Shaping in Action: Erinn Furey

The Shaping in Action series is where we get to know inspiring women who are pioneering and shaping what’s to come.

Finishing as a semifinalist on “American Idol” would fulfill all sorts of bucket-list goals for many young talents, kick-starting a career as a glamorous rock star with all the trappings that come with fame. But when Erinn Furey wound up her run on the wildly popular TV show in the top 30 in 2005, it kick-started something else altogether.

“I never wanted to be a famous singer,” she says now. “I would be removed from the people I always wanted to work with.” So, while she still stayed connected to the entertainment industry — performing musical theater and singing jazz and rock music — she also pursued the master’s degree in social work at Columbia University that she recently completed — with a 3.8 GPA. Now, she’s largely using music to make connections with young and disadvantaged people — and helping them discover themselves.

Looking at the list of charitable projects that Erinn has taken on is so dizzying, it’s a wonder she has enough time — or energy — to devote. She has created workshops incorporating art and social work, and organized and performed at benefits for a number of causes — including ones for Haitian-earthquake relief and for terminally ill children.

Though Erinn has undeniable strength and energy now, finding it within herself was a long, difficult process. Erinn grew up in a dysfunctional home in Brentwood on Long Island, N.Y. Her father struggled with substance abuse, leaving her mother at times a single parent. The household chaos led to Erinn developing anorexia and bulimia in high school, which she wouldn’t defeat until age 20. “At that point,” she recalls, “I lost control of the little amount of control I had — and people started to notice.”

All of this, combined with her experience coming out as a lesbian, inspired within Erinn a genuine passion for the challenges of youth. She funnels that passion into her boundless energy for championing those undergoing tremendous hardships. And she still makes sure to leave time to help herself; she tries to maintain her own mental well-being through yoga and counseling. Erinn acknowledges that she has, at times, too much on her plate. “I’m very organized,” she notes, “but I had to learn not to do everything at once.”

Being bullied in school and overcoming the hardships she faced as a youngster helped steer her current career choices, allowing her to dedicate herself to the Long Island community where she was raised. “Where I grew up, it was very segregated,” she recalls. “Seeing so many cultures, I learned not to judge early. But performing in community theater early in my life and getting ‘mean-girled,’ it was a challenge to be proud of where I came from.” Returning to the Brentwood high school she attended, Erinn became an instant influence on the current student body. Her voice lights up when she discusses revisiting her alma mater, noting, “I’m proud to say to youth that they have coping mechanisms available to them and be able to direct them to help.”

Erinn closes her emails with a quote from humorist Erma Bombeck: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I have not a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’ ” Thinking of what Erinn has already done with her life, there’s no question that her plan extends far beyond just riding her “American Idol” fame. Her bucket list is more altruistic than that.

Photo credit: Chad Goodstein