Suffering Simon Cowell's barbs about her weight during season 5's American Idol auditions – he cracked that the show would need a "bigger stage" to accommodate her – was a "worst fear come true" for the singer Mandisa, but that pain was nothing new.
The Grammy-nominated Christian singer's weight battle was borne of early trauma – she was sexually molested as a child and raped at 16. "A lot of girls turn to men to fill that void and some turn to drugs," Mandisa, 32, tells PEOPLE. "I turned to food as my drug of choice."
Her weight left her open to ridicule and health problems. Mandisa recalls her humiliation when she performed a routine with her high-school drill team and a classmate joked that she caused the whole gym to shake. "I still remember that like it was yesterday," she says, adding that she was even denied health insurance because of her weight.
Making a ChangeAfter a visit to Mt. Rushmore last summer that left her so short of breath she had trouble making it to the viewpoint, she set herself a goal to lose 100 lbs. by the March 24 release date of her new album, Freedom, on March 24. "I thought I couldn't get up and sing about freedom when I had been chained for so long," she says.
Following a routine of cardio workouts five days a week, a diet heavy on salads, lean meats and fiber, and counseling to work on her childhood issues, she's dropped more than 75 lbs. "Being able to fit into clothes I couldn't before is great," she says. "To be able to walk into a room and not feel self-conscious, I don't ever remember feeling this way."
She plans to continue her new routine for life but remains realistic. "I want to be healthy, and I believe my body will get to whatever it's supposed to be," she says. "It could be a size 8 – but personally I like a girl with a little meat on her bones! I don't need to look like the models on the magazine covers in order to be beautiful."
For more on Mandisa's weight loss and other Idols who have slimmed down, including Fantasia, Josh Gracin and Diana DeGarmo, read their stories in this week's PEOPLE
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