When Mandisa Forgave Simon Cowell

When Mandisa Forgave Simon Cowell April 20, 2024

Fans and friends are mourning the sudden death of Mandisa Hundley, an American Idol alum who went on to have a successful contemporary Christian music career. Police are currently investigating cause of death. Her publicist hasn’t released any details except that she was “found dead in her home” in Nashville. She was only 47 years old.

These kinds of deaths are always deeply sad, but the fact that Mandisa was a Christian artist makes her case even more wrenching. She always spoke candidly about her ups and downs with obesity, depression, and sexual assault trauma. In her memoir Out of the Dark, she writes that after being raped by a neighbor boy as a teenager, she deliberately indulged her overeating habit as a way to protect her body from more violence. She wasn’t raised in the church but had a conversion experience in college, after which she eagerly began connecting with the black community’s Christian roots and discovered a gift for music. But at the peak of her recording career, her best friend’s death from cancer plunged her back into an abyss of depression and suicidal thoughts. Other friends staged an intervention and enabled her to recover, but she chose to be honest about her ongoing struggles, which she bravely faced alone as a never-married single woman. While it’s not clear yet if she committed suicide or just had some sort of health episode/accident, suicide is the first thing one tends to think of in such cases.

As a kid, I heard Mandisa’s voice quite a lot on contemporary Christian radio. The CCM channel was always on in the background while I worked on homework, art, and whatever else I was obsessed with in my teens. My tastes weren’t especially “cool,” and being the old soul I was, I tended to just wish they still played the songs little me liked from the 90s. To my ear, the hits increasingly ran together, becoming repetitive and trite. In that vein, Mandisa was one of many artists coming on the scene at the time who just didn’t really register for me. Most of her radio songs didn’t strike me as all that compelling, although I recognized that she could really sing. Later, in college, I frittered away a lot of down time watching Got Talent shows and American Idol. It was then that I found her old audition for the show from 2005.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I was something of a sucker for the cheap drama of the American Idol audition. I found Simon Cowell very funny, in his dry, ruthless English way, and my nastier side quietly laughed along when he would deliver his signature line, “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” followed by one of his signature tactless put-downs. But my heart was also duly warmed by the show-stopping auditions (and, of course, the more tear-jerking the backstory, the better), which prompted Simon to give the sort of compliments he never threw away. In short, I allowed the show to do to me all the things it was lab-designed to do.

Mandisa was an unknown when she auditioned, her experience limited to choir and worship leading for Beth Moore events. But friends had encouraged her to take a chance, so she chose to jump in feet first. Reading her memoir, I learned that the little YouTube clip had been edited together with some TV magic, because the show didn’t have copyright clearance for her song choice, the Whispers’ “Rock Steady.” Instead, they used a clip of her singing Alicia Keys’ “Fallin'” from a different performance in front of the producers. (The editing is pretty smooth, but if you look closely, you can see a pink band on her right wrist disappear and reappear. Paula Abdul’s comment that “Simon was rockin'” is another clue, as the Keys song isn’t a rocker.) In any case, her talent was immediately obvious, and all three judges wasted no time giving her a unanimous “Yes.” Even Simon gave her some warm words. Running excitedly outside with her golden ticket, she had no idea what he was saying behind her back. It was only much later, watching the broadcast with friends, that she learned he had casually made fun of her weight.

She doesn’t even seem all that overweight to me as I play back the moment, though she’s certainly very curvy. But it was enough for Simon to quip, “Do we have a bigger stage this year?” Paula Abdul slaps him and tries to redirect the commentary back to Mandisa’s voice with a comparison to a singer named Frenchie. Simon won’t let it go. “Forget Frenchie, she’s like France.”

Mandisa writes that a friend had caught the broadcast a little ahead of her and phoned her ahead of time so that she wouldn’t be shocked as she watched. But it was still deeply painful, and it spoiled what should have been a fun night watching TV with her besties.

Of course, it had made great TV, and the producers looked forward to milking it for all it was worth when Mandisa next confronted Simon. She writes that they egged her on to be just as cutting and sassy as she liked. “If Simon was a jerk,” Nigel Lythgoe told her, “tell him off! We want a reaction.” As she waited for the cameras to start rolling, he came and encouraged her again, with assurances that the network could easily edit out anything that wasn’t “family friendly.”

Again, I can’t help feeling a bit of shame as I read Mandisa’s account of all this. Not that I was even watching the show in the year all this was unfolding. Still, I was a consumer. Like everyone else, I watched all those embarrassing viral videos over and over. And I liked it. I liked the spectacle. Was I not entertained?

Mandisa recalls that she raised an eyebrow at Nigel and said, “Don’t worry. I’ve got some choice words for Simon.”

In fact, those “choice words” were not an aggrieved rant, but a stunningly gracious word of forgiveness—though she couldn’t resist a gentle opening poke as she sat down, saying they could have gotten “a bigger chair.” She then went to say that a lot of people wanted her to say a lot of things, but what she wanted to say was that she forgave Simon. Yes, he hurt her, and yes, she had cried, but if Jesus could die to extend grace to her, then she in turn could extend it to Simon.

Simon immediately sensed that now was the moment for him to eat humble pie, offer Mandisa a hug, and say “I’m just so appalling, aren’t I?” Sitting back down, he joked that he felt “one millimeter small” before sending her through to the next round. Randy Jackson twisted his arm to finally say “I apologize” in so many words as Mandisa floated out on a cloud of victory.

Mandisa wrote that Simon’s cutting remarks were in fact the sort of rude awakening she needed to begin getting her weight under control, which is heartbreaking to read given the ups and downs that still awaited her. After her friend’s death, she gained about 200 pounds before once again making herself accountable and getting back up to continue her lonely battle. Despite all that she faced in this life, one gets the sense of an indefatigably kind, pure soul, always seeking some way to pour herself out for others, always returning to Scripture and prayer with childlike humility.

I’m not sure exactly what Simon is up to these days. I’m sure he’s still Simoning somewhere, in some capacity. I think he still hasn’t married the woman he got engaged to a couple years ago, the one who was married to his best friend when they started cheating together. Meanwhile, I’m sure he’s all but forgotten Mandisa. But as her death makes headlines here and there this week, before evaporating in five minutes as such things always do, I’d like to think that wherever Simon is, for just a moment he’ll pause, and he’ll remember.

May her memory be a blessing.

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