American Idolatry

With his mile-wide smile, unreliable voice, and parade of hairdos, Sanjaya Malakar became a star—and a pop culture punch line—on American Idol.

By Emily White December 9, 2008 Published in the December 2008 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Darrow

ON THE LAST WEEKEND IN JULY, SANJAYA Malakar and his sister Shyamali left their borrowed apartment in Tacoma. In the year since Sanjaya had become a star on American Idol, they hadn’t seen enough of each other, and they needed to catch up, breathe some Northwest air, and maybe even vanish into a crowd unrecognized. They walked over to Wright Park, determined to have an ordinary day in the sun at Ethnic Fest, the city’s annual event celebrating diverse cultures with world music, gospel, and African dance. “We were sitting on the grass, just having fun listening to the music,” Shyamali remembers, “and we start hearing Sanjaya! Sanjaya! Sanjaya! We walked away and this pack of kids started following us around.” Sanjaya! Sanjaya! Sanjaya! they repeated, drowning out the music. The pack began to turn into a mob. There would be no more lying in the grass that day.

Half East Indian, half Italian, the Malakar siblings would attract attention even if Sanjaya had never appeared on American Idol. They are radiant, exotic, and young (he’s 19, she’s 21). They often stand close together, as if their bond shields them from the blows of the outside world. In conversation, they complete each other’s sentences. True believers in each other, he says, “She is so smart, up in her head, so cerebral… She knows how to break down to the perfect word for every emotion.” She says, “He is so calm, nothing bothers him. It is like he lives in a bubble.” He concurs: “A lot of times I just feel like I am floating above my life.” She has been floating by his side for a long time. Maybe she keeps part of him on the ground—whatever it is, it seems to work. They call themselves Team Malakar.

Seattle-born Sanjaya Malakar is the most memorable character ever to emerge out of the reality show/sadomasochistic amateur night called American Idol. While most of the kids who make it onto American Idol are well trained in the ways of television and pop culture, Sanjaya was, and still is to some degree, an outsider to both. The boy’s outsiderness, his absolutely odd quality is part of the reason he transfixed American Idol audiences. His brief reign lasted from January to April of 2007. By the time he was eliminated on April 18, after making it into the top seven, Sanjaya had become the boy people loved to love or to hate.

The myth of American Idol is that winners are insanely lucky and that landing a place on the show means a performer could become a really, really famous person, not just some obscure wannabe. The realities, which have been well documented, are that singers are bound to restrictive contracts that allow them little creative input, and losers are tied down to solo tours and guest appearances well past their freshness expiration date.

As an Idol contestant Sanjaya gave wildly uneven performances. He sang a pitch-perfect “Bésame Mucho” but limped through a cringe-inducing, spaced-out “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” When he performed “You Really Got Me,” he didn’t sing the words so much as shout them, as female fans in the audiences deliriously shouted back. When he finished, the camera panned to a sobbing preteen girl, her face red and swollen as if she’d been stung by a swarm of bees. Sanjaya walked over and hugged her for a long time, like he meant it, as if the entire song had been for her.

Sanjaya, it turned out, made a perfect teen idol in the mold of adolescent heartthrobs from Shaun Cassidy to the Jonas Brothers: slightly androgynous, sexy but unthreatening, with a high voice that apparently hadn’t dropped into manhood yet. The kind of boy who would kiss a girl and then ask, “Are you okay?”

And then there was the hair, a shining black mop that he transformed from week to week. Wild curls that incited the judges to say he looked like Diana Ross; a flat-ironed, shoulder-length hippie ’do to accompany the protest tune “Waiting on the World to Change”; a pomade helmet for Tony Bennett week. Most memorable was a teetering faux-hawk, which he trotted out on March 27 in honor of guest judge Gwen Stefani. The faux-hawk subsequently enjoyed a fame-life of its own. A Google search for “Sanjaya Hair” turns up half a million results including a People magazine timeline entitled “Sanjaya’s Hair: A Look Back.”

In the early rounds, the judges trash-talked him relentlessly. But every week, voters in the TV audience kept dialing the number to bring him back. Some of them were prompted by a campaign by radio host Howard Stern, who urged his millions of listeners to vote for Sanjaya. (An ardent Idol-basher, Stern believed that if Sanjaya won, it would mean the end of the show.) Then there were the girls, dialing to vote for him over and over again, racking up enormous family phone bills. _Idol_’s most acerbic judge Simon Cowell threatened to quit if Sanjaya made it to number one. A blogger calling herself “J” launched an anti-Sanjaya hunger strike. She was “not at the point of hospitalization yet,” her post read. “It won’t be long now until Sanjaya is gone.”

As the judgments came down Sanjaya maintained a goofy brand of cool, a loose-limbed mischief. At times he seemed like the class clown, waiting patiently for the teacher to lose it.

By March 13, 2007, the contestants had been winnowed down to 12, Sanjaya among them. The featured guest artist would be -Diana Ross, and Sanjaya had settled on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” as the song from her repertoire he would perform. When he entered the practice studio before the broadcast, Ross stood by the piano, a diva in waiting. As he started to sing, she stopped him, slowed him down. “I felt like I was being taught by van Gogh,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if he had the beat,” she later said. When Sanjaya took the stage he hit notes way below the mark and had the unmistakable look of a kid trying to recite the words of a masterpiece memorized for class, the charm gone out of him as he concentrated on remembering. Afterward, the judges pronounced their verdicts.

Randy Jackson: What’s goin’ down, dude? …That song was almost unlistenable…weak!

Paula Abdul: You are the sweetest soul.

Simon Cowell: When you hear a wail in Beverly Hills that is where Diana Ross is watching this show! She’s gonna freak when she hears that.

Sanjaya barely flinched. His beatific, what-me-worry smile never left his face. “No offense Simon,” he said, “but your first comment, I had no idea what you’re talking about.” Then he gave a hand gesture, a sweep over the head, as if he thought Cowell’s words were so much indecipherable racket. As if he felt sorry for Simon in his cruel tight T-shirts.

A month later, Cowell shrugged off his authority and admitted that Sanjaya was a phenomenon he could not control or predict. On April 10, the week before he was eliminated, Sanjaya crooned “Bésame Mucho,” and in the midst of the after-screaming Cowell shrugged: “It wasn’t horrible.”

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Whether Sanjaya was a joke or a star, he provided endless fodder for the local media. Though he was generally tagged as a high school kid from Federal Way, perhaps the real story was too rangy, too strange, to make a simple, clean tale of success out of it. Sanjaya had lived in Federal Way for only six months when he flew to LA to be on American Idol. Before that he had lived in Capitol Hill, Bothell, Hawaii, and Lake City. This kid had emerged from a world of drum circles and long repetitive prayers to Hindu divinities, a world of ever-changing addresses and one pot arrest (in 2005 his mother was charged with growing too much medical marijuana).

The suburban story was easier to tell. It only had three parts: He lived here, he went to school, and then he went to Hollywood. It was a good story for Federal Way city leaders who honored Sanjaya on May 9, 2007, welcoming him home after his elimination. He accepted a certificate in the Commons mall as hundreds of people lined up for his autograph. He didn’t have the heart to tell anyone that the city was a blip on the radar of his constantly shifting life, and he did not consider it home at all.

Shyamali and Sanjaya were born into the Hare Krishna faith. Their father, Vasudeva Malakar, was a classically trained musician from India, a Bengali member of the Brahmin caste. He played and taught the music of the religion, performed weddings, and gave occasional sermons. At a Hare Krishna temple in Berkeley, he met Jillian Recchi, a Vashon Island resident from a family of nine children whose mother was an original flower child. Shyamali lived the first two years of her life in the temple, then the family moved to Seattle in 1988. When Sanjaya and Shyamali were three and five and their mother 26, their parents divorced. After that they moved homes regularly: Sanjaya counts 11 times before he turned 17. All this drifting caused the brother and sister to form what Shyamali calls a “kids’ world,” a private universe where they were the king and queen, the controlling forces.

While Sanjaya and Shyamali no longer consider themselves members of Hare Krishna, they identify themselves as spiritual people and they comfortably use words like “transformation,” “vibration,” “karma.” Shyamali speaks with particular authority about all things Indian. She visited the country when she was 18, and tracked down relatives in Orissa. During her trip, she became enamored with Sanskrit. “It is of a higher vibration” than other languages, she says, and it is why she loves the idea of Sanjaya’s name being out there, in the air. “It’s Sanskrit, and that is so cool”—as if a higher vibration has entered the popular lexicon stealthily, in the person of her brother.

Hare Krishna inevitably led the Malakars into the realm of Northwest counterculture, and as teenagers they regularly attended the Oregon Country Fair. Perhaps the most radical hippiefest of its kind still in existence, the fair is a noisy world of topless women, giant puppets, scary clowns preaching radical agendas where chanting, bald Hare Krishnas are the norm. Every summer since 1969, fair organizers have colonized acres of land on the outskirts of Eugene and built a temporary city: restaurants, craft booths, music stages, porta-potties. For those camping out nearby, there’s a communal shower. It’s like Burning Man except the population is older, more nostalgic, and drugs are “not allowed” (although as of last year, pot smoke still permeated the air).

The Malakars were raised without much television—a little PBS once a week, that was about it. Kill Your Television hippie culture taught them to avoid the glowing box that turned people into zombies, the blue light flickering all over the suburbs at night. Because he was raised on this no-television diet, Sanjaya came to American Idol as a pop culture virgin. He hadn’t really considered the power of television, because he barely ever watched it.

For the siblings, music has always been a rescue and a passion, a constant that held them together through their wild and peripatetic youth. Music eclipsed television and, as their mom drifted from Hare Krishna after the divorce, it replaced religion, too. Shyamali remembers girlhood as a time when “music was everywhere, someone was playing it or someone was singing.” Putting on shows at family gatherings (given their mother has eight brothers and sisters, these gatherings were often never-ending). Singing Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz.” They were educated in everything: classical music, Frank Sinatra, Indian bhajans (Hindu devotional songs), Stevie Wonder. One time, an American Idol interviewer asked Sanjaya when he started singing, and he replied, “Once I stopped crying.”

As teenagers they watched Northwest indie rock explode and they internalized its DIY messages, its Corporate Rock Sucks dictum. They loved the Postal Service and all the droning grunge bands; they responded to the anticorporate message intuitively, even if a lot of independence had been lost by the time they became aware of the punk scene. Shyamali attended Evergreen State College and heard the Kurt Cobain stories, the tales about Olympia being his “spiritual home.” In Northwest punk history Shyamali and Sanjaya saw the connection to everything that had come before. “Maybe it is the weather or something,” Sanjaya says, “but it seems like a lot of people in the Northwest aren’t afraid to just be themselves.” Shyamali’s MySpace page contains the perfect indie credo, reminiscent of old graffiti in the alleys behind Olympia punk clubs: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

A fluke, a dare among friends led the Malakars to audition for American Idol. Sanjaya had always participated in choir at the various schools he attended. Pastor Patrinell Wright, who has led Seattle’s Total Experience Gospel Choir for 35 years, first crossed paths with Sanjaya at Seattle’s Waldorf school. She thinks he was around 13, one face in a music class of 80 kids. A woman who might make a great American Idol judge, Wright is blunt. “The only thing I noticed about the boy was that he was always braiding the girls’ hair during choir practice. I didn’t think he could sing very well. But I told him he might have a vocation in hair.”

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Eventually Sanjaya joined Total Experience. The only requirement for membership: You show up, learn the songs, and keep showing up. All Wright would say about his two-year tenure is, “He could sing better when he left than when he arrived.” But what she admired was this: “He had nerve.”

That nerve made him take the dare, attend the Seattle American Idol auditions with some friends from Todd Beamer high school in Federal Way. These same friends had tried to convince him to go to Los Angeles for earlier auditions but he’d said, No way, I am not a sellout. But this was so easy, it was right downtown. His only stipulation was that Shyamali try out, too. They never expected the audition to lead anywhere. But within a year, Wright reports, “I had been called by something like 66 media outlets wanting to talk about this boy. I was on Larry King Live!”

The auditions are the most riveting (and usually highest rated) part of American Idol. The aspiring stars sing a capella, with no accompaniment to mask any mistakes. They perform under fluorescent lights, before a panel of weary judges trying to stay alert by slurping giant sodas. Team Malakar auditioned separately; Shyamali entered first, in jeans and a tank top, as beautiful as a star is supposed to be, but shy and a little wary. She sang a beguiling version of “Summertime.” Cowell dismissed her performance as “nothing unique.” Randy Jackson offered advice: “You still gotta find out who you are.”

Sanjaya came out next and the judges sat up in their chairs—perhaps the giant sodas were kicking in. He delivered a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” that was so Wonder-esque it could’ve been karaoke, except it was more like channeling. Clearly the boy was transported by the song, he loved it, he knew every intimate inflection and he hit every note. It was by far the best performance he would give in all his television time.

“A lot better than your sister!” Cowell said. “You’re like a shy little thing who’s got a good voice.” The show ended with the obligatory element of suspense, with a voice-over from host Ryan Seacrest: “Will competition force them apart!?!”

When Sanjaya was chosen to be one of the 24 contestants, and Shyamali was not, he hesitated. “You have to do it,” she told him. “I will figure out a way to be by your side.” So there they were: Team Malakar, insulating each other from all judges and naysayers. “Sometimes when I watched Sanjaya up there it would really hurt,” Shyamali says of her days in the audience, listening to the judges berate him. “I would not have been able to deal with it.” She thinks it is Sanjaya’s ability to float above things that made him able to handle it.

As the season progressed, cameras often settled on Shyamali as she cheered in the audience, images that propelled her into the realm of Internet Hottie. Photos of her in a Hooters uniform went viral among the softcore set. “Oh, God,” Shyamali says addressing the Hooters thing. The Hooters job was something she did for money, before she went to Evergreen college. “Actually, it was my mom who encouraged me. She said, ‘You want to be an entertainer, but you are way too shy!’ She thought it would help me, and it did. I learned not to hide myself.” An unconventional bit of maternal guidance. Yet given these siblings, with their odd, generous confidence and shining looks, someone should ask Jillian Recchi to write a mothering book.

Sanjaya’s youthful, blond mother often sat next to Shyamali in the American Idol audience, frequently accompanied by her then-fiancé Chad Quist. A touring member of Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin’s band), he looked like he had done time at the Oregon Country Fair, too. Sometimes their father could be spotted in the audience—a trim, formal man who looked like he would live past 100, giving his son standing ovations. Quite likely he is the only high Brahmin Hare Krishna practitioner ever to cross the threshold of that cavern of screamers.

These days Team Malakar floats on a wave of celebrity that ebbs and flows and takes them into uncharted waters. While a lot of kids would’ve come out of such a public humiliation wrecked, Sanjaya treats it as a weird trip that he is still coming down from. Ever since his name became a household word, Team Malakar has had to come up with a game plan if they’re ever to be alone again. His fame and her more than 800,000 MySpace visitors have made them secretive. When I finally tracked them down they didn’t want to meet in Fife, where Shyamali has a house, because they want the address to remain unknown. So we met at a Tacoma café before the lunch crowd arrived. They avoid the mall, especially during after-school hours. Once, in Beverly Center, a screaming group of high school cheerleaders hunted Sanjaya down and he had to be rescued by security. For him, recognition has become a kind of weather; when he walks outside, he needs to be prepared—for the Idol watcher who might call out to him as if they have know each other forever, or the autograph seeker: Do you have a moment? Although his American Idol reign has been over for a while, reality gets more strange by the day, and it is full of flashbacks. “I was in New Zealand celebrating my 18th birthday. I am thinking, This is the other side of the world. And the waitress says, Sanjaya, it is you.”

While they remain close to their parents, there is no one place to which they are tied or rooted, nowhere they are required to be for holidays, no old house with family photos and a room preserved from childhood. They are vagabonds, restless spirits, young people who show great loyalty to family and the Northwest as ideas, as beliefs. But they are also a loner duo of ever-changing phone numbers and millions of frequent flier miles.

And while they both consider the Northwest “home,” Shyamali lives here, and Sanjaya comes only for brief trips, spending most of his time in New York, where he has an apartment. When they are together they often fill their days with a familiar ritual, listening to music—maybe something old, something on vinyl—playing DJ for each other, trying out a lyric or a chord to see if it casts any kind of spell.

He’s working on an album, although he has not yet signed with a label. “I am trying to find backup musicians from all over the world: Greece, Japan, India,” Sanjaya says. A song on his MySpace page from this new body of work is a psychedelic mash of sitars and gongs. The refrain asks, “What happens when we wake up?” He sings on key, with passion and verve. He believes once he gets all these songs together into a record he will be rescued from this limbo where he is recognized for teeth and hair, and instead he will be seen as a Real Artist. One man encouraging him is his God, Stevie Wonder, who invited Sanjaya to accompany him onstage at a July 2008 appearance at White River Amphitheatre. As for Shyamali, she’s writing lyrics for Sanjaya’s album. They are both waiting for phone calls from the entertainment world, for the definite green light.

Sanjaya recently signed on with a manager named Frank Yandolino, a blustery gatekeeper who regards Sanjaya with paternal affection. “Sanjaya is like a son to me,” he says. “ Sometimes he sleeps on my floor.” Sanjaya swears by Yandolino, who has formed a wall around his client, making him harder and harder to reach. His company (called The Company Ltd) is involved in projects ranging from the manufacture and sale of celebrity phone calls to an international rock festival for UFO enthusiasts. The Company has numerous outposts and post office boxes from Florida to Switzerland. At 62, Yandolino is still working it. He says, “I am an independent producer and I am always hustling. I also have this idea for a record company—all digital, you know?”

Yandolino’s first successful effort on Sanjaya’s behalf was to negotiate a television commercial for Nationwide Insurance, which has to do with him wandering the world looking for wisdom. The punch line: The secret to happiness is “a good retirement plan…and a haircut.” The ad circulated on YouTube and brought in money, but also pushed Sanjaya further into the world of the B-list and self-parody. In January a tell-all book entitled Dancing to the Music in My Head will be published by Simon and Schuster. But as this father figure leads Sanjaya into the realm of TV ads and book tours, must he forever be the boy with the hair? Or will Sanjaya find ways to travel into that music in his head, where, as he says, “You never know what you will hear next”?

Sanjaya believes he leads a “charmed life.” He believes in his future almost as much as he believes in his sister. “It is good karma,” Shyamali says. “We have figured out the limits where we don’t want to exploit ourselves, maybe because we were raised here, where people are down to earth.” Sanjaya beams: “The future is really coming together.”

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