Crystal Bowersox

How has life been for the busker turned American Idol darling turned Broadway star? Crazy.

It was 2010, Simon Cowell was still judging American Idol, and a cute, crunchy, soulful girl with a giant sunflower tattoo on her back stood out among the plastic pretty boys and coquettish girls. She reached into the segment of American viewers not watching tattoo reality shows on TV—right into their hearts. Competing on the show went against everything the tattoo community might’ve thought was cool, but it worked for Crystal Bowersox.

“People say, ‘You sold out,’” says Bowersox. “Well, yeah, I wanted people to hear my music, and I was playing bar gigs, and I didn’t know how to get recognized, and I had [my son], who deserves so much more than I ever had.” At the time she was playing gin joints and El stations in Chicago, singing for her and her son’s supper. “Whatever you have to do to get to where you need to be, right?”

Right. In this new age of competition shows, it is a wonder anyone is able to have an entertainment career before living in a house with the other candidates and proving their worth to network viewers. “I didn’t watch the show, I wasn’t a fan of the show, and it was actually something that I dreaded doing,” Bowersox says. “I was anti-American Idol for a while, but it is the thing that has put food in my mouth and a roof over … my son’s head.”

These days, however, Bowersox watches the show, and she endorses last season’s winner, Phillip Phillips, saying his is the first music from a show contestant that she’s ever purchased. The show is “a means to an ends,” she says. “Where else can you have an audience of 30 million?”

While in front of that audience Bowersox proved that she wasn’t just a karaoke star, as she played original music. Her skills have since been honed further, and she has a masterful new album, All That for This, which was produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. It includes a duet with Jakob Dylan, whom she met while working on juvenile diabetes awareness.

Bowersox, who is a type 1 diabetic, has her medical status tattooed on. “Medical ID jewelry isn’t the most attractive, and I love tattoo art, so I designed two snakes wrapped around a syringe as opposed to the staff with some dragonfly wings coming off, and it says ‘Type 1 Diabetic,’” she says. The songwriter got her first piece at 18, “mostly to piss off my mom.” It was a tiny music note, on the back of her left shoulder. “I started small because I was afraid that it would hurt—and then I was upset because it didn’t hurt and I should have gotten a bigger one,” she says. Bowersox collected another music note while traveling in Turkey, and then it was on to the big sunflower. “Sunflowers were special to me from growing up on my mother’s farm. We had rows of them on the property and they reminded me of my childhood,” she says. “This [guy] who impregnated me knew that I loved him, and he left when I was six weeks pregnant. It tore me up and I ended up getting a giant sunflower on my back. It was more about that period of my life being over and being about my son.” Her sonflower.

As she talks about that time, her voice—which is low and measured when she sings—gets higher and her leg starts shaking. “I have never talked about this, but it is good for me,” she continues. “Somehow feeling the pain, getting the tattoo, was cathartic for sure. I cried for some of it: As the ink was going in, the tears were going out—it was therapeutic.”

It was done by Marci Mundo at Tatu Tattoo in Chicago, and she’s paused the process because life became busy. For example, she’ll be in New York this summer, playing the title role in Always … Patsy Cline, on Broadway. “I’ve been saying, ‘It’s crazy, it’s crazy,’” she says of the role. “I grew up with her music. I love the rockabilly feel to her songs, and she is one of the iconic voices of her time. I wanted to be a theater kid, but I had a theater teacher who told me to stick to other things. So I’m glad that as an adult I can explore those areas of my abilities. I just have to find ways to relate the lyrics to my own experience so I can attach a meaning to it—to tap into something that is inside of me.”

Will finishing the sunflower bring her closure? “I already have it,” Bowersox says. “I have a gorgeous son who is thriving. I have an amazing husband who stepped in as a great father. I have a new album and I’m going to play Patsy Cline on Broadway. And I have this kick-ass tattoo—I just want to finish it.”

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