Gina Albater dreamed of singing professionally for most of her life.
“[In high school], I had a karaoke machine,” she said. “And I would tape myself harmonizing with myself and then tape it over and harmonize with that.” The effect was like “a doo wop band,” all with one voice.
But, Albater didn’t think she would have to go through drug addiction and recovery to get recognized for her talents. Enter Recovery Idol, a singing competition created four years ago by Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services (DBHIDS). Contestants try out for the opportunity to sing in front of a crowd, with the final two contestants competing in front of thousands of people at Penn’s Landing during the annual Recovery Walk.
This year’s finalists were Gina Albater and Bill Presley. Albater said growing up with addicts in the family put her on a similar path as her loved ones.
“I forgive my dad for this now, but he showed me how to shoot up… and I was seven,” said Albater. “Him and my uncle sat in the room and they had candles lit and then they both did it.” She paused. “My uncle went POW right on the bed. And I was like ‘Oh no, he died!’ and my dad was like, ‘He’s fine’.”
So when it came to her own addiction, Albater said she felt like she was “doomed.”
“At 13, I started using pot and liquor and pills,” she said. “Twenty-one was when I picked up heroin.”
Still, she pursued singing in high school and college.
“I used to try crazy things to get discovered.” Albater attended Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, or CAPA. While there, she happened to be in the same choir as the then-budding R&B group Boyz II Men. “I would always try to sing in front of them, try to sound all soulful and stuff.”
She also sent tapes of her singing to record labels that had signed artists she admired, such as Madonna’s label EMI.
For college, she enrolled in Berklee College of Music in Boston. But she dropped out after one semester. Stints in the military, in bands and in recovery houses followed. Albater now works at a pizza shop in Center City, where she says the late night shifts mean drugs are unavoidable. “I found a bag of coke on the floor last week,” she said. “Just sitting on the floor.”
Accepting that drugs will always be around has helped her stay sober,” she said. “Because you can’t feel like you’re missing out on something that’s always a possibility.”
And singing is finaly paying off. In September, Albater won the Recovery Idol competition, beating out 36 contestants for the chance to perform more gigs and have free time in a recording studio with a producer. But, she said, just being able to sing is enough.
“As soon as I start singing, it’s like you’re in a bubble. And there could be nuclear bombs going off… and nobody could penetrate that bubble,” she said. “It’s an impenetrable joy.”