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American Idol’s Reflected on Her Past Struggles a Year Before Her Death

Nikki McKibbin’s life changed forever after appearing on American Idol, but that didn’t mean that everything came easily for her afterward.

“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my career, but also in life in general,” McKibbin, who died over the weekend after suffering an aneurysm, told PEOPLE at an August 2019 charity event. “I’ve battled substance abuse and I’m winning, but it’s still a struggle every day. For a long time, I wasn’t taking care of myself. I wasn’t being the person I should be. I’m in a better place now.”

The singer, who finished in third place during the first season of American Idol, said that when she first began her journey on the series in 2002, she had no idea “how big it was going to be.”

“Then the show blew up and became a big thing and before I knew it, I was on magazine covers and being recognized everywhere I went,” she said. “It was a good thing, but obviously my career never became what Kelly [Clarkson]’s was. Which is okay, but I was hoping that the exposure would be more for me.”
Although American Idol was a “wonderful experience,” it wasn’t the windfall many people assumed.

“People automatically assumed that I was some millionaire because I was in the show, and nothing could be further from the truth,” the singer, whose debut album was released in 2007, told PEOPLE. “A couple of years later, I was still struggling financially, but people expect that you’re living this glamorous life and I’m like, “I’m just trying to pay my electric bill!’ ”

And even without social media, the singer, who was only 23 when she competed on Idol, dealt with “brutal” comments from the public.

“The worst was when Tamyra [Grey] was voted off before me. There wasn’t social media, but there were message boards that basically said I should quit the competition because I was a fraud. The worst ones were saying that I should kill myself,” she said. “Then it came out that I had been a stripper before Idol. I did it for like five weeks and it became a scandal after I became famous.”
Over the years, the singer also struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, appearing on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew in 2008 as well as the spinoff series Sober House.

“I did deal with addiction and that was hard, and I, unfortunately, made that a public thing with Dr. Drew. So then I had to explain to people that I was ok, that I was recovering, that I was fine,” she said. “But now people always assume that I’m on something even when I’m not. I get it, though. I lied so much and was in such denial that how can you possibly believe me? I get it.”

After having “back surgery a few times because of herniated discs” McKibbin said that she also became “addicted to the painkillers.”

“I’m not anymore, but I was,” she said. “Chronic pain can do a number on you.”
Despite her past struggles, the singer told PEOPLE last year that she was in a good place.

“I’ve got a good life now. My husband is an amazing man. Tristen is all grown up but he’s the best son a mom could want,” she said, referring to her son who went on to follow in her Idol footsteps in 2014, although he was ultimately eliminated after the audition round.

“Just because life is hard doesn’t mean that there aren’t blessings along the way,” she added. “So I continue to perform and write music. I continue to sing, and I will always do that. Am I going to become a household name? No, but I can make money doing it and it brings me happiness. And that’s what’s important. I’m doing well. I’m a survivor and I’ve come this far. That’s a good thing.”

On Saturday, her husband Craig posted an emotional tribute, sharing that his wife “suffered an aneurysm” just days before but had been kept on life support in order to donate her organs to people in need.

“Many of you already know something is wrong. The love of my life Nikki Sadler suffered an aneurysm on Wednesday. She would already be gone, but she’s an organ donor and has been kept on life support to make that possible,” he wrote on Facebook. “That shouldn’t be a surprise to us. Even at the end she is still giving.”