"Idol" contestant Sanjaya once distracted teachers; now it's a nation

Before Sanjaya Malakar became known as the talent-deprived yet eccentrically coiffed "American Idol" contestant, he was just a 17-year-old kid who grew up around North Seattle.

He goofed around in class. He loved his aunt's pasta alfredo. He whined when people called him "Sunny," and when he went out to eat he'd try to skip dinner and order two desserts.

If his Spartan-helmet-like faux-hawk from Tuesday's performance wasn't a dead giveaway, he also loved playing with hair.

"He always loved doing hair," says Pat Wright, director of Total Experience Gospel Choir, which Malakar joined as a high-school freshman. "On our tour last summer [when the choir visited post-Katrina New Orleans], he'd do all the girls' hair every day. He had all the stuff — the sprays and things — and he could do colors, cuts and styles."

As a freshman at Shoreline's Shorecrest High School in 2005, Malakar was known as a happy-go-lucky kid, always clowning around, playing his guitar and, of course, singing.

In the hallway. After school. In class.

"I didn't get very good grades," Malakar said in February. "I was always singing in class. I was distracting, so I'd get sent out of class."

Lacey Coleman, 17, a junior at Shorecrest High, says Malakar was "the soundtrack to our lives."

Since the show began in January, the media flurry surrounding our 17-year-old native son has become the soundtrack to many of our lives. In its sixth season, top-rated "American Idol" draws about 30 million viewers a show. Roughly the same number call into telephone lines each week to vote on the fate of 12 finalists, eliminating one per week.

Malakar, one of nine remaining, has drawn harsh criticism from the judges for a series of weak performances. He's been off-key and has forgotten lyrics, gaining notoriety instead for his quirky charm, over-the-top hairstyles and hula dancing. Regardless, he continues to advance by capturing viewers' votes.

In the last two weeks, the media chatter reached a fever pitch when Simon Cowell, the show's toughest judge, vowed to quit if Malakar won. At the same time, satellite-radio host Howard Stern endorsed a Web site, votefortheworst.com, which encourages fans to vote for Malakar because he has been one of the weakest finalists.

The blowback from Cowell's and Stern's statements has been striking: "Idol" fans, in postings on votefortheworst.com, have attacked Malakar as "a total joke" who is "ruining the show." Malakar fans, whose postings often hinge on the fact that the smiling almost-pop-star is "really, really cute," rebut that his success is a victory for eccentricity and South Asian solidarity. (Malakar's father is of Indian descent.)

The Sanjaya Saga has spread from "Saturday Night Live" to "Larry King Live," CNN to MTV. Homemade parodies of Malakar's "Idol" performances have saturated YouTube and MySpace; the blogosphere hums his name.

Wright, as Malakar's accidental spokeswoman, said she's "received a ton of mail and phone calls."

"Some of it is just hateful," she says.

She recently received an e-mail with a link to a site claiming to have sexually explicit photographs of Malakar. Wright says the photos were digitally manipulated.

Malakar, who cannot speak to the media due to "American Idol" rules, has access to television and the Internet and knows what's being said about him, Wright says.

"It's just so sad that they're crucifying this teenager who's done nothing but tried his wings. What's important is that he knows he's got his family and his whole choir family supporting him."

Every week, the Total Experience Gospel Choir gathers for practice and, promptly at show time, they take a break to watch Malakar perform.

Malakar's aunt, Christi Recchi, and her two children watch and vote for him each week, too. Malakar lived with them during his freshman year, after his mom moved to Federal Way and he wanted to stay near his friends from the Waldorf School in Northeast Seattle. Malakar later transferred to school in Federal Way but quit and earned his GED.

Shorecrest senior Michael Oldham, 18, used to sing with Malakar at the Sunshine Café, an espresso joint down the block from the high school. He insists — along with Wright and Louis Magor, the choir's accompanist — that Malakar is not singing up to his potential.

"If he just sung the way he sang with all of us, when we were hanging out, he'd win it in a second," Oldham says. "He always sounded like a young Stevie Wonder to me — only with a deeper voice. He's actually really good."

Last summer, when he was singing in New Orleans, he sang the solo "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," regularly bringing his audience to tears, Magor said.

Sarah Jacobson, 16, a Shorecrest junior and friend of Malakar's, says the national debate surrounding Malakar is hard to handle sometimes.

"I just try to remember that our whole society's like high school. No one really knows you, but everyone feels like they can pass these judgments on you," she says. "To face all that, Sanjaya's got guts."

Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or hedwards@seattletimes.com

"American Idol" contestant Sanjaya Malakar (FRANK MICELOTTA / AP)