“He changed my life,” the 50-year-old daycare worker from Sheridan, Wyoming, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “He helped me to open up a little and feel more at ease about myself. He was kind to me and so natural and down-to-earth. Prince didn’t let fame go to his head. And now he’s gone. I can’t believe it.”
In 1986, as the 10,000th caller in an MTV contest, Barber won the opportunity to host a premiere of Prince’s then-new movie, Under the Cherry Moon and a concert in Sheridan, population 17,828. After she was given 500 tickets to hand out to family and friends, her phone rang nonstop for days, requiring her mother Elena Holwegner to field calls in their wood-paneled mobile home.
“Prince’s publicist told me I’d find out who my real friends were and it was true,” Barber tells PEOPLE as she prepares to go to work at the daycare job she’s held since leaving her motel maid position 10 years ago. She pauses to turn down her stereo, which has been playing Prince’s greatest hits since the world learned of his death on Thursday afternoon.
Courtesy Lisa Barber
“I’ve just now been listening to ‘Purple Rain’ – it’s my favorite,” she says. ” When I learned Prince had died, I was very upset and in tears. It’s so shocking. I really loved him. Everyone did. He was one of the greatest voices in the industry.”
Barber will never forget nervously waiting in a small cottage behind her mom’s house for Prince to pick up her up for their date on July 1, 1986. After spending an hour in the care of Prince’s hairstylist and makeup artist, she was given a silky black-and-white outfit to wear to the movie premiere after confessing that she “usually shopped at K Mart.”
She tried not to bite her nails when Prince pulled up 15 minutes late in a white Buick convertible and bounded over a chain-link fence in platform shoes to knock on her door and introduce himself: “Hello, my name is Prince. Ready to have a good time?”
“I was so nervous, but he told jokes in the car while he drove us to the movie theater, and I could tell he was doing his best to help me relax,” Barber recalls. “It was such a huge deal – cameras were flashing everywhere. That night was the biggest thing to ever happen in Sheridan.”
Courtesy Lisa Barber
After the movie (Prince put his arm around her while they sat in the back row), Barber introduced the pop star before his live MTV concert at the local Holiday Inn, telling viewers, “Now, from my hometown, my new friend, Prince.”
“He rocked that Holiday Inn – everybody was dancing and having a good time,” she says. “I’d have to say it was the best night of my life.”
After delivering 45 minutes of electrifying funk – beginning with “Raspberry Beret” and ending with “Purple Rain” – Prince, who had impulsively borrowed Barber’s costume pearls and decided to keep them, gave her a much better deal in return: a gold necklace and earrings.
“I still have them tucked away somewhere in storage with the outfit I wore that night,” she says. “But I framed a picture of us together that night and I keep it where I can always look at it and remember.”
After he said goodbye, Prince left Barber one more surprise: tickets to his concert in Denver a couple of weeks later.
“I went with a friend and they gave us backstage passes, but he wasn’t there after the show,” she tells PEOPLE. “Still, he was so sweet. He left me 13 long-stemmed red roses.”
After living her entire life in the same small house in the same small town, Barber now jokes there is a good reason for that.
“I’ve never married,” she says. “And I guess I could say it’s because Prince never came back. There will never be another like him. It was the time of my life.”