A local singer with big dreams keeps getting close to stardom. Then her body and mind start to fail her.

TALLAHASSEE — In the concrete belly of a cavernous convention hall, Zai folded and unfolded the American Idol audition form in her hands.

WHAT’S YOUR STORY? it asked in bold at the top. The basics were easy enough.

LEGAL NAME/STAGE NAME: Vonabell Hurst (Zai)

AGE: 24 yrs old

HOMETOWN: Dunedin, FL

Her story? That’s harder. She knew what producers wanted to hear. They want a nice narrative, a feel-good story they can sell. But the ones who don’t make it have a story, too. Zai has tried to sculpt hers to a sound bite.

Vonabell Hurst, a.k.a. Zai, often picks out outfits based on the personality she's feeling on a given day. "Heidi," a more artistic and flowery persona, occasionally wears an antler headpiece. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]

The problem is that it keeps changing. It was one thing when she auditioned for Idol as a 16-year-old vocal prodigy, when she seemed destined to make it to Hollywood, the next big pop singer out of Tampa Bay. It was another at 22, when she got even closer, only to break down at the finish line.

It’s another today, at nearly 25, an elder among thousands of Idol virgins. No matter how she shapes her story, she ends up facing questions she can’t answer on a form, that don’t fit in a 90-second montage. Eventually, the bruises from her blackouts start to show, wounds from a traumatic illness that keeps killing her shot at the spotlight. Reality intrudes on “reality,” and everything collapses once again.

Zai, at right, hugs her friend Patti Oriot before her audition for "American Idol" on Aug. 23, 2019, at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee. Zai's front-of-the-line pass meant she could bypass a long line of hopefuls waiting to sing for their golden ticket to Hollywood. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Suddenly, the crowd cheered. Zai looked up. The singer in front of her waved a yellow form, her “golden ticket” to Hollywood. She hugged her mother, sobbing, as more friends ran up and piled in. Zai shot the girl a thumbs-up and a big, bright smile, then her face fell. She’s done this enough to know that producers almost never hand out two golden tickets in a row. Her eyes watered. She fanned her face.

She'd been so confident. This was supposed to be the day. And now?

From left: Zai, Lianne McConnell, Nathaly Valdivia and Erica Trombley wait to be called up to audition for "American Idol" at the Florida State University campus. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

She linked her fingers at her waist, cradling her belly. Inside was her son, 31 weeks and growing. Everything she's ever wanted was right here at her fingertips.

Zai stepped to her mark. All she could do now was sing.

***

Zai is not famous. Not outside her 35,000 Facebook and Instagram followers, or the tiny clique of fans, her “Zaimbies,” who follow her to bar gigs around Tampa Bay.

But she looks and acts like she should be. She is petite with dark hair and turquoise highlights, hazel eyes that shift color in the light. She's constantly on, playing to strangers on the street as if on camera. She is over-the-top outgoing, always hugging and laughing, thanking and complimenting, remembering things most folks forget.

Zai sings almost exclusively at bars and lounges around Tampa Bay, including Mugs N' Jugs in Clearwater on Feb. 6, 2019. At the time, she was about a week pregnant but did not know it. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]

Every barista has the coolest name, every server the cutest brows, every person in the park the most amazing dog. She has an invigorating energy, one that turns heads and sparks smiles and leaves those in her wake thinking: Wow. Who was that?

She’s talented. She has a vocal range of several octaves and can sing jazz and opera as well as rock and country — though her specialty is pop that leans alternative. She sounds like Halsey, a singer born one week later in September 1994, who has since recorded several No. 1 singles and hosted Saturday Night Live. She’s a charismatic performer and songwriter who plays several instruments. When she sings in bars, she bounces around like a chrome pinball, serenading patrons bewildered by the whirlwind show.

Zai has gotten closer than most singers like her ever will. She’s auditioned for American Idol six times, The Voice four, America’s Got Talent three, The X Factor once, and has on several occasions made it fairly far. She once sang on MTV’s Copycat, impersonating one of her heroes, Jessie J. She lost.

Zai snaps a selfie in front of a backdrop provided for contestants during "America's Got Talent" auditions at the Tampa Convention Center on Dec. 10, 2018. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]

Whatever keeps pushing her down this path, it isn’t false confidence. Several times, she’s been invited to audition by TV producers who remembered her from before. She sticks in your mind like a celebrity — a live-action anime heroine, an Instagram avatar come to life — except she’s not. She’s not even close. And the more time you spend with her, the mystery of why only deepens.

What happened?

***

The spotlight is in her DNA.

Zai’s mother, Vonabell Roocke, was a New York state beauty queen, a honey-blond model and lotto girl. Her father, Steven Sherman, was a schoolteacher by day and partier by night, an emcee and performer in male exotic dance troupes with names like Mixed Nuts and Aphrodisiac.

Those days ended with the ’80s. Vonabell found Jesus and became born again. Steven embraced Messianic Judaism, which blends elements of Christian and Jewish faiths. He ran as a conservative Republican for New York State Assembly and founded an antidrug ministry, Just Pray No, which drew letters of support from Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. They would appear together on The 700 Club, sharing their story of religious rebirth.

The Shermans had two sons, and Vonabell was overjoyed to get a girl, born Sept. 20, 1994. They named her Vonabell, too — the third in a line. Zai’s great-grandmother came up with the name. It loosely means “from the family of beauty.”

When she still went by Vonabell, Zai and an old manager created DVDs that they sent out to help spread the word about her talent, voice and recovery from a rare seizure condition. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Zai was precocious, creative and bright. Homeschooled by her mother, she qualified for dual enrollment at St. Petersburg College at 14, earning an associate of arts degree at 17. She was fluent in American Sign Language and passable in Japanese, and earned course credits as a classroom tutor at Dunedin Elementary School. She thought about becoming a teacher.

But the real plan was entertainment.

Zai can’t remember a time she wasn’t at least near the center of attention. She grew up in green rooms, she said, especially once her mother took a job at the Home Shopping Network in St. Petersburg. There, she encountered celebrities like Wolfang Puck and Mariah Carey and went on camera to sell Snuggies and doughnut makers. She started modeling, posing as a mannequin in storefronts along Dunedin’s Main Street.

Zai, who grew up as Vonabell Roocke-Sherman, points to her misspelled name in her seventh-grade yearbook for homeschooled students in Pinellas County. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

As Zai’s voice developed, Vonabell put her in lessons; arranged gigs through her church and social circle; and kept meticulous track of her bookings and image. She won local competitions, including Dunedin Idol and Pinellas Idol.

Vonabell steered her daughter toward wholesome music, Christian music, music that played with a more conservative audience. In one video, Zai lugged a giant wooden cross through a cemetery and up Clearwater’s Memorial Causeway Bridge. She dressed Zai in an American-flag overcoat, singing the national anthem at spring training and minor league games. In 2012, she sang at a Ron Paul rally at the USF Sun Dome.

Before changing her name to Zai, a young Vonabell Roocke-Sherman spent her teenage years singing at games and other public events around Tampa Bay. At 16, she performed the national anthem during a Purple Heart recognition ceremony in downtown Dunedin on Aug. 5, 2011. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Zai adored animals and imagined living in the country with dogs and sheep and horses. She could see becoming a veterinarian. Still, she did not waver from her mother's religiosity, writing in one school essay that she hoped "to become a famous singer who is both well known in the Christian and worldly music worlds."

Zai didn’t watch reality singing shows. But her mother saw in them an opportunity to take her daughter national. At 14, she auditioned for America’s Got Talent in Orlando. Didn’t get it. Two years later, in September 2010, they flew to Los Angeles for American Idol.

Zai was not scared to sing, but she was nervous about meeting the celebrity judges.

"If I get to see Steven Tyler, I don't even know what I'm going to do," she told an MTV News crew that day. "I think I might just, like, break down. He's awesome!"

Sure enough, she made it through four rounds of auditions and ended up singing for Tyler and the other judges. They praised her performance. But it wasn't the right time.

We love your voice, they said. We just think you could develop more.

That was all the encouragement Zai needed. She had just turned 16. She left the arena for some sushi, picturing all the good things yet to come.

***

One morning last spring, Zai took a mighty pull from her weed pen, hacked and deflated into the couch in her spartan Dunedin apartment. She’d had a seizure and now her back and leg ached. Same as always.

She is fit and lithe, but her body pops and cracks like she's 50. She's torn muscles, dislocated bones, suffered concussions. Bruises dot her arms and legs. The only thing that keeps her pain and anxiety bearable is a near-constant intake of medical marijuana. It makes her feel “real and human.”

Before a performance on Feb. 6, 2019, Zai sings Ariana Grande while getting ready at her apartment in Dunedin. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]

She has had thousands of seizures, she said, some back to back, as many as 100 in a day. She has been hospitalized, bedridden, briefly pronounced dead at one point. No one knew what was happening.

Only after months of intense psychiatric and neurological testing did a neurologist offer a diagnosis that made sense: psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, or PNES.

The condition isn’t common. Fewer than 1 in 20,000 Americans — three in four female — are diagnosed each year, in part because the condition is poorly understood.

Unlike seizures caused by epilepsy, her condition is rooted in psychology, not the nervous system. It operates like a form of post-traumatic stress disorder: The mind perceives a trigger and the body shuts down.

During the first few weeks of her pregnancy, Zai was hospitalized for hyperemesis at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. Her father, Steven Sherman, visited her regularly, dealt with doctors and medical paperwork, and took care of her pets. [JAY CRIDLIN | Times]

Zai’s seizures take different forms, according to friends and medical records. Occasionally, they are violent grand mal convulsions. Other times, her body locks up and she can’t breathe, as though she’s having a panic attack. More often, she’ll collapse as if fainting from a standing position, crumpling into a heap, crashing into anything between her and the floor.

Because of their relationship to trauma, psychogenic non-epileptic seizures often overlap with mood disorders like depression, anxiety and rarer conditions like dissociative identity disorder. "Multiple personality disorder," it's often called.

Zai says she has that, too.

Dissociative identity disorder is also uncommon and difficult to diagnose, in part because some skeptics believe it’s not real. Zai has discussed the disorder at length with therapists and been referred to an expert for further testing.

Zai says it started before she knew it had a name. She can look at childhood photos and see different personalities, watch old videos and become agitated by the sight of the girl on screen — a person who looks like her, but is not.

Spend enough time with Zai, and different personas emerge. She might thrust out her hand and introduce the cocksure A.A., her body looser and voice lower. She might enter a store as the childlike Luna and walk out with a new stuffed animal. Or she might awaken from a seizure unaware of who she is, unable to string words into a sentence.

Zai gets ready before an "American Idol" audition on Aug. 23, 2019, in Tallahassee. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

One afternoon, she pulled up a series of homemade videos from around age 13, clips recorded for a homeschool project. They’re choppy and hard to follow. One moment, she’s acting, another she’s bellowing guttural screams. Several clips run less than a second. But they clearly upset her. She stood and paced the room as they played in short succession. When she sat, she spoke softly in a clipped British accent.

“It’s always easiest to forget,” she said. “But it’s understandable that this is important for understanding, for closure. That’s all. For the art. To touch people. To change lives.”

Later, she laughed it off. That was Nermin. “No one likes Nermin,” she joked.

Nermin. Heidi. Mason. Damon. Vixen. Hadassah. She’s identified 33 personalities in what she calls “the Zai system.” Some come out when she’s writing and singing.

And then there is Vonabell.

Vonabell is still Zai’s legal name. But it’s no longer who she is. Vonabell is “not a very prevalent person anymore,” she said. Vonabell used to be “literally nothing but rainbows and roses and no sadness,” but now “holds more of that depressive state.”

The marijuana took hold, and she sunk deeper into the couch. She became Vonabell, not Zai, vulnerable and reflective as her mind drifted back to her childhood. Her voice wavered as she described her seizures.

"It's like being captive in your own body," she said. "Maybe that's why I feel like a slave. Because what my mother did to me made me a slave in my own head, which resulted in these seizures.”

Zai was 6 when her parents’ marriage fractured. Zai lived primarily with her mother, who she said was emotionally abusive, obsessing over her appearance and behavior with boys.

And as recently as November, Zai told more than 21,000 Facebook followers that she had suffered "physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse until I was 18."

Digging through old papers from childhood, Zai found a drawing she made back when she still went by Vonabell. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Those in Zai’s circle of care aren’t sure what to believe. Steven Sherman and his oldest son, Zai’s half brother Matt, are not inclined to believe Zai’s claims of childhood sexual abuse. But challenging her carries a risk.

"If I wasn't 100 percent behind her in what she had to say, I'd be out of the loop," Steven said. "I've been walking on a tightrope for years. There's a fine balance.”

Her mother and siblings declined to be interviewed.

"Contributing to the false narrative you are creating will not help my daughter's well-being," Vonabell Sherman wrote in a text message. "I will not be part of it."

Zai is open about her instability and knows some hold it against her. She has been arrested or taken into custody under Florida’s Baker Act at least four times, including once on a felony battery charge following a domestic incident with an ex-husband. She has been hospitalized countless times. Some of her memories are imperfect, which clouds her credibility on events she swears really happened.

On multiple occasions, Zai has threatened and attempted suicide. She has a tattoo on her wrist of a semicolon, a symbol of self-harm survival.

One thing Zai has heard a lot: She's faking it. Or at least playing it up, perhaps even unwittingly, to get famous. That's possible, experts say, though faking it would be difficult and rare.

“She has a legitimate illness,” Steven Sherman said. “But you can't go in and pinpoint, this is why it happened.”

***

She thinks about the one break that almost came. The one that almost got her out of Florida.

It was 2017, and American Idol had just been rebooted by ABC. Auditions were scheduled for Orlando. The Tampa ABC affiliate held a promotional contest called Tampa Bay Idol. Sing well, and you win a skip-the-line audition pass. Zai did, and did.

Zai at the "American Idol" audition in August 2017. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]

She was 22 and had just started opening up about her seizures. She had a vague idea she could make awareness of her condition part of her story. She shared the broad strokes with producers and nailed her audition song, Miley Cyrus’ The Climb. She passed through to sing for Idol judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan in Savannah, Ga.

The week before the trip, Zai got into an argument with family members at her father's 70th birthday party. She went outside, seized up and hit the ground. A few days later, she was out with friends when she had another seizure and collapsed into a bar, suffering a concussion.

By the time Zai got to Savannah, she was anxious, sleep-deprived and in pain. Producers loved her, and even talked about having her film promotional videos for the show, but she was in no shape for TV. She walked into the lights with what she thought was a well-honed story. She'd had 6,000 seizures, she told the judges. From there, the conversation followed a familiar pattern.

Seizures? What kind of seizures?

They're called psychogenic non-epileptic seizures. They're caused by severe trauma.

Trauma? What kind of trauma?

This is the point where it always breaks down. How much is she willing to share? How much are they willing to hear?

On this day, Zai told them she'd been abused. That she had violence in her past. That she was in pain. She didn't tell them everything, but she told them too much. And it was a mistake. She knew it immediately.

Richie, she said, told her to rest. Perry told her to get help for the deeper issues in her life.

Go home, she said Perry told her. Get away from that abuse. I want you to make that full, clear cut. I want you to get healthy and amazingly well. And I want you to come back.

Zai broke down right there. Producers called her manager to help her offstage. It was all too raw, too real for reality TV. It didn’t fit the Idol formula.

This is the compact of fame in 2020. You can have talent, but talent isn’t enough. You have to struggle, but not too much. You have to be real, but not too real. You can filter yourself, but only to a point. If you don’t make it — and most don’t — you have to live with what comes after.

Her audition never aired.

***

"Oh my god," Zai gasped, her palm pressed to her forehead. "I'm pregnant."

She was in a bed at Clearwater’s Morton Plant Hospital in February 2019. She was there because she’d collapsed from another seizure, this time at a Safety Harbor kava bar where she’d been working part time. They wanted to make sure she was safe.

She was confused but not disappointed. Zai loved children. She’d prayed for kids since childhood — one boy and three girls, the youngest named Vonabell IV. She imagined raising them with her husband in a two-story house in the country, surrounded by dogs and sheep and horses.

As a homeschooled teenager, she volunteered in Dunedin classrooms. She gravitated toward the difficult kids, the ones with special needs, encouraging them to doodle between questions to make learning more fun.

Anytime Zai sang in public, kids would edge up to the stage. Or they would ask to pet her service dog, Fire. At the end of the gig, she'd remove Fire's vest so the kids could get their fill of belly rubs.

She was 19 the first time she got pregnant. She was engaged to the father. Zai was just three months in, but she couldn’t hide her excitement. Then one day, she started bleeding in a way that didn’t feel normal. Her first pregnancy ended the same way up to half of all pregnancies do: in a miscarriage.

In therapy, she insisted she was to blame, that God was punishing her for having sex out of wedlock, because it’s what she grew up believing.

Months later, married, she got pregnant again. And again, she miscarried.

She named her babies and got tattoos for both. Half a heart with a dot on her left arm for Gracie, her first. The number 2 with a star on her ankle for Brayleigh, her second. She wrote a song she only ever sang to herself.

Now there's bloody water, were you my son or daughter?

'Cause I don't really know what I felt that day

You were my hope and inspiration, my reason for my existence

And now I can feel you fading away

When she finally made it — when, not if — she would inspire children through her music and platform, even if they were not her own. She wanted to be the one they looked up to on American Idol.

This new pregnancy, however, was not how she saw it all happening. She'd only been dating the father of her child a couple of weeks. A rebound. He was four years younger and not prepared for this. He didn't come to the hospital with Zai. When she called him with the news, he sounded indifferent.

Zai holds an ultrasound photo of her baby following an appointment at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. [JAY CRIDLIN | Times]

Zai was unfazed. The more she thought about it, the more excited she got.

“I am going to be the hottest mom,” she laughed. “Beyoncé's doing it. Carrie Underwood did it. Everybody else did it. So I know I can do it.”

Her dad was wary. There was a long way to go.

"There's going to be some challenges for her," Steven said. "I'm really hoping she will not publicize this. I know she's spoken to a few people already. But I think she should really step back on it."

He had seen her get like this before. He remembers.

***

The first few weeks did not go well. She was constantly sick, throwing up so much that she was hospitalized.

Her doctor told her that due to her medical history, including her miscarriages, she said, her pregnancy might be considered high-risk. She was told to tone down her movements. She felt a sickening pain resurface.

Zai wanted to be famous. But she also wanted to be stable. And for a while, she did not see a child — however unexpected — changing any of that.

But she imagined living through a third miscarriage. Falling from a seizure and landing on her belly. Her hips and back, aching from so many dislocations, deteriorating to the point where she couldn't dance.

Her mind raced: Bed rest. Career over. Stillbirth. Death. She cried on her friend Patti Oriot’s porch, unable to picture a happy ending. The word risk rattled in her head until she decided she wasn’t ready to take it. She couldn’t continue the pregnancy.

I can’t do this, she told Patti. I want a career. It’s too scary. All of this. I don’t think I want to do it.

Zai looks out across her Dunedin apartment complex last summer. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

On the morning of April 6, Zai couldn't stop shaking. She'd been up until 1 a.m. sobbing into the phone, agonizing. She put on makeup, hoping it would make things feel normal. It didn't. She coiled her turquoise tips into a messy bun and curled up in the back seat of her dad's car with her childhood stuffed tiger, Hobbes.

They parked outside the Tampa Woman’s Health Center, a discreet pink building near the University of South Florida. They walked quietly past protesters with picket signs, adoption pamphlets and poster-sized photos of fetuses.

They sat in a corner. Zai shook and rubbed her thighs. She and Patti had called at least three other clinics looking for a doctor who would perform an abortion on a patient with her medical history. This one said yes on the phone. But after an initial exam, she was concerned about the possibility of a seizure mid-procedure. Zai was already 11 weeks pregnant. If they didn’t do it this week, everything would get more difficult.

"Am I going to die?"

"No one said you're going to die, Zai,” Patti said.

"Well, that's not true."

"No one can predict that."

"They said it's a possibility."

"It's a possibility for everybody."

Zai was silent a second.

"Can I take another hit while I'm out here? Where's my purse at?" She pulled her marijuana pen from her pocketbook and took a quick draw in the waiting room.

She peered through the vertical blinds at the anti-abortion protesters. She was getting worked up again: short breaths, tense muscles, a nervous grimace.

"I wouldn't do this if I thought I would be totally fine and the baby would be fine and everything works out magically. But I don't think that's the wisest decision."

"There's always room for miracles," Steven said.

"I would need a miracle of a lot more than health, though. I would need a bunch of miracles at the same time. I would need a miracle of a partner that wants to be there 24/7 to raise a baby that’s not theirs.”

Zai started to sob.

"I could be living better. And that's what this is teaching me. I've got to push even harder. Because one day, I want the ability to have a child. I want that. And if I'm going to do that, that means I have to buck up. I can't be an example if I can't do it myself."

"You have been a wonderful example so far," Steven said. "And you can do even better."

"One day I'll have a house and I'll have the finances and the ability to do this the right way. And then it won't matter if I injure myself, because I'll already be at that point, and if I get injured, then I'll have something to fall back on. But I don't have that right now.”

A short while later, the doctor rendered her decision: no abortion. They exited the clinic. Walking behind Zai, Steven turned back to the protesters and shook his head. They said nothing in response.

***

Zai had the aftermath all planned out. She would get another tattoo. She would travel. Skydive. Throw herself into music. Write songs about her pain and perform them all over the world.

She filled her apartment with positive affirmations on whiteboards and sticky notes and fortune-cookie fortunes.

Every day is a gift. Accept yourself. You are enough. You will conquer. You do have this.

She could feel her baby moving, fluttering like a butterfly. Each time, she started crying.

At Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, a nurse slathered jelly on her belly. There on the screen, Zai saw her baby wiggling in the grainy blackness. The heartbeat sounded completely normal. She swore she saw it dance.

Your baby, the doctor said, is in the perfect range. Not only was the baby not in danger, it was as healthy as a baby can be.

Zai laughs at one of her father's jokes while waiting for a doctor to arrive for an ultrasound appointment at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Zai was stunned. The week prior, she believed she and her baby were both at risk. Now a different doctor was saying she should be okay. That they had patients much sicker who were doing just fine.

Zai looks over the ultrasound photos. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

On the ultrasound, her doctor pointed out her baby's stomach. It was empty.

All she wanted now was to feed it.

***

Throughout the summer, Zai booked steadier gigs, earning enough to stash a bit away. She went for long stretches without seizing.

She admired her baby’s tiny fingers and toes on each ultrasound: “Oh, he’s so playing piano. He’s so playing guitar. I’m putting him on drums.”

She had a gender reveal party, surrounded by friends dousing her in a shower of blue confetti. She brought a camera crew to film it, “because my child’s going to watch this one day, and they need to know I was excited.”

She had a baby shower where she played the piano and sang Adele before pulling outfits and toys from a pile of pastel bags. She streamed it live on Facebook.

She concocted a birth plan that involved her family and friends donning comic book costumes for a hospital “lobby party” on her due date. At one point, she opened the invite to followers on social media.

"I feel like that would go viral," she said.

Zai thanks fans and friends watching a live stream of her baby shower, held at a friend's house in Palm Harbor. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

She hadn’t given up on fame. She was working with a producer at Clearwater’s Clear Track Studios, which had crafted a portfolio for potential investors proclaiming Zai “the next generation of pop music,” comparing her to Halsey and Lady Gaga. A section titled "Shock Factor & Message" described her seizures and her dissociative identity disorder. The portfolio sought up to $75,000 to "launch her brand on a major scale," suggesting "expected returns on the low side ... of 200%-$300% in the first year." The plan would have her opening tours for major artists by the end of 2020.

But that was before she got pregnant.

After, some collaborators got skittish. They backed away from deals and tours. Zai started to see through all the promises she once believed like gospel. The singer who said she’d take Zai on tour, but only if Zai paid her $30,000 up front. The DJ who offered her a development deal, but only in exchange for half her royalties. Zai realized none of it was ever really real.

She did meet one guy, a Tampa DJ named Will Chaff. When Zai moved from her apartment to a bigger one in the same complex, Will moved in. He hadn’t seen a kid in his immediate future, but he rolled with the pregnancy. They soon became inseparable.

Patti urged her to start practicing meditative therapy. Zai had "inner talks" with herself about what was really causing her to implode over and over.

Zai touches her pregnant belly during the baby shower. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Zai was asked to think of a “perfect moment” from childhood. She couldn’t come up with one. Then she realized that a “perfect moment” doesn’t have to be a memory. It can be a fraction of a memory — the sky, the breeze, the sunshine. A realization that you’re alive.

This isn’t my life, she realized. This is my baby’s life.

***

The night before her American Idol audition in Tallahassee in August, Zai, 31 weeks pregnant, tried on outfits, noshed on black bean pasta and filled out some last-minute paperwork.

WHAT'S YOUR STORY? the form in front of her asked.

She's handed in so many forms like this. She always gives the same answers.

I sing, dance, act and model.

I want to influence people on a large scale through my music.

I’m a very happy person who’s had a lot of bad happen to her in her young life.

I died and came back.

The next morning, she sang The Climb for an Idol producer.

There’s always gonna be another mountain

I’m always gonna wanna make it move

Always gonna be an uphill battle

Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose

She rocked up on her toes, her voice carrying above the din of the convention hall. She did well, she thought. The producer liked her. But it wasn't enough. She did not make the cut.

Vonabell Hurst who goes by Zai, holds up a homemade sign friend, Patti Oriot, brought along for Zai's American Idol audition the next day. Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019 in Tallahassee. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Patti gave Zai a big hug. They turned and left smiling, escalating into the daylight from the civic center floor.

For what felt like the millionth time in her life, Zai came up short.

But she had never walked away feeling this good.

***

The night of Oct. 10, Zai drove to the hospital.

“You're not going to let me die?” she asked Will. “You're going to make sure I make it through this?”

In the delivery room, she sang and danced until the contractions got too intense. She started trembling from the pain before the epidural kicked in.

She pushed for 12 minutes. At 2:07 p.m. Oct. 11, Robin Rose Preston was born. Waiting in the lobby was her father, Steven, wearing a Robin costume.

In the dreamlike quiet of the delivery room, Zai smiled at the child in her arms. He was completely healthy. He slept calmly. He latched immediately. None of it felt real.

Eleven days after giving birth, Zai cares for her newborn son, Robin, at her Dunedin apartment. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

"There's not a mark on him," she said. "I was a big ball of worry and anxiety, and now it's like, everything's fine. He's fine. I'm fine. Life can be okay."

At the foot of the bed, Patti lifted her phone.

"You ready for a quick vid?" she said.

Zai smiled to an audience unseen.

***

Two weeks later, she was changing Robin on the sofa, her boyfriend sipping herbal tea beside her. She hadn’t had a seizure in weeks. They were talking about buying a house, their own little den of bohemian bliss. Will’s pretty handy. They could make it work.

"It's like this chance at having a totally clean slate," she said.

There's a lot she'll tell Robin someday. For as long as she can, though, she wants him not to know.

Some day, Robin will hear his mother's story. For now, she's happy just to hold him. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

One night, she sat alone with Robin on the sofa, singing to him softly as he fed. She picked up her phone and tapped record.

Robin Rose, I want you to grow ... up to be happy, and up to be old ... I want a grand life for you, something that I could never have ... 'Cause you’re all that I am, in a tiny babe ... A brand new life, and I’m proud of it. You’re everything I could ever want.

Maybe there's a song in there. An album. A career. A whole life.

She clicked post and shared it with the world.

Epilogue

Zai found a house in St. Petersburg. She moved there in January with Robin, Will, her dog, two cats and three rabbits. She still has seizures and shifts in personality, but she is healthy, and so is Robin. She booked a steady Friday night gig at a Gulfport coffee lounge called Sumitra. It’s a long way from Hollywood, but Zai has hope.

A few months ago, a friend in the drag world recommended her to a talent agency headquartered in New Orleans. The Benedetti Group primarily represents drag performers, but it was the names of musicians on their roster that resonated most with Zai — names like Bebe Rexha, Charli XCX and Jessie J. That the agency has only a tangential connection to these artists doesn’t matter to Zai. On the agency’s website, her photo now sits next to theirs. She’s made it that far.

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

About the story

Reporter Jay Cridlin met Zai in August 2017. He followed her at home, in hospitals and through all nine months of her pregnancy, witnessing seizures, breakdowns and personality shifts along the way. He shadowed her at gigs, in the studio and during auditions for American Idol and America’s Got Talent in Tampa, Orlando and Tallahassee. He reviewed hundreds of pages of medical, police and public records and interviewed more than two dozen friends, family members and experts on her life and conditions. In-depth storytelling takes time. Journalism like this is only possible thanks to the support of readers like you. Click here to subscribe or donate.

Need help?

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out to the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at toll-free 1-800-273-8255; contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741; or chat with someone online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay can be reached by dialing 211 or by visiting crisiscenter.com.

If you or a loved one is suffering from abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at toll-free 1-800-799-7233 or the Florida Department of Children and Families’ abuse hotline at toll-free 1-800-962-2873.

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