The Gospel Truth
12/12/1994 at 01:00 AM EST
MICHAEL ENGLISH LOOKED AS if he were having the night of his life at the Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards in Nashville last April as he won trophy after trophy—half a dozen in all, including best male vocalist and artist of the year. Behind his smile, however, English, 32, a honey-voiced, handsome 6'4" singer, was consumed with despair. Two days earlier he had learned that gospel singer Marabeth Jordon, with whom he had had an affair, was pregnant with his child.
The next day English admitted the affair to Lisa, his wife of 11 years. He moved out of their four-bedroom Nashville home one week later. But his ordeal was only beginning. When English broke the news to his record label, Warner Alliance, executives stopped promotion of his music and pushed him to make a public confession. His manager prodded him to return his awards. Christian radio stations stopped playing English's music, and some Christian bookstores pulled his tapes and CDs from their shelves. "I felt as if scandal was written across my forehead," says English. "I was depressed and sick. I thought my life was over."
In fact his gospel career did seem finished. But seven months after his fall from grace, English has been born again professionally. Last month he released his first pop single, "Healing," a duet with country superstar and longtime pal Wynonna, which was featured in the film Silent Fall. His travails also have taught him what friends are for; after the scandal broke, Naomi Judd and her manager-husband, Larry Strickland, put the singer up at their Nashville condo and helped him rally from his misery. "Every time anybody looked at him," says Judd, "he just had this deer-in-the-headlights look on his face, like, 'Uh-oh, they think I'm a bad person.' " And though he and Lisa are separated, English remains close to his 9-year-old daughter, Megan—and feels more at peace than he has in years. "I was mad at God for a while," he says, "but I realized I'm the one who made the mistake. Maybe God allowed this to happen to make me see I needed some freedom."
The younger son of strict Pentecostal parents (his father, Aubine, was an electronics salesman; his mother, Grace, was a homemaker), English was forbidden as a child to wear shorts or grow his hair long. Growing up in Wallace, N.C., he sang in churches around the region with his father and brother Biney. After high school he joined the gospel group the Singing Americans, and at one of their performances, in 1980, he met Lisa Bailey, then 16. The pair married less than two years later and eventually settled in Nashville when English was invited to join the popular Gaither Vocal Band. In 1992 his eponymous debut album won a pair of Dove Awards, and when his second record, Hope, came out in 1993, he secured a place among gospel's most successful singers.
But his marriage was slowly unraveling. As English toured and Lisa stayed behind to care for Megan, the couple drifted apart. Last February, when English began a short tour with the group First Call, he confided his unhappiness to Jordon, one of the trio; though she was also married and the mother of two, a romance began. "She's a wonderful friend, and sometimes friends get a little too close," says English. "I felt like I was falling in love."
Despite their feelings, the lovers had already ended their affair when they discovered Jordon was pregnant with English's child. "We went to the park, and she took the test in a bathroom, then we sat in the car and waited, both of our hearts pounding," says English. Though determined to stand by Jordon through the pregnancy, he needed a helping hand too. Wynonna, who revealed her out-of-wedlock pregnancy just days after English's announcement, tried to boost his spirits—and her own—by comparing their predicaments. "We would talk about whose situation was worse, who could outdo who in the headlines," she says. Jordon was also suffering. She was dismissed from First Call, and two weeks later, English says, she miscarried.
These days Jordon, who refuses to comment about the affair, remains friends with English and has joined a new backup group. And in recent months fans have found it in their hearts to forgive English; he has received thousands of sympathetic letters, Christian stations are playing his songs again, and he has reclaimed his Dove Awards. "We're all human and make mistakes," says Strickland, now English's manager. "A lot of people resent how he got treated."
Already at work on a pop album, English has been living in a two-bedroom Nashville apartment with his poodle Pumpkin and savoring his weekly visits with Megan. "She loves her daddy; she went through a hard time when people were talking," he says. Though the fate of his marriage is undecided, English is eager to enter the wilder world of pop. "I just want to sing," he says, "and whatever comes along, I'll deal with it."
AMY ESKIND in Nashville