The Jeannie Ortega of today, a devoted wife and Christian recording artist debuting her upbeat and lyrical first full-length Christian studio album, Love Changed Me, isn't the Jeannie Ortega of yesterday. Her turbulent childhood and her walk with Christ have shaped someone altogether new.
From thoughts of suicide, exposure to a religion that involved witchcraft, and being surrounded by an entertainment industry riddled with sex and drugs, Ortega would not allow Satan to distract her from the true purpose that God had for her life — not even the enticements that might accompany a Billboard Top 25 pop star with a certified gold song.
A major distraction in Ortega's life was the religion Santeria, a form of witchcraft that originated in Africa that involves the conjuring of spirits through chanting and the offering of sacrifices like food and drink. As a child the religion had been a significant part of Ortega's family life and was a tradition passed down from generation to generation. Faith, however, would lead Jeannie down a different path.
"My family pretty much grew up in it [Santeria]. It was a generational thing," Ortega told The Christian Post. "It's just kind of a family thing. It's like a family business. You just pass it down."
Ortega said she currently has a family member who is a "high-ranking" participant in the religion who has what Santeria calls "god children" throughout New York City. Ortega explained that her family doesn't feel that Santeria goes against God, but that God is first, then the spirits they conjure. Their ultimate goal, in fact, is to connect with God.
As a preteen, Ortega said that one day family members tried to "graduate" her in the religion so that she could become possessed by a spirit. During one Halloween "feast," where participants make offerings to spirits, family members tried to conjure up a spirit within her.
"There were all these people chanting over me in the middle of a circle. It was the first time I felt God, and I didn't know it was God at the time."
"I could feel an internal battle within me. I felt like there was something that wanted to come in — [but] there was something in me that was fighting back. I didn't know that the Holy Spirit even existed, really. So I didn't know that it was God, but there was something in me fighting back." Ortega said she ran from the house screaming.
Later in life, when Ortega came to know the Holy Spirit, she reflected on that moment and realized that it was the Spirit of Christ that had fought for her.
While she said that she grew up in a loving home, Ortega admitted that due to brokenness, there was turmoil. "So I would go to school, and because I was so angry — a bunch of things going on within the house — I was a bully from my elementary school years. And then I was bullied after that from junior high school," she said, explaining that she was rejected by jealous girls in her neighborhood because many of the boys took a liking to her.
"So I never had any place where I really felt like there was peace, that I belonged. So I struggled a lot with suicidal thoughts ... I contemplated suicide. I guess I saw it on TV and figured that was a solution to maybe bring peace at home. Just take myself out of the equation. Maybe people would realize that life is short."
Ortega had contemplated suicide as early as age 7, saying that the enemy was trying to destroy God's purpose for her life. But that purpose would prevail.
The dynamics of her life, however, would become even more challenging with her entry into the music industry at 11.
"I was very young, and pretty much I ran away into the music industry because when I wanted to commit suicide and I was so miserable and angry as a child, I realized that music had power, and it helped me feel better and it made me want to help other people feel better. So I figured that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to become a famous singer," she said.
After she and her parents cut their teeth on a few con artists, at 13 years old Ortega stumbled upon a real opportunity. In a chance encounter, a cab driver who had connections in the music industry noticed Ortega's voice as she sang along to the radio.
He said, "You have such a beautiful voice and you're beautiful. Do you have a demo? I can pass it along to somebody because I drive a limo and I ride a bunch of famous managers and people in the industry."
Ortega promptly supplied the gentleman with a Karaoki demo. "A couple weeks later this accredited manager in the music industry actually hit [called] me up. When she called me and my parents into her office she said, 'I don't know what possessed me to call you. There was something about your voice and the conviction that you sold, that's why I had to meet you.'"
The music artist said that's how the ball got rolling in her career, but she faced some uphill battles. "From the age of 13 to 16, I was signed to some of the biggest pop producers that there are today. I had a production deal and they developed me, and they tried to change me, and they tried to mold me into what they wanted me to do.
"But then at the age of 16, when we were getting nowhere, I just said, 'Hey, I've been writing since I was 8 years old. Just let me write.' ... I did, and then I was offered my deal with Hollywood Records."
Ortega had topped the charts in the music industry and was so successful in the pop genre that she once opened shows on a national tour with pop star Rihanna.
The songstress said that Riahanna was a "sweet Caribbean girl" who still hadn't crossed over into the "umbrella" phase [songs with a hard edge]. In fact, some of Ortega's friends teased her, saying that she had turned Rihanna into a "bad girl
But before she became "famous-famous," Ortega said she had already come to Christ. When it came to her music career, however, she was "not ready to give that up."
"In the midst of my first record coming out, it was before the Rihanna tour I believe, I was invited to a Christian church."
But there was more turmoil at home. "I'm thinking like, 'Wow, here I am on course to fulfill my dream, I'm living the dream. But there's still no peace," she said. "It didn't matter that my dreams were coming true. It didn't matter that I was getting all this money. It didn't matter that I was getting all these amazing opportunities, because nothing changed.
"The peace still wasn't there. There were still battles with suicide or just running away and never looking back. I still had those struggles and that anger in my heart because I couldn't make things better. So in the midst of that, even while I'm doing all this stuff, I was feeling that way."
Ortega had the desire to go to church, but felt no connection with the church she had previously attended. "If I went there, I would probably still do something stupid."
Wanting to make a genuine connection at church, Ortega cried out to God. It seemed like the very next day a friend had randomly approached her and asked if she was looking for a church.
"She invited me to this Christian church that she was going to. It was very Charismatic. I was the only light-skinned girl in the church. It was a Pentecostal church, and I looked around and I thought everyone was out of their mind. ... I thought they were crazy, but I envied them because they were so unashamed to talk openly to God and cry in front of people. ... I only cried to God in my shower when no one was looking. ... I would go in and cry out to God because I knew I needed God to be real."
On that visit, Ortega said she felt the Holy Spirit move inside of her. "The pastor called me up to the front and there was a group of people already there. He didn't say anything, he just walked by each person and he just tapped my shoulder and kept walking."
"I don't know what happened, but in that moment I felt like the Holy Spirit used that moment to identify with me, and all of a sudden I just felt God for the first time and I never knew you could feel God that way. I fell to my knees and I began to weep and it just felt like years of bitterness and pain and anger — God was just emptying me of [it] in that moment.
"I didn't know why I couldn't control what I felt and why I was crying, but I know it was God — beyond a shadow of a doubt I know it was God. And that brings me back to my childhood when they were conjuring spirits and there was a babble [of a spirit] within me and I didn't want it. This was the complete opposite. I knew it was God and I wanted [Him] to stay there forever."
After her divine encounter with Christ, Ortega eventually decided to give up her successful career in pop music and use her gifts for God. Over the years, she has been featured several times on TBN's international show, "Praise the Lord," and continues to tour Christian venues and churches throughout the country sharing her music and life-changing testimony.
She also starred in the ABC daytime TV drama "One Life to Live" and the film "Step Up."
Ortega's new album that's been three years in the making, Love Changed Me, released on Nov. 1. Contributors to the album include renowned Christian music producer Aaron Rice (TobyMac, Mandisa).
To learn more about Jeannie Ortega's new album and her discography, click here.