Asbury Park Press
Published 4:28 PM EST Jan 18, 2020
With little introduction, Point Pleasant’s Antonella Barba experienced a meteoric rise to global but short-lived fame in 2007.
Just after she performed for more than 25 million viewers on Fox’s “American Idol,” stolen photos made privately for a boyfriend as a collection of provocative calendar images were spilled to websites. For one week of her life, she was one of the most Googled people in the world, if not the most.
Eleven years later, in October 2018, she was sitting in a parked rental car in Norfolk, Virginia, eating a salad after a flight from Los Angeles, when a police officer knocked on her window. Authorities found a shoebox containing nearly two pounds of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl on the front passenger side floor.
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The charges against her suggested a worn storyline: that Barba struggled after “American Idol” to find a place in the entertainment world, came up short and, out of desperation, turned to dealing drugs.
But, according to Barba, that’s not how her life unfolded.
How, then, did she wind up behind bars?
Barba, in a lengthy phone interview with the Asbury Park Press from Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Virginia, was short on answers.
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“Honestly, I have trouble answering that for myself,” she said. “Life’s a funny place sometimes. You make one wrong turn and it’s irreversible. I can’t really pinpoint any certain thing that made it happen. It was just an unfortunate series of events leading up to the biggest mistake of my life.”
She added: “I definitely made a wrong decision. I was there. I wish I never did it but at this point I’m just trying to make the best of where I’m at.”
While she pleaded guilty to possession of more than 400 grams of fentanyl with intent to distribute it, she maintains she didn’t know it was fentanyl in the car.
“I had never even heard of fentanyl before any of this happened,” she said.
While Barba said she was “framed,” unaware of the drug ring she had stumbled into, she echoed the words of U.S. District Court Judge Arenda Wright Allen during sentencing in November: she’s glad she got caught.
“Even if I didn’t know what it was, had it reached, you know, a destination beyond where it ended up getting confiscated and had killed people,” she said, breaking off and then adding that she would far prefer a prison sentence than “the karmic debt I would have had to pay.”
But Barba declined to say whether she knew it was drugs.
Antonell Barba’s downfall: ‘Where it all went wrong’
Rise and fall
Her mother, Valerie Barba, wrote in a letter to the judge prior to sentencing that American Idol was “where it all went wrong” for her daughter.
But for Antonella Barba, rising to the top 16 on the show during one of its most-watched seasons stands as a profound moment of glory.
She described the rare experience of performing and competing in front of millions of people as “almost like a super human feeling.”
She added: “Energy is really real and when you have that many people directing their energy at you, you are receiving their energy. It’s not just you. It’s you plus all of those millions of people. You are literally like exuding the energy that you’re receiving. It’s like you are literally more than just yourself. You’re everybody involved.”
‘American Idol’: Six Jersey Idols who shone
The biggest thrill came early, she said, when she won the “Golden Ticket,” an invite to the Hollywood leg of the show.
Yet that exhilaration was quickly matched by the lowest moment of Barba’s life — when her calendar pictures surfaced. She was eliminated from the show in the next episode.
Barba said those private photos were stolen from a flash drive she lent to a onetime friend who distributed them throughout her college, Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., the year before the show.
“It was devastating to me because I was on a high. I was accomplishing my dream. I was doing everything I ever wanted to do,” Barba said about the publication of the photos. “That moment came along and squashed everything,”
Barba was accused of releasing the photos herself, which she denied.
“None of that was what I wanted to be remembered for,” she said. “It definitely changed my image to being this racy, controversial party girl. That’s not who I am at all.”
There would be a worse moment for Barba — when she first saw her parents after being arrested.
“I’ve never seen anything more horrific ever than seeing their faces in the courtroom,” she said. “I’ve just never seen them look so hurt and sad ever. I just feel like I hurt them deeper than anything.”
After her elimination, VH1 offered to do a reality show about her based at the Jersey Shore, but she declined, she said.
Instead, Barba went back to Catholic University and graduated on time with a degree in architecture despite missing a semester because of “American Idol.”
She moved to L.A. and joined a band called LA-eX, which included two members of Crazy Town, a rap-rock band that charted a No. 1 single in 1999.
Barba said she made her living primarily from entertainment work. That included session work as a violinist, small parts in movies including the 2017 action-comedy “All About the Money,” a national commercial for Corona, a stint as a contestant on “Fear Factor” and a spot on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” months before she was arrested in Norfolk.
Preceding what seemed like a disastrous instance of life imitating art, she won a role in a short-lived 2017-2018 Amazon series called “Slap House,” a show about a group of glamorous women trafficking drugs in L.A.
And she made money on the periphery of the entertainment business. She worked as an assistant for Kanye West and as a bottle service model in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, serving VIPs like Leonardo DiCaprio, The Weeknd and NBA players at high-end clubs, pulling in as much as $2,600 a night in tips, she said.
She counts Jeremy Felton as one of her good friends in L.A., an acclaimed singer, rapper and songwriter who goes by the name Jeremih.
Waitressing at high-end clubs came in handy.
When she was released from federal custody to house arrest in her parents’ home in Point Pleasant, she got a job as a server at Brick House Tavern, a sports bar and restaurant on the border of Tinton Falls and Neptune next to the Jersey Shore Premium Outlets.
She worked there from January to September 2019.
“I was nothing but grateful,” she said.
Michael Hennessey, a manager at the restaurant, did not downplay the allegations Barba faced and eventually pleaded guilty to, but he praised Barba’s work ethic and her rapport with customers.
“She lit up the restaurant,” he said. “She would talk to people. She had more regulars than anyone I’ve known in 25 years in the business. People would wait for a table in her section. She was never a prima donna, never like anything was ever owed to her.”
After other waitresses had left, Barba would be sweeping up, he said.
Customers noticed her sometimes four times a day. The response she received was overwhelmingly supportive, Barba said.
New Jersey people “really go hard for the people that are from their home state. And it’s just, it’s such, like an awesome support system,” she said. “So people always gave me their energy, always, always, always. And it was just like, ‘Oh, we loved you on the show’ and ‘You were so inspiring.’“
But not everyone has been willing to overlook Barba’s crime.
Ronald Turcotte of Tiverton, Rhode Island, wrote the Asbury Park Press after Barba was sentenced to three years, nine months. He lost his son Joshua in 2011 at the age of 27 to fentanyl, he said.
“I cannot even imagine how many lives have been lost since then,” Turcotte wrote. “They paid with their lives for using this drug. What do you think should be (done with) the persons who deliver it?”
Barba said she cannot comprehend the grief of people like Turcotte.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Not my worst enemy,” she said.
But she understands their anger, she said.
A close childhood friend and former boyfriend of hers died of a drug overdose after friends left him in the back of a car parked in front of a hospital, she said.
“I’ll be angry about that forever,” she said.
For the past few months of being confined with other prisoners, Barba has played round after round of the card game spades, sung for her fellow inmates, played basketball and craved chicken patties — one of the few meals she has looked forward to.
She has never felt bullied or threatened, she said, although theft, and “pettiness and immaturity” are common.
She was awaiting a transfer to a reception center in Oklahoma for federal prisoners before her final expected destination — a federal minimum-security prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut.
There she expects to have fresh fruit, a fitness center, access to law school and graduate architecture courses, which she is considering taking, and possibly a music room. She is likely to serve less than two years.
As for the future, Barba, now 33, plans to write and perform music.
And, despite her reversal in life, she still wants to provide the sort of inspiration she feels she did while appearing on “American Idol.”
“I definitely do want to show an example to people that you can be at your lowest low and still rise above,” she said.
Ken Serrano has covered breaking news and crime in New Jersey for more than 20 years. Reach him at 732-643-4029 or at [email protected]