moment
"During Idol, I really hadn't been taking great care of myself. You want to forget you're diabetic for a while, and maybe you don't watch yourself as well as you should. I ended up getting sick in March, and they told me I was off the show. I wasn't going to take that. I begged, I screamed, I pleaded. I said, 'I want to meet with the head honchos. I need this so bad for my kid. I'll go home if I'm voted off, but not because of this.' That's the one time I threw a huge fit, and thankfully, they gave in."
The perks of insta-fame
"Sometimes I wake up and all of this good fortune seems crazy; other times it feels like the next step on my path. But I have to say, I'm still the same person. When I had my hometown parade on the show, I called up my twin brother, Carl, and I was like, 'Hey, Carl, I'm coming home.' And he was like, 'Parades are for presidents and astronauts. What did you do?' I loved it. He made me laugh for a good hour.
"Even though I have some financial security right now, it's not me to go start splurging on random things. I mean, I've lived my entire life with basically nothing, so what do I need now? The only thing I have splurged on is my son's college fund. He has a college fund, and that makes me happy. I love to say that: 'My son has a college fund.' I never had one. My parents couldn't do that for me. So I love that I'm now able to give that to Tony."
Stepping into a new life
"I like being busy; I like working hard. So in a lot of ways, everything that's happening feels completely natural, like this is what was meant to be. This summer I'll be all over the country on the American Idol tour, flying back and forth between that and Los Angeles. I think Tony will stay here with friends and family who are helping me look after him. But once it's my own tour, he will definitely be with me. And he'll be able to see and have all these experiences, meet all these new and interesting people, do a lot of unique things a lot of kids don't get to do. So it's a lot of new stuff for both of us. I'm looking forward to it.
"Eventually I'd love to find us a more stable place. I'd like to be either here in L.A. or in New York, because that's where Mommy can work. But for now, Tony's jet-setting, and he enjoys it. He loves going new places. And as cheesy as this is, home to me is where the heart is. I'm very at home in my skin. I'm at home when my son is with me."
Why her love life is on hold
"I'd love to have another kid, but as far as love.... You know, love happens when it happens; it's not something you search for. 'Cause you won't find it when you're looking. And when I think about, Do I want to get married someday?--it's a strange thing. For me, marriage is about love, not paperwork. I've never been the kid who dreamed of the big white dress, the long veil, the fancy diamond ring. If I ever do get married, I want my husband to be someone who's honest, kind, generous, with a sense of spirituality. I'm not so worried about looks; I'm more attracted to someone's mind than anything else."
The big reward
"Tony's first word this morning was happy. I am not joking. At some point in the night, I must've grabbed him out of his crib and brought him into bed with me, and we woke up this morning cuddling. And he sits up and he looks at me and he goes, 'Happy.' And I almost cried. I'm like, 'Really?' I'm doing something right and it feels so good. To me, the definition of success is happiness."
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