This week, Stefano Langone went home on "American Idol's" top 7 results show, joining the illustrious ranks of other seventh-place finishers like Jennifer Hudson, Kimberly Caldwell, Ace Young, Ryan Star, Kristy Lee Cook, Anoop Desai, and Tim Urban. But perhaps the most notorious seventh-place contestant is Season 6's Sanjaya Malakar, who continues to be namechecked in the blogosphere and on E!'s "The Soup," despite keeping a relatively low profile in the four years since his elimination. Even Josh Groban tweeted about Sanjaya recently, totally out of the blue. You can't buy that kind of publicity.
For those of you who were living under a rock in 2007, when Sanjaya dominated the airwaves, he was one of the most polarizing contestants in "Idol" history. He garnered the wrath of Simon Cowell (who threatened to quit if Sanjaya won) and some "Idol" fanatics (one of whom went on a hunger strike until he was voted off), while he gained the love and support of Vote For The Worst, infamous "crying girl" Ashley Ferl, and even Howard Stern. Thanks to his effusive personality and impressive head of hair, Sanjaya went a lot farther than many doubters expected, and he continues to remain in the public'sa consciousness. He even starred in a Funny Or Die video titled "I Am Art," co-produced by Will Ferrell, in which he claimed he was really a graduate student named Bill Vendall who created "Sanjaya" as an art project for his thesis. Genius!
But it turns out, Sanjaya is very real. So where is he now, in real life? Well, he's kept pretty busy, if a little under the radar. His lush fauxhawk is long gone, but he's still making music. In 2009, he released both an autobiography and EP with the title Dancing To The Music In My Head, the latter of which featured a love ballad about "walks along the beach," a Bollywood-inspired world music track, and a revenge song, "Tell Me Who I Am," that seemed to be directed right at "American Idol." ("I don't need your couch critiquing anymore," Sanjaya snarled.)
Last year, he released a Christmas disc, as well as the single "4 AM," plus he made appearances on "Hell's Kitchen" and the 300th episode of "The Soup." This year, as his first professional theater venture, he joined the cast of the family-friendly off-Broadway musical Freckleface Strawberry, based on the children's book by actress Julianne Moore. But his most high-profile post-"Idol" endeavors have been a starring role in a Nationwide Insurance commercial (the same "Life Comes At You Fast" ad campaign that Kevin Federline shot a spot for) and his participation in the second season of "I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here" alongside Janice Dickinson, two Baldwin brothers, and Speidi. Sanjaya came in fifth on that show, but he was totally robbed--this was a reality competition that even Simon Cowell would agree Sanj deserved to win.
Obviously Sanjaya-mania has died down a bit since Season 6, giving the now-grown-up contestant some time to reflect. Looking back, he understands why he received such harsh critiques at the time. Speaking by phone from New York, where he is currently wrapping up his off-Broadway run as well as recording and assembling a new band, he says: "Pretty much all my vocal training, I got on that show. It's hard for me to go back and watch all my 'Idol' performances, because I see all those things that I learned that I shouldn't do! Most of what the judges said was true, it was just said in a harsh way. But I value that so much, because that's what made me grow." He doesn't even harbor any ill will towards his toughest critic, Simon, saying, "I really respect him, and I think he kind of taught me the most because he was so hard on me. He really helped me figure out how to fix all my bad habits."
It should be noted that Sanjaya was just a child--literally, he was barely 17--when he was on "Idol." He muses: "The thing is, I think between 16 to maybe 22 or 23, you're still growing and learning. So having to do that in public while you're still young is...interesting." It's amazing he was able to come out of such a whirlwind unscathed, but luckily, he was on "Idol" back in the pre-Twitter era, and he therefore remained blissfully ignorant regarding his haters. "While it was happening, I was in such a bubble; we were pretty much cut off from the outside world. They tell you that you shouldn't go on blog sites because people say all kinds of things and hearing all that kind of messes with you. So I never knew what the outside world was saying until after I was off the show," he explains.
But Sanjaya sympathizes with the youngsters on "Idol" this season, with its lower age limit. "As soon as I heard [about the age limit being lowered to 15], I felt kind of uneasy about it," he admits, "just because you can't possibly know yourself when you're 15! You're growing and learning and going to school and gaining all these experiences, and then when you're thrown into something like 'American Idol,' all that stops. You have to make those compromises and decide, 'What do I no longer want to be able to have in my childhood?' Mentally, so much stuff is thrown at you and you're put in situations where you're totally stressed out and tired and anxious and nervous--and you still have to perform at your best! It's crazy to me. But [Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina, this season's youngest remaining contestants] are great. When they develop, they're going to be even better."
Speaking of developing, Sanjaya is still working on music, with a new single out in late May (just in time for the "Idol" finale) and a full album due by the year's end. So what kind of music is dancing in Sanjaya's head nowadays? "It's R&B-influenced vocals with kind of funky...I don't want to say hip-hop, but it has a little bit of hip-hop influence," he says. "It's a nice fusion of funk and neo-soul."
And as for my suggestion, that Sanjaya pursue music by auditioning for Simon Cowell's new show, "The X Factor USA"? Well, he's a little cagey--but he hasn't ruled it out. I personally think he should go back on TV and show Simon everything he's learned in the last four years...and if you think so too, post your endorsement and encouragement on the message board below. Otherwise, Sanjaya will continue to go the indie route, and we will see if he has the last laugh.
[Top photo courtesy of Fox]