Sanjaya Malakar doesn’t want to be a punchline now

These days, Sanjaya Malakar would rather be known for baking delicious baked goods — not being a comedic relief on “American Idol.”

The day before his interview with Insider, the 32-year-old was in his kitchen preparing a limoncello panna cotta. But 15 years ago, the then 17-year-old auditioned for season six of “American Idol” with no idea of ​​the legacy that would come with it.

Sanjaya – who quickly gained Oprah-esque first name recognition on the show – is the first to admit he’s not Fantasia Barrino or Carrie Underwood, but he’s ready to move past the same jokes he’s been hearing since he’s a teenager and earning respect as a fully developed artist.

Over the past few years, he said, he received invitations to return to “Idol” for live broadcasts and press opportunities, but he quickly sensed a pattern had developed.

“I went back and felt like they were really excited to be able to make fun of me more,” he told Insider. As grateful as he was for the show, he said he felt like “Idol” was playing a game of “let’s see how many punchlines we can squeeze out of him.”

For years, he said, he tried to “deal with it”. But when Sanjaya was invited back to “Idol” in May for the 20th anniversary, he decided to set some ground rules.

“I’m totally depressed,” Sanjaya recalled when telling the “Idol” team. “I just want to say one thing: Every time I’ve been on ‘American Idol,’ I’ve been the butt of the joke.”

“If I come back,” he added, “it would be really nice if I could present myself as an artist, not as a reality TV joke.”

After Sanjaya set himself new terms, he said, a showrunner told him that his flight to Los Angeles for the reunion would be too expensive to cover.

“I guess limits are expensive,” he told Insider.

Her first taste of reality TV was just a small dose of what was to come

2007 american idol final twelve grouped together on the red carpet

Sanjaya’s final 12 of the season in “American Idol”.

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

The Seattle-born singer auditioned for “Idol” with his older sister, Shyamali, and he said he immediately felt like the producers were trying to snatch a “sibling rivalry” angle from them.

In behind-the-scenes interviews, he said he felt pressured to answer questions in a way that seemed “artificial” and “calculated”. It was his first taste of produced television, where story sometimes replaces reality.

When Sanjaya first met judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, he serenaded them with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)”. All the judges agreed to make it go to Hollywood. Shyamali was also successful but was cut before the top 40.

As Sanjaya progressed through the competition, he began to lose the goodwill of the judges, especially Cowell.

After his first audition, the most positive praise the British personality had for the teenager amounted to lukewarm acceptance.

“I’m going to hate myself for that,” but “it wasn’t horrible,” Cowell said after Sanjaya’s “Bésame Mucho” performance in the top eight.

Representatives for ABC, Fox and “American Idol” did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

But Sanjaya’s teasing and criticism soon reached new heights.

Despite the beatings at his expense, Sanjaya had a devoted following of fans – nicknamed Fanjayas – and even won Best Male Teen Reality Star at the 2007 Teen Choice Awards.

But Cowell was not Sanjaya’s only critic. The second line of the singer’s Wikipedia page still describes him as “commonly parodied in popular culture”.

On March 19, 2007, radio host Howard Stern encouraged his listeners to vote for Sanjaya through a website called Vote for the Worst as a publicity stunt intended to ruin the show.

That same week, Sanjaya was parodied on “Saturday Night Live” by Andy Samberg opposite Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen as his adoring, crying fans. (Sanjaya was also an “SNL” punchline in 2015, courtesy of comedian Pete Davidson).

Week after week, Cowell marveled at Sanjaya’s ability to stay competitive. At one point, Cowell even threatened to quit “Idol” if Sanjaya won.

Things came to a head during the top seven, when Sanjaya sang “Something to Talk About” by Bonnie Raitt. The performance received a mixed reception from Jackson and Abdul.

Cowell called it “totally awful” and “as bad as anything we see at the start of ‘American Idol'”.

Judge’s words drew boos from the crowd, and host Ryan Seacrest even stepped in to defend the young singer.

“Simon, even though it wasn’t his best performance, you really never liked that guy,” Seacrest said. “So that was the song? Or you don’t like Sanjaya?”

That night, Sanjaya was eliminated from the show.

Sanjaya has grown a lot over the past decade, but he says people are still stuck in 2007

Looking back, Sanjaya said he had no way of knowing how drastically the trajectory of his life would change in the space of a few months.

“I didn’t realize how far this would get that there really would be no turning back,” he said. “And there will be no way for me in my life to take back the memories that so many people have of me in their living rooms.”

Sanjaya Malakar on stage of American Idol in white costume singing

Sanjaya in 2007.

Lester Cohen/WireImage/Getty Images

After “Idol,” Sanjaya was caught in the delicate position of needing money to pay the rent and being advised not to do anything to affect his public image.

“Getting a job after doing ‘American Idol’ was really tough for me,” he said. “Not because people wouldn’t hire me or anything like that, but because people were like, ‘No, you can’t get a job. If you get a job, people won’t like you as much as an artist. .'”

He recalled people telling him, “You don’t want people to see Sanjaya from ‘American Idol’ working in a pizza place.”

Sanjaya added, “I’m like, ‘Oh, cool. Yeah, I understand. But I also have to pay rent. “”

Over time, he created a life independent of “Idol”, but he found that some people had a harder time letting go of his association with the show.

One night, Sanjaya was walking to bed when an old friend called him from a bar in New York and said, “Hey, I’m talking to my regular and he doesn’t think I know you! Sing it. song !”

Caught off guard, he tried to tell his friend that “nobody gives a fuck” that he was on season six of “American Idol.” He says he felt embarrassed when the bar patron joined the call and asked, “Who is that?”

Sanjaya Malakar in 2016

Sanjaya in 2016.

Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Nevertheless, Sanjaya still gets arrested on the street. He said being recognized for “Idol” “always feels like a dream sequence.”

“I feel like once upon a time on my high school football team and I was doing really well at a Game a time and people remember it and talk about it for a second,” he told Insider.

He knows that a lot of people who arrest him still see him as the kid who participated in “Idol” in 2007.

“They hear me sing and they’re like, ‘Oh wow! I didn’t know you could sing like that.'” Sanjaya said. “And I’m like, ‘Well, I couldn’t. I’ve been working on this for 15 years, but thank you.'”

He has since swapped his microphone for an apron

Several years ago, Sanjaya retired from the music industry and started working as a pastry chef.

Although he still loves to sing, his greatest passion is cooking. He made croquembouche – an intricate French dessert made of stacked cone-shaped pastries – for his sister’s wedding and regularly makes his grandmother’s egg custard recipe.

“I tend to make myself comfort foods, and the egg custard is the ultimate,” Sanjaya said. “It’s just milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, a little nutmeg, and it’s perfect.”

When asked if he would ever mix his passion for cooking with reality TV shows, he said stress would “destroy the kitchen” for him – as it did with singing for a while. small moment.

But he said he could imagine himself briefly stepping back into the world of reality TV for a show like “The Masked Singer” just to see the looks on people’s faces.

“I would like to go on, sing a song or something, that people say, ‘Oh shit!’” Sanjaya laughed, “and then it’s over”.

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