[Author’s note: I recently had the opportunity to interview former child star, Jennifer McGill, about the release of her new single and album, both titled Unbreakable, and the inspiration behind the music. The song is available now and the album will debut on August 11th. By the way, Unbreakable is the new theme song of my life! LG]
What started as almost a clean sweep of nearly 50 pageant victories from age seven in a small Texas town for Jennifer McGill quickly evolved into seven seasons in Orlando on the Disney Channel’s wildly popular “The All-New Mickey Mouse Club” in the late ‘80s well into the ‘90s, which she describes as a sort of “‘Saturday Night Live’ for kids”. A quick internet search shows her performing alongside a slew of internationally renowned stars, and throughout a real time conversation, she just as casually mentions how Michael Jackson used to visit the set as a major fan of their show or the time when
Celine Dion helped calm her nerves prior to an inauguration performance for President Bill Clinton at the Kennedy Center.
Yet, in spite of the spotlight burning bright for so long, the transition to instantaneous adult fame didn’t happen quite like she had hoped, let alone to the stratospheric degrees of fellow Mouseketeers Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, Keri Russell and JC Chasez.
McGill was always thrilled when one of her friends blew up into a superstar, but it only made her want a personal taste of the pie all the more. Those feelings of insecurity and inadequacy multiplied after her unconditionally supportive mother suddenly died of a heart attack when she and McGill were having lunch (on Father’s Day no less!) sending her increasingly fractured life into an absolute tailspin.
“Unbreakable is more of its own powerful message, identifying a true extension of me than what we thought it was going to be in the beginning and I can definitely see God as part of this progression. I never thought I’d have a chance to make a full-length album after it didn’t work out the first time around, let alone have it drop right after I turn 40! Continues McGill: “So many of us put borders on ourselves and I think for women especially there’s this idea that you’re past your expiration date when you hit a certain age, which in my case was only compounded with the celebrity comparisons I used to put on myself. This album paints a picture of old hurts and old mistakes, but also coming out on the other side and not just surviving but thriving. Hopefully, I’ll be able to inspire and encourage others because there’s an element in every song that reminds us we’re not battling alone.”
Nothing can separate us
Nothing can come between us now
Nothing can take away, break away the power of us
LG: Jennifer, I was totally blown away by your story and your video. You have referenced your childhood faith in your biography…
Jennifer: I had a very attentive mother to church activities. I have wonderful and positive memories of a very close-knit family and a church life that I was immersed in. Even when my mother had been divorced twice, during a time when divorce was not a good idea in the seventies, she could have tried to hide away, but she was a brave woman who kept me in church. She kept me in public, gave me a Christian family, and raised me in the faith. When she married my dad, who adopted me when I was four, he was and has always been a faithful man. When I got engaged last year, when he spoke to my now husband, he said, “Her mother is why it worked. We both kept Jesus at the center”. There was never a question that we were going to go to church and that the McGill family was going to be serving and not sitting in the pews. It always made sense to me as a kid. It was a social thing. You go. You have a church family. It’s just what you do.
LG: There came a time when you doubted God and rebelled against Him…
Jennifer: Everyone has a unique experience when you make the transition from “What does my family tell me to do?” or “What do I feel like I’m supposed to be doing?”. It is different for everybody. What I have seen, when I look back, is that somehow I missed out on the day-to-day intimate relationship that I could have with Christ. I was book learning and I knew prayers and I knew what I was supposed to say. I knew the “Christianese”. No matter how much you’re taught or how you are raised, sometimes we fall through the cracks and I was not accustomed to hanging out with Jesus everyday. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t ask for help. This lack of relationship with Jesus led to bad habits after more bad habits as I got older. That’s where the cracks happened-where I slipped. As I got older, life got harder. In college, I was introduced to new ways of getting to know God that involved a lot more guilt than what I was raised to feel. So, that actually distanced me from wanting to get to know Jesus. I felt like, if I opened my life up to Him at all, He was just going to cry and bleed all over everywhere I stepped. That was completely traumatic for me to imagine Jesus wanting to judge me everywhere I went. I stayed away from that and therefore stayed away from church. I was lost.
LG: Your mother died when you were so young. How did her death effect your faith?
Jennifer: My mother passed away when I was 24. The concept of God was always there. I was never angry with God. I always trusted His will. I understood He wasn’t away from me. I just found it difficult to go past that. I was surviving and wishing I could talk to her. When I would pray to God, I really was talking to her. I realized, down the road in my thirties, I had made her my Jesus. I think this is pretty normal if you’re really close to your parents and they’ve raised you and you go to them for everything. It makes sense. Sometimes that transition doesn’t happen in that you realize that there is something bigger than your favorite person on earth, who happened to be my mother. That bigger something is God. It took some time, but I realized that if there can be a “gift” in the passing of my mother, it is the gift she gave me helped point me back to Jesus-who was never going to leave or change or punish or judge me unjustly. He would always be there for me as the undying parent. It was a real eye-opener for me to say, “Okay, I understand now. I need to pour my intimacy into You”.
I see You – the dust settles on the ground
I hear You – the walls have fallen down
We’re still standing – arm in arm and heaven bound
LG: You have mentioned feeling rejected and self-medicating with bad habits…
Jennifer: As I said, life gets harder. I was processing my mother’s passing and the idea of God. I kept running away from a lot of problems. I was still self-medicating with
unhealthy relationships with men and unhealthy desires to have what fellow celebrity friends from the Mickey Mouse Club days had. I let their lives inform my life too much. In reality, they had nothing to do with what happened to me. They’re doing their thing and the world is asking me, “Why aren’t you famous?” I didn’t have a good answer. I would self-medicate with these things. I didn’t get into drugs, even though; people think that self-medicating is all about that type of substance abuse. It was relationship abuse that I projected myself into and allowed others to project onto me. I had unhealthy balances and borders which led to unhealthy relationships.
LG: Do you mind discussing your marriage?
Jennifer: I found myself at thirty married to a man who was still married to someone else. That happened because he did not allow enough time for his divorce papers to be finalized. Because he did that, I was able to get the marriage annulled. It was then that I woke up and finally understood that I didn’t do this [the marriage] for love, I didn’t do this because I thought it was the right thing, or because God told me to. I was just completely running away and isolating myself further and further. I settled for this man who was, in a way, my everything. Which, again, is not how it’s supposed to be. It is a hard thing for me to talk about, the “faux” marriage, as I call it, because it was such a big mistake and it was so embarrassing. Yet, you still have to tell everybody about a failure, basically.
LG: How did God use this experience to work in your life?
Jennifer: I’ve heard how divorces make people feel as if they’ve lost something or maybe they couldn’t cut it or felt like a failure or whatever anyone labels them with. I went through the same thing. But, I was so relieved… that it just didn’t matter. I was so relieved to get back with God on the right track. It was the first time in a long time that Jesus was more than a mentality for me. I looked to Him to be active in my life. When I prayed to Him, it was not like a “genie in a bottle” scenario. I was specific and I was vulnerable and I confessed. I let it all go and surrendered my life and rededicated it all back– not worrying about what He was going to do with it. That was the moment I gave up needing to be famous. I gave up needing to have any kind of status, including relationships. It didn’t matter where I lived. It didn’t matter what my job was as long as I could do it for Him. I was brought back to a certain place of reset and basically refined with fire. That was the year when I learned about spiritual warfare. He was very active immediately in my life. I probably prayed that prayer in 2007 and within a few months I was back in Orlando working with the Holy Land Experience. That’s where I learned about having girlfriends and relationships with women and how to have strong healthy Christian relationship mentors. He was now showing me the true reason He had given me the gifts He had and how much of a privilege and honor it was for me to share those gifts. It was not just life-changing- it was soul-changing. I was completely restored and reborn.
I’m with You – through the battle and the blood
You’re with me – through the fire and the flood
We’re still standing – eye to eye and so in love
LG: What hindered your restoration?
Jennifer: It took a long time for me because I had so many bad habits. Those included all the lies I had believed in my childhood. The first time I was called me fat I was around the age of 11 or 12. It seems so silly to some. They think, “Oh those are just some kids” but everybody I meet has body issues. It is a disease. Even though I am on the other side, able to distinguish the lie from truth, more than half my life I believed the lies that I was not good enough for “xyz”. They may have started from the world, but I didn’t know enough not to believe them. That active relationship thing was something I had just not practiced and I had to learn it the hard way. Honestly, that’s why I love to encourage others to have that intimate relationship. You may know only two words in the Bible but, if you have an intimate relationship with Jesus, I believe that He could move more through you and get you to where He needs you to go. That was my journey-that was my final frontier.
LG: When I read over the lyrics and watched the video, I was struck at how visual your description of what our relationship to Christ should look like. Was that your intention?
Jennifer: Yes. This whole album was written by an artist who is a Christian. My goal was that every song, especially Unbreakable, reflected my life. I wanted it to be a heavy hitting pop song but with the right words and the right message. My first request from my co-writer, John Chisum, was that I wanted to imagine myself on a battlefield waking up from the last knockdown, the final blow. I get up and I see the battle is over. The dust is still settling, the buildings are still falling, and the flames are still smoldering. I’m looking around to see who’s survived. I look and I see Jesus. I see my eternal parent. I see that Person who outlasted my mother on earth, if you will, who I realize has been there the whole time, and is going to be the last one standing with me, regardless. Spiritually, that was the visual.
In my own way, I have been in the bloodiest spiritual battle with a needle in my hands instead of the Sword. I have just slashed at others and been slashed at. I was broken and I didn’t even realize what was going on. This opening of Unbreakable was different. I am fighting the good fight and always next to me is a captain, not one that I can’t touch or look at or speak to, but one who is my comrade in battle. My God. I’m not alone and I have what I need to move forward. The song begins that moment when that particular battle has ended but you’re still going to move forward.
We wrote this song in 2 sessions and in the second session during break time, I decided to do this type of a melodic rap for the bridge. I laughed at myself-I’m no Toby Mac- but I really love that vibe. I took the lyrics from Romans 8:38-39. It was exactly what I wanted to say.
Whatever I’m facin’-in creation
No matter what-no separation
Height or depth-life or death
The power of us passes the test
You can run at us-we push back
No surrounding us-step back
Surrender is off the table-unbreakable, unbreakable
LG: What words of encouragement would you give our readers that are struggling with feelings of rejection, fear, or guilt?
Jennifer: I do believe the best followers of Christ are those who have had the difficult moments when they have had to decide out of hardship whether or not to follow Christ. I tend to believe those people more when they talk about Jesus. That’s the choice you make when you’ve been through something and you have to choose to either give up and run away for good… or to pick yourself up in the name of Jesus. I believe that any rebellion, no matter how young or old you are, is an opportunity to choose Jesus. I believe there are so many people that need to hear that. Just because you make a mistake or you’re painted in a bad light or you feel embarrassed, these circumstances are all opportunities to choose Jesus. It is so much easier said than done but I’ve lived through it. I get it. There is life on the other side of mistakes and hardships and loss but it’s only because of choosing Jesus. No other choice trumps that one. No other self-medication works like praying and talking to God. No fear-only Jesus.
I know You – right beside you all the way
I go to wherever You say
We’re still standing – armored up and unafraid
(Jennifer McGill is currently finishing up production of her new album and is writing a book. She will be performing at the launch party for Unbreakable in Franklin, TN, on August 3rd. Also, she will be hosting, speaking, and performing at The Ball in the Fall, September 23, at Tribeca University in Nashville.)