Former American Idol contestant Antonella Barba seemed to have it all. The talented 34-year-old Jersey girl, who competed on season six of the popular talent show (amid controversy for showing up in X-rated images), set her sights on Tinsel Town. After finishing her college education, Barba moved to the West Coast seeking fame and fortune, but what she found would change her life forever.
Initially, the stunning singer found success as the singer for the L.A. rock band LA-ex. She also contributed to a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” for a 2014 UNICEF campaign, and appeared in a 2018 segment of Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Some acting and an appearance on Fear Factor had Barba feeling good about her future.
But than her world began to collapse. Little did show know just how far she would fall.
In December 2010, she was charged with two misdemeanors for shoplifting, for which she served community service. Like so many broken Hollywood dreams, Barba’s hopes slowly faded — and what was once a road to stardom became a life of seedy characters, homelessness and desperation.
Then, in October 2018, Barba was arrested in Norfolk, Va., on a felony charge of distributing more than 100 grams of heroin. But things would get even worse. In February 2019, she was indicted on 11 federal charges for allegedly possessing cocaine, heroin and fentanyl and acting as a courier for a drug ring.
Despite initially denying the charges, Barba pleaded guilty in July 2019 to distributing synthetic opioids, and in November 2019, was sentenced to three years and nine months in federal prison.
OK! recently caught up with Barba by phone where she is currently serving out the final months of her sentence confined to a halfway house. Here is her exclusive story.
You starred in the sixth season of American Idol and soon after earned a B.A. of Science from Catholic University. The world seemed to be yours. But after moving to Los Angeles to find stardom something went horribly wrong. What happened?
AB: [Long pause.] I don’t know. I made some bad decisions, and I got sidetracked.
Would it be fair to say you ran into the wrong people while living in Los Angeles?
I know it kind of looks that way. But it’s not like I got caught up in some drug conspiracy unknowingly. Do you know what I mean? I made the choice. I’m not going to blame other people. We all played a role, and I played my role, and I take full responsibility for that. I made some very bad decisions, and I’m incarcerated as a result of it.
You were charged and convicted of possessing and transporting cocaine, heroin and fentanyl for a drug ring. You’re saying you were guilty of all the charges?
I’m not going to sit here say I was a victim. I take full responsibility for what I did.
Were you using the drugs that you had in the car at the time of your arrest?
No, I wasn’t using any of the type of drugs that I had in the car at the time of my arrest. But I'll be honest with you, I've been smoking weed every single day for the past 15 years.
Point taken. So why did you do it? Was it just for the money?
Yeah. It was just business.
You’re like the Johnny Depp character in Blow.
Oh, I love Blow, but that’s not what I want to me remembered as.
What was the lowest point for you?
Honestly, the lowest point in my life was when I was brought into the court room shackled in prison garb. It was so dehumanizing and awful. I saw the pain on my parents' face and I'll never forget it. Before the arrest, the lowest point was while I was living in L.A. and going through periods of being homeless and having to sleep in my car.
How did you end up homeless?
I had a roommate who I wasn’t getting along with so I ended up living in my car. But even then, I wasn’t as low as I thought I was. I didn’t realize how low, low really was. I had a friend who was going through depression, and she would tell me what she was experiencing, but it didn’t really connect with me. I didn’t know what low was until I experienced it myself.
Clearly L.A. didn’t go as you hoped. What was the turning point where your dream turned into a nightmare?
I don’t want to blame L.A. on what happened to me. I love L.A. The city has been good to me, and I had a lot of success in L.A., and I met great people there. It wasn’t L.A. that did me wrong. There are great people in L.A. and bad people in L.A. just like any other big city or tiny town. There’s good and bad anywhere you go.
Did you understand that by possessing those drugs and transporting them you would be risking everything you worked so hard for?
At the time, not to the full extent. I never thought as myself as a very impulsive person. I do plan and think and calculate all of my moves. But actually impulsivity is a lot more than doing something on the fly. It can also mean just doing something without considering the consequences, and that’s exactly what I did. I had a “let’s go” mentality. I thought, “Let’s just do this!” I was in a totally different mental state. My mentality was, “Let’s get this bag.” It was not, “This might not be a good idea,” and that it could really ruin my life. If I’m thinking this is going to ruin my life, I’m not going to do it. I had a totally different mentality. At the time I thought it was a great idea! I realize now that it obviously wasn’t it.
You were looking at decades behind bars. What was the final sentence?
I’ve had to spend just about two years behind bars, and now I’m currently in a halfway house and will be on probation for the next five years.
What were those two years behind bars like for you?
[Long pause.] I really don’t know how to describe it. There are two sides to it. On one side, I’d like to say it really wasn’t that bad. I was in a minimum-security prison so besides from the lockdowns there was some freedom. But normally there was a pretty liberal amount of freedom. On the other hand, I don’t want to say it wasn’t that bad either. It’s a long amount of time away from my family, and it’s no way to spend your life.
Were you considered a celebrity by the other inmates while in prison?
Apparently, even in prison there’s a price to fame, and that price was my anonymity.
How did being famous while in jail impact your time behind bars?
Oh, there was no hiding it, and I did want to hide it. Anonymity is all I wanted while in prison. But like I said, that was the price I had to pay.
I would think being a celebrity behind bars would also have its perks. Were there any benefits to being famous?
Um… It’s not like I got special treatment for being a celebrity. I just would have rather people not know who I was. Prison is the kind of place you want to fly under the radar, and you don’t want anyone to know your name, not even the guards. You don’t want anyone to bother you in prison.
So I take it you got bothered quite a bit.
Let’s just say I was never left alone.
Were you asked to share your American Idol voice by the other inmates?
[Laughs.] Yeah, all the time! But I didn’t mind, and in fact, it helped me write some of my best work while I was there. I never had alone time or down time like that before in my life. I didn’t have a phone to record thoughts or ideas, so if I had a song I literally had to sit down and write the song down on paper. I had to write sheet music down just to remember the melodies. It honed my skills in a way — that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I didn’t have the tools that are readily available in the regular world. Also, I was able to get honest feedback when some of the other girls would ask to hear a song that I wrote. Do you know what I mean? I got back really authentic feedback. It actually really helped me.
I sense a book deal in your future.
Absolutely. I’ve been through so much in my life, especially when you look back on my days on American Idol and my life growing up. Just everything. I mean one week in my life while in L.A. could be a movie.
What impact did the pandemic have on you while in prison?
It was crazy! We were on lockdown for over a year. For several months, we could not leave the building, and all our meals were brought to us. We were all confined to our own housing unit. We couldn’t go anywhere. Prison employees weren’t even going to work, so there were no hot meals being made. We were living on pre-packaged flight meals. You know, those little meals they give you on a plane. That lasted for four months! I hadn’t sat down for a hot meal in the cafeteria since March 2020.
It sounds to me, aside from the inconvenience of the pandemic, prison life for you wasn’t exactly like wearing a ball and chain and breaking bricks all day.
I was in F.P.C., which stands for Federal Prison Camp. We could walk around and there was no fence. You could literally leave prison if you wanted to. I think they even give you four hours to change your mind and turn around before you get charged with escape.
Sounds more like summer camp than a prison.
[Laughs.] They trust us, and they know we aren’t going to run. Nobody is serving a life sentence there. Very few people actually try to escape.
Have any of your American Idol peers reached out to you while in prison?
Yes, several reached out to tell me to stay strong. Which proves to me something I always knew to be true: Once, you’re a part of that club, you’re part of that family for life. I really am so grateful for the support that I’ve had from several cast mates and that family. We’ve always had a really special bond. We truly are a family. It’s irreplaceable.
You said several Idols reached out. Is there one that was extra special to you?
I don’t want to leave anyone out, but it was nice that Taylor Hicks reached out and told me to hang in there and to kick some ass with a couple of strong-arm emojis.
You’re living in a halfway house now. So what can and can’t you do?
Right now my sentence isn’t over until October. I’m not in prison anymore, but I’ll be in this halfway house for the next month. After that I’ll be on home confinement until October, and I’ll have to wear an ankle monitor and my restrictions will still be pretty heavy. I’ll have some freedom to move around and go to public places only. I won’t be able to go anywhere residential like people’s houses. I can go to work, but I don’t think I’ll really be able to travel while I’m finishing out this sentence. I think even after October my travel will be very restricted. I won’t be able to travel like a normal person would.
What about performing?
I would be able to travel to perform, but I’m accountable to my probation officer.
Is there any concern on your part that you could once again be tempted to go down a road of self-destruction?
Not at all! One thing I have learned is that I have full control of my choices and that I can’t control what anyone else does. I can only control what I do. Like I said, I didn’t just fall into some type of trap. It wasn’t like I was doing something that I didn’t know what I was doing.
What did this nightmare experience teach you? What I learned from this is that there was a problem with the way that I was thinking. I took a lot of things for granted before. The younger me would have considered myself a victim of circumstances. But now I understand how lucky I really was and how good I actually had it. My biggest problem was a lack of gratitude for what I already had and how much I was really blessed. Let’s just say prison has given me a feeling of gratitude. I’ve learned so much, and I don’t take anything for granted anymore.
Hopefully the worst is behind you. That said, can your career be saved and will you once again perform on stage? Absolutely! Music is my passion and always will be. Unfortunately, I’m not in a place now where I can get back into recording. But I’ve been writing, and you best believe that the moment I have the freedom to step into a recording studio again with all the songs I’ve been working on, that’s the first place I’m going!
Hopefully the worst is behind you. That said, can your career be saved and will you once again perform on stage?
Absolutely! Music is my passion and always will be. Unfortunately, I’m not in a place now where I can get back into recording. But I’ve been writing, and you best believe that the moment I have the freedom to step into a recording studio again with all the songs I’ve been working on, that’s the first place I’m going!