Exclusive: Fantasia Shares How Celibacy And Fasting Ultimately Led Her To Love And Happiness
“I'm sorry. My momma is tryna talk to me while I'm on the phone with you," Fantasia Barrino apologizes in a soft-toned small voice over the phone. It's quite surreal to be speaking to the woman I casted votes for on American Idol when I was just 16 years old. Back then, my entire family tuned in weekly, completely captivated by the North Carolina native's soulful performances. I vividly remember how she'd bend and transform classics like "Chain Of Fools" and make them her own. Little Patti LaBelle, as she was quickly nicknamed, would sweat, kick off her shoes and allow her gospel roots to shine. She gave everything.
Now, after 13 years of career highs and personal lows, the 32-year-old singer is in the middle of discussing “I Made It," a song from her new album The Definition Of... that puts her church roots and rock influences on full display. It's also her favorite record. “It is my gospel song and I wanted to end the album how I started my career, which was singing in church," she explains in a Southern-soaked accent.
What she doesn't mention until later is that the track is incredibly indicative of how far she's come.
“That song just talks about how I made it through things most people didn't think I'd make it through."
Fantasia's singing career started in front of the world. In 2004, a then 19-year-old Fantasia, who grew up listening to the likes of Prince, Sheila E and Frankie Beverly and Maze, was crowned the winner of American Idol. In just a few months, she skyrocketed and quickly felt the whirlwind of fame. As a young, inexperienced singer who just won a national singing competition, the road to fame was mapped out for her by the powers of the television network, from managers to lawyers to the songs she was expected to record. “You don't really get the option to say what you really want to do. When you win, you're assigned to a management company, you're signed to a label. You don't really have an opportunity to say what you want to do and what you don't want to do. And that can be very, very tough."
Though she was caged creatively, her debut album Free Yourself, birthed from Idol orchestration, eventually went platinum and was Grammy-nominated two years later. Her second and third studio efforts, Fantasia and Back To Me respectively, received much of the same success, earning her Grammy nods, a Grammy win for “Bittersweet", and landed her on Broadway's rendition of The Color Purple as Celie.
“I thank God for the favor that was on my life and the opportunity that I was able to do outside of just the music," she says, describing this critical time of her career. “I was able to do Broadway, I was able to do my own Lifetime movie, and in all of that, I was able to show the people that I can do a little bit of anything if I put my mind to it."
As Fantasia continued to create songs, from a fan's perspective, the music never faltered. Receiving largely positive reviews, her now five studio albums have all reflected her intuitive, soulful rock sound, with the latest LP being her most musically authentic. For years, however, Fantasia suffered beneath the weight of vicious media headlines and the highs and lows of her business deals (she was dropped from Simon Fuller's management company in 2008). Rumors about her illiteracy and relationship with married boyfriend Antwaun Cook were strewn around the internet and eventually culminated in a suicide attempt.
“That's a feeling I would never be able to explain because words cannot explain how lonely and how hurt I was," she says. “I came off of Idol taking care of my whole entire family, so I went through a lot of dark times. It was almost like being in a glass box where everybody could see me but I couldn't get out of that box. It was just me. No one wanted to help. Everyone just wanted to talk about it, but not many people were stepping up and saying, 'Hey, I wanna reach out.'"
Thankfully, people like Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey, Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle were in her corner during those times. “They all reached out because they all had been there."
The Power Of Love
Despite breakups and hitting the lowest valleys of her life, Fantasia doesn't carry the burden of the past on her shoulders. Though we're delving into her trials, she sounds grateful for those soul-crushing obstacles. “I can thank God for those times because being here at the age of 32 making it through so much, I feel like it was a part of my journey," she says. “There's not a day that goes by that I don't meet someone––young, old, black, white, female, male––that comes up to me and wants me to talk and encourage them. God allowed me to go through certain storms and certain tests to have a testimony and share it to help somebody else along the way."
She also credits the love of her life, husband Kendall Taylor, for finding the strength to love herself past her pain. The two wed in 2015 after only a few short weeks of dating. Admittedly broken and insecure at the time, the mother of two says she found her perfect guy by switching up her approach to love.
“I fasted for seven months while I was doing my last Broadway play, After Midnight. I started realizing that what I was doing wasn't working for me, so I did something very corny and I put a ring on my own finger. I did a lot of praying and watched a lot of things that were good for my spirit. Me and Kendall married before we made love, so it wasn't about my body or my money. He was a man with his own business and he was also a man with a past. I think I fell in love with that the most because he did not let his past block his future. He has a story and a testimony, too."
I hear her smiling through the phone as we discuss her prince charming, and it takes everything inside of me not to let a few amens loose. You see, I'm still in the toad-kissing phase of dating, but to know this soul singer found the love she deserves is the spoonful of hope single black women need. She makes it plain that every day isn't "peaches and cream," but they both put in the work to make their love flourish. "He always says he married me to date me," she laughs. An example? Her hubby recently took her on a date to where they got married and she live streamed in on Facebook.
The lessons she's learning from this new love are even more encouraging. “Love is fragile," she says. "You have to be patient with love. You have to make sure that the way you carry yourself, the words that come out of your mouth, that you're being careful because we're both still human."
These are the lessons of love Fantasia wants to pass down to her kids, especially her daughter Zion. “My husband teaches them what a man should be and he shows them by how he treats me. I show them how to be themselves. Both roles play a big part."
It's like a sigh of relief to see the woman Fantasia has become. Like much of the world, I saw the stones thrown her way from all angles. But in this moment, I can tell Fantasia is free from the dark times that crippled her. Both personally and musically, she's on a high. "I'm at that point where as an artist, I'm supposed to be able to creatively share what I want to share with the world musically, video-wise, fashion-wise. I'm supposed to be able to express that and not have someone tell me what to sing, how it should sound, what to wear. I'm just finally to that point of like, if I'm going to go through all that I'm going to go through. If I'm gonna catch flack and people talking about me, I might as well just do what I want to do the way I want to do it."
Does she regret anything? Not at all.
“I realize in life that we must go through things and understand that everything we go through is necessary. It was necessary for me to go through it in order for me to do my music and do what I do on the stage."
For anyone, finding yourself and your voice is a major key to living well. For Fantasia, it's the definition of who she is today. “At this point I've been through so many things and I'm every woman."
Featured image via Jamie Lamor Thompson / Shutterstock.com
Niki McGloster is a Maryland-based writer and co-founder of her sweat. She has written for ESSENCE, Genius, Billboard, VIBE and Teen Vogue. Follow her on Twitter at @missjournalism.
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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The Raw And Real About Self-Employment
I never thought I would be self-employed. I literally planned out my life at 9 to live in New York, finance that lifestyle with a regular-smegular job, and live on fabulously. I really didn't see self-employment modeled in my everyday life, as most of the women who raised me worked for private companies, government entities, corporations, or the military.
It wasn't until college that I'd see self-employment modeled among women, especially the mothers of my friends who were first-generation Caribbean or African. All of their moms were highly educated and held down 9-to-5s but always had some sort of side hustle. Fast-forward to my first major publishing gig, working for a magazine that highlights all that is excellent about Black entrepreneurship, and I finally got bit by the bug. I decided to try consulting as a side hustle.
One day I woke up, ready to go to work after being given a raise and a title promotion, and a voice (God, duh!) said, "Janell, you need to quit. Go off on your own. It's now or never." So I did.
I went full-time with consulting and never left my love for editing and writing behind. No one would tell me that it wouldn't be all about empowering roses, extreme time and energy flexibility, and cashing checks. Baby, it can be a rough road, with many detours, bumps, and even crashes.
If you're considering becoming self-employed, consider what I've learned (mostly the hard way) in my journey:
It was all good when I'd get my check at a job, and all the heavy lifting related to taxes had been done already. Maybe I'd cringe that my take-home pay had diminished by quite a lot once taxes were taken out, but that feeling is nothing compared to the utter horrific trepidation that comes with tax season when you have to file as a self-employed professional.
Quarterly tax obligations are real, and a huge lesson I've learned is that you have to really become honest with yourself about your money mindset, how you dealt with money before becoming self-employed, the federal and state tax requirements that apply to you, and the importance of embracing and taking full advantage of the resources out there to help you.
Often, when you're self-employed, you feel like you can do it all, but in my case, I found that dealing with money matters really intimidated me. I had to empower myself by asking for help and getting the information I needed to succeed.
If you're considering self-employment, talk to others who are self-employed, get references for tax attorneys, coaches, financial advisers, or certified accountants, and check out the IRS website to find out the information you need. Look to your local businesses and organizations that advocate for you. Get the knowledge you need and write out a plan of action ahead of time so that you won't be overwhelmed when you're ready to go for it.
And offer yourself grace. Life is not about perfection, and you can't know it all at all times. Experience can sometimes be the best teacher as well, especially when it comes to being self-employed.
Invoicing And Knowing Your Worth
Setting prices for your time, services, or products can be tricky, but if you decide to continue pursuing the same work you did in your 9-to-5 when you move on to be your own boss (like I did), this can be much easier. Be sure to check the market rates for what you offer to the world by going to sites like Salary.com or Glassdoor to help you set a baseline for what you should be getting paid. Ask around your industry and get a mentor who can guide you on this, especially someone who has been in their field, self-employed, for many years. (You want to learn from folk who have receipts.)
Early on, I tragically undervalued my services, talent, and experience and undercharged by a lot. I often felt desperate because, to be honest with you, my confidence wasn't as high as I thought it was when I started the journey. I also had bills to pay and didn't want to go through the shame of failing.
Well, if you're reading this, you can plan better than I did in the early days and set yourself up for success by not only charging what you're worth but adding tax (literally...I just told you about Uncle Sam, sis), but saving up and planning so that you can take or leave any client or customer. You won't be so pressed because you've financially and mentally prepared yourself to take the leap.
Now, I'm not saying deplete all your savings and live off of credit cards and hope. I am saying go into self-employment with a realistic sense of what you should be charging, how your prices and expenses affect your finances, the reasonable market rates for what you're offering to the world, and the quality of life you'd like to have for yourself and your family.
It took me years to get in a good groove of understanding the types of clients I wanted to work with, what publishers I wanted to build relationships with, what I was willing to sacrifice just for the experience, and my hard boundaries for the return on investment of my time.
Again, if you feel confused or anxious about this, get some help. Talk to a coach, join a Facebook group, or invest in courses where you can be around and learn from other self-employed professionals who have been successful, and the fruits of their labors are super-evident.
The Isolation And Loneliness
I've always been one who loves my own company and will do almost anything alone (especially traveling, going out to dinner or movies, or trying something new and daring that I can't convince anyone in my network to do).
However, especially during the pandemic, I learned that while I'm never really lonely, I absolutely hate feeling alone. The isolation really caused me to go inward, lose a lot of my zest for serving people, and ruined any sense of community I'd felt previously. It also made me realize that we need people and that I crave the exchange of human energy when it comes to doing what I love.
Embarking on a self-employment journey means also reaching out and being an active part of networks where you can serve, learn and grow so that you can avoid making mistakes, advance your career, boost your business, make friends, and really contribute in a more elevated way. Go to those mixers, sis. Take that coffee or virtual lunch invite. Travel on that retreat. Volunteer. Do things that will really enrich your spirit and provide some sort of social interaction that will make being self-employed something fulfilling to be.
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Broke, Going Back To A 9-to-5....And Failure
I really want to keep it 100 on this one: Almost every self-employed person I know has had to go back to a 9-to-5 at one point or another, even if it was part-time or something that they would never dare put on their resume. Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Some people work a 9-to-5 to fuel their future of full-time self-employment. Some went solo and found that they needed to do a bit more self-development and get a bit more education by working for a company.
Some people took a leap and failed. It happens, and it happened to me. I'm proud of having sold shoes (one of the best jobs of my life), answered phones, or sold products via telemarketing because it taught me humility, customer service, and sales skills and helped me engage with people in a way I hadn't when self-employed.
It also boosted my confidence, letting me know I could do anything I put my mind to and that God would never leave me hanging off a cliff. It strengthened my faith and made me even more determined to continue to go for my dreams.
It also widened my network, and one job even helped me finance a major surgery I didn't even know I'd need. (The actual job was a flop, but the experience was a God-send that I'm forever grateful for because had I not been employed and fully insured, I'm not sure I'd be here to write this.)
Being self-employed isn't the fantasy that's often portrayed on social, but if it's the path for you, it can be super-rewarding. Be sure to take heed to the lessons I've learned along the way, remember your why, stay diligent, enjoy the process, and be that successful self-employed boss you were called to be.
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