ATLANTA (AP) — When Le'Andria Johnson won BET's "Sundays Best" two years ago, the gospel singer wasn't quite ready to live the gospel life.
She earned a recording contract after her victory, performed on the network's "Celebration of Gospel" and was on her way to gospel stardom, but Johnson still didn't want to swear off worldly habits such as going out to the nightclub, drinking alcohol or smoking. At one point, she felt like she couldn't live up to the standards expected for an inspirational singer.
"I didn't want to be disrespectful to God," Johnson said. "I wanted to cool out for the moment and do me, go out or do anything. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't do it. Going out to the club — I couldn't. Drinking — I just couldn't do it."
She found that the party lifestyle wasn't for her anymore, but she didn't give up everything from the secular world. She learned how to enjoy herself at functions with others who might be drinking alcohol, and still be true to her faith at the same time: "It's hard trying to please people, but not anymore."
So far, her approach has worked.
Johnson's debut album, "The Awakening of Le'Andria Johnson," which was released in mid-September, has topped Billboard's top Gospel Album chart for the fourth time in the last five weeks. She co-wrote most of the songs on her album, which also debuted at No. 1 on the Top Christian/Gospel album chart.
"When you see that mic in my hand, I'm giving you what happened to me last week or last month," Johnson said. "Good or bad, I'm giving you my story. My music is my reality show."
Most of Johnson's "reality show" has been a rough ride. The 29-year-old single mother of three has been divorced twice and struggled to financially stay afloat. She fell so behind on home payments that she lost her house to foreclosure a few days before the final "Sunday Best" audition.
Initially, Johnson did not want to make the 10-hour drive from her residence in Orlando, Fla., to New Orleans for auditions, but her family and friends persuaded her to compete. She made the drive and showed up just before her audition, wearing flip-flops and gym socks.
Johnson remembered the stares from some of the contestants, and hearing others criticize her appearance. But her vocal ability overshadowed her clothing at an audition where mostly everyone else wore semi-formal attire.
"The whole time, some were like 'Oh, what does she have on? Or why does she dress like that?" she recalled. "I got those looks. I dealt with all that. I almost left. But it was a little voice in me to that told me to stand (still). From there, I've watched God change my life one episode at a time."
Once Johnson advanced to "Sundays Best," she inspired judges and many of the two million-plus viewers of the gospel talent show with her vibrant stage presence and powerful vocals.
Mathew Knowles, who signed Johnson to his label Music World Gospel in a joint venture with BET and the "Sunday Best" brand, said Johnson's soulful voice and honest lyrics remind him of Mary J. Blige.
"That's why fans are buying her music, because of her honesty," said Knowles, the father and former longtime manager of Beyonce. "I call her the Mary J. Blige of gospel music. She's just a real person. She's extremely raw sometimes."
Johnson says the experience over the past two years has given her confidence moving forward. In late November, she will release her first holiday album, "Christmas Best," which will include "Sundays Best" season four winner Amber Bullock.
"There's life in a dead situation," she said. "God can use whomever he wants to use. When I don't give myself too much credit, I know God is taking care of the situation. It's not me. I'm just glad to be a willing vessel."
Follow Jonathan Landrum Jr. on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/mrlandrum31