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David Archuleta opens up about his post-'American Idol' PTSD

Lyndsey Parker
November 26, 2018

When David Archuleta competed on the “David versus David” season of American Idol at the height of the show’s mania, he was only 17 years old and not at all prepared for the frenzy, and cruelty, that would follow. Though he tells Yahoo Entertainment that he doesn’t regret his time on the show (“I wouldn’t be where I am now,” he notes), the media’s and even the TV show producers’ depiction of his father, Jeff Archuleta, as a manipulative manager (or “dadager”) led him to become paranoid, distrustful and isolated from his own relatives — with really only his fellow Idol contestants to turn to.

But eventually, one of those contestants referred him to a therapist who specializes in treating reality television stars, and with time, Archuleta and his family began to heal. Now, 10 years later, as Archuleta releases his second Christmas album, Winter in the Air, he’s feeling at peace with his past, present and future, and he’s in a celebratory mood this holiday season.

In the incredibly candid conversation below, the Season 7 fan-favorite runner-up opens up about mental health, his resentment about how he was treated during his time on Idol, why his record label wanted him to be the “white Chris Brown” and the truth about his relationship with his father.

Yahoo Entertainment: On your new holiday album, Melinda Doolittle, from the American Idol season before yours, contributes backing vocals to the lead single, “Christmas Every Day.” Can you describe to me the bond that all Idol alumni seem to share?

David Archuleta: Well, having a lot of [TV viewers’] eyes on you can make you feel very isolated. … To have the people that went through with you is so refreshing. To have people you can relate to is really important in life. … So other American Idol people — like Melinda Doolittle, David Cook, Kris Allen, Brooke White — when we get together, we’re all able to talk, and it’s like, “Oh my gosh, you’re going through the same thing I am! I thought I was the only one who was feeling like that!” We’re all so different from each other, we even sing different types of songs, but we have that connection because we understand each other without having to really try to explain ourselves. … I think that there’s something about reality TV shows that’s a very interesting, unique experience, and it has its own kind of PTSD that comes with it.

What do you mean by “PTSD”?

Just all the pressure. You’re basically a character on a TV show, and parts of it are worked so that it fits the TV show — but they’re using your personal life. So you become this character, but it’s with your own name, parts of who you actually are, but other parts that are portrayed in a way that you’re not actually. Then everyone feels like they know you, and they know what you are, and they know how to treat you, and have certain expectations. … This was years ago, right? But there’s still certain things about us that we still had certain little tics that we’re paranoid about certain things. … Eight, nine, 10, 11 years later, we’re still kind of stuck in some of those patterns of thinking.

How have you personally dealt with that?

Well, Melinda was like, “There’s a therapist who specializes in people who have been on reality TV shows. I’ve met with him, and you guys should meet with him too.” I’m like, “Oh my goodness! I thought this was just me. I thought I was weird.” And they’re like, “Nope, we’re all going through this.” That’s so refreshing — to know that we’re not going crazy.

You were on Idol at a time when the show was massive, and the blogs and gossip columns were at their peak and sometimes very nasty. I recall one of the kinds  of assumptions written about you — because you were so young and seemed shy — was that you had a what they call a “dadager,” or that you were sort of being pushed to do this. Was there any truth to that?

Auditioning is something I wanted to do. I just didn’t know I would get as far as I did. I didn’t think people would like me, but it was enough to keep me all the way to the finale. I couldn’t control that, and that was something I wasn’t ready for. So, that was very awkward. And yes, I think one of the biggest misconceptions people did have was with my dad. People thought my dad had a lot more control than he actually did. Yeah, I don’t always get along with my parents, and I did have some struggles with my dad, but I feel like a lot of those struggles were created from American Idol.

How so?

A lot of the tension came because of the stress that the show created. They wanted to have something controversial to talk about. And there were times when I was really upset. I was young, and I was not good at speaking up for myself, so if the producers wanted to make something dramatic and to look a certain way, they would just do it. I couldn’t say anything about it. … I don’t think that’s OK. I have to sign a contract and whatnot to say of confidentiality and stuff, so I feel helpless, like I can’t do anything, because they have the power. And they let you know they have the power. If you say anything that will get them in trouble, then you’re going to be in huge trouble, and get sued, and all that. Then you’re stuck having to be the “character,” as well as my dad become the character, and my family. They’re all at stake because of my choice that I made.

How did that affect you, mentally and emotionally, especially when you were dealing with a high-pressure talent competition at the same time?

I felt a lot of weight. Maybe more of the weight came from that than even the actual show. I was just like, “I don’t like attention, but here I am in front of millions of people, and now they’re involving my family and creating tension. They don’t know how it’s affecting my family’s personal relationships. They don’t know what’s going on in my home. They don’t know how this is affecting us, and how people look at us. But they’re OK with that, because it makes their show juicy.” As a 17-year-old, I really took that personally. A lot of that is hard, and even 10 years later, it’s hard to not feel resentful. Even though they liked me, they were nice to me, and they wanted me to do well on the show, they were willing to portray me and my dad in a way that made it really difficult for all of my family. They didn’t really think about how it was going to affect my brothers and sisters. They didn’t think how it was going to affect me. They didn’t think about how it was going to affect my dad’s reputation. People say, “That’s the price that you pay, and you got yourself into your own mess.” But I didn’t know people were going to start talking about my family. It was almost like I felt like my siblings were sometimes like, “Why did you go audition for that show?” I felt very guilty because of how it affected my family, because we loved our dad. I love my dad too, and to be in the place where it’s constantly contentious and I was encouraged to question my dad — that’s what I feel like really hurt my relationship with my dad. And it made him feel really lonely.

When you say you were encouraged to question your dad, by whom?

People who had interviewed me all the time. People who I worked with. If I tried to defend my dad, they didn’t believe me. It was like, “Well, you’re not trying to help me. You’re just trying to create the dramatic moment in this interview. And I don’t want to get contentious, but I am going to respect my dad whether you think he is a dirtbag or not.” I don’t know why that’s OK. I don’t know why media thinks that’s OK to do. … But now, that’s still what people remember: how “mean” my dad was.

Was that what people were saying? That he was cruel?

Yeah, people would say, “So I hear your dad doesn’t give you water until you do this. I heard he made you cry.” And it’s like, who’s saying this? Why would my dad not give me water? Where are people hearing this? Obviously it’s not like I’m telling people this. I guess that’s just how gossip is. When you’re in the limelight and you get attention, people just naturally talk. And that’s something I had to learn.

How is your family situation now?

We’ve all grown. We’re doing well. I feel like my family’s in a happy place again. A lot of healing has taken place. … I love my dad. I have a good friendship with him. It made my family become stronger. I feel like we became a lot more bonded because we had to say, “Can we really trust each other?” And we had to make that decision and say, “You know what? We’re going to trust each other, regardless of what other people think of us and what people say.”

On the positive side, how did your father help you in your career after American Idol?

My dad can be a pain sometimes, but one of the things I’m so grateful for was when I was signed and the record label literally wanted me to be a “white Chris Brown.” That’s what they told me one time in a meeting: “We see you as a white Chris Brown, and we want you to go into that.” They wanted me to be “urban” and “more edgy.” They were like, “You wanna make it big, don’t you? Well, this is what you gotta do!” Once again, I didn’t know how to speak up for myself … so my dad would go to bat for me and say, “David is not going to do this.” Actually, speaking of Christmas, my dad was the one who had to push for a Christmas album [2009’s Christmas From the Heart] because my record label didn’t want me to do one. They thought it was a waste of time. They were like, “We need you to be edgy. Christmas album? How is that gonna help you? How’s that gonna help us to create this image?”

That isn’t even why people voted for you on Idol in the first place. Your fans didn’t expect you to be “edgy.”

I know! But not all of [the label situation] was bad; they were trying to help me become contemporary and be competitive in this entertainment industry. But I never became a singer to be the hippest, hottest, edgiest, most contemporary artist. I just love music. I love how it heals. I think that’s what people saw while I was on American Idol. Both worlds were good, though: I needed the record label to push so that I could have a song like “Crush,” which was the first song I had ever really sung that was that pop tempo, but I had my dad to always say, “David, remember the power that music has. You can sing a song that is popular, but stay true to who you are.” If I didn’t have my dad there, I probably would’ve become the “white Chris Brown,” just because I didn’t know what to say. If I’d had parents who’d said, “David, just do what [the record label executives] say; they know what they’re doing,” then I don’t know what would have happened to me, to be honest.

It’s great you’re being so open, talking about all this.

Well, I think therapy is good for anyone. Mental health is something that was so taboo before. My grandma struggled with mental health in the ’80s, but no one really wanted to talk about it. … They didn’t know what to say, because in their culture it was just something you didn’t talk about. It’s something people don’t understand, but we can not only talk about it just to understand, but we can improve it. We can help in the healing process.

How did your therapy help you heal?

I guess I realized maybe I can let people into my life. Maybe I can be more trusting. Because maybe there was a certain time in my life where I did have to be a lot more cautious, and I had to be careful with who was around me. But I’ve been able to grow from that, and it’s like, “Well, I want to have friends, or be in a relationship with someone.” You have to learn to open up, and something I’ve had a really hard time with is trusting people. I’m always like, “No, people can’t know where I live. Even my own relatives can’t have my own number” — because I’m so afraid of someone getting into my personal space, my life.

And finally, what is the biggest music-business lesson you’ve learned in the past decade?

I learned from that if it will make people money, they’re willing to sacrifice you. They’re willing to put you on the altar if it means they’ll gain more. “We’ve got candy. Come into our van” — it’s almost like that. I don’t think kids are old enough to understand that. Back then, I was like, “Oh my gosh, everyone’s so nice to me. They’re all my new friends!” In a few months, they were all gone. … So, you have to be willing to say no. Sure, people are going to get upset, but that’s OK, because in the end you’re talking about your future, your reputation and who you’re going to become. You have to take care of yourself, even if you’re not as popular or hip as Chris Brown. You can still find happiness, you can find balance, you can find confidence in who you are — without being someone else.