These days, Sanjaya Malakar would prefer to be known for making delicious pastries — not for being comic relief on “American Idol.”
The night before his interview with Insider, the 32-year-old was in his kitchen making limoncello panna cotta. But 15 years ago, the then-17-year-old auditioned for season six of “American Idol” without any idea of the legacy that would follow.
Sanjaya — who quickly gained Oprah-esque first-name recognition on the show — is the first to acknowledge he’s no Fantasia Barrino or Carrie Underwood, but he’s ready to move past the same jokes he’s been hearing since he was a teenager and earn respect as a fully developed artist.
Over the past few years, he said, he’s had invitations to come back on “Idol” for live shows and press opportunities, but he soon felt that a pattern developed.
“I went back and it just felt like they were really excited for me to be able to be made fun of more,” he told Insider. As grateful as he was for the show, he said he felt like “Idol” played a game of “let’s see how many punchlines we can get out of him.”
For years, he said, he tried to “roll with it.” But when Sanjaya was invited back to “Idol” in May for the 20th anniversary, he decided to set ground rules.
“I’m totally down,” Sanjaya recalled telling the “Idol” team. “I just want to say one thing: Every time I’ve ever gone on to ‘American Idol,’ I’ve been the butt of the joke.”
“If I do come back,” he added, “it would be really great if I was able to present myself as an artist, not as a reality-television joke.”
After Sanjaya set new terms for himself, he said, a showrunner told him his flight to Los Angeles for the reunion would be too expensive to cover.
“I guess boundaries are expensive,” he told Insider.
His first brush with reality television was just a small dose of what would come
The Seattle-born singer auditioned for “Idol” with his older sister, Shyamali, and he has said he immediately felt as if producers were trying to fish a “sibling rivalry” angle out of them.
In behind-the-scenes interviews, he said he felt he was pushed to answer questions in a certain way that felt “contrived” and “calculated.” It was his first glimpse into produced television, where story sometimes supersedes reality.
When Sanjaya met the judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul for the first time, he serenaded them with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).” All of the judges agreed to put him through to Hollywood. Shyamali also made it through but was cut before the top 40.
As Sanjaya made it further and further in the competition, he started to lose goodwill with the judges, especially Cowell.
After his first audition, the most positive praise the British personality had for the teen amounted to lukewarm acceptance.
“I’m going to hate myself for this,” but, “it wasn’t horrible,” Cowell said after Sanjaya’s performance of “Bésame Mucho” during the top eight.
Representatives for ABC, Fox, and “American Idol” did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
But the mockery and criticism of Sanjaya quickly reached new heights
Despite the jabs at his expense, Sanjaya had a devoted following of fans — dubbed Fanjayas — and even won best male teen reality star at the 2007 Teen Choice Awards.
But Cowell wasn’t 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, the radio host Howard Stern encouraged his listeners to vote for Sanjaya through a website called Vote for the Worst as a publicity stunt meant 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 the comedian Pete Davidson).
Week after week, Cowell marveled at Sanjaya’s ability to stay in the competition. At one point, Cowell even threatened to quit “Idol” if Sanjaya won.
Things came to a head during the top seven, when Sanjaya sang Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About.” The performance earned mixed reception from Jackson and Abdul.
Cowell called it “utterly horrendous” and “as bad as anything we see at the beginning of ‘American Idol.'”
The judge’s words yielded boos from the crowd, and the host Ryan Seacrest even stepped in to defend the young singer.
“Simon, even if it wasn’t his best performance, you’ve really never liked this guy,” Seacrest said. “So was it the song? Or you just don’t like Sanjaya?”
That night, Sanjaya was eliminated from the show.
Sanjaya has grown up a lot in 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 span of a few months.
“I didn’t realize how intensely it would happen that there would really be no turning back,” he said. “And there will be no way ever for me in my life to take back the memories that so many people have of me in their living room.”
After “Idol,” Sanjaya was caught in the awkward position between needing money to pay rent and being advised not to do anything to affect his public image.
“Getting a job after doing ‘American Idol’ was really difficult for me,” he said. “Not because people wouldn’t hire me or anything like that, but because I had people telling me: ‘No, you can’t get a job. If you get a job, people won’t value you as much as an artist .'”
He recalled people telling him, “You don’t want people to see Sanjaya from ‘American Idol’ working at a pizza shop.”
Sanjaya added: “I’m like, ‘Oh, cool. Yeah, I get that. But also I need to pay rent.'”
As time passed, he created a life independent from “Idol,” but he realized that some people had a harder time letting go of his association with the show.
One night, Sanjaya was headed to the bed when an old friend called him from a New York bar and said: “Hey, I’m talking to my regular and he doesn’t believe that I know you! Sing the song!”
Caught off guard, he tried to tell his friend that “no one 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 this?”
Nevertheless, Sanjaya still gets stopped on the street. He said being recognized for “Idol” still “feels like a dream sequence.”
“It feels like once upon a time I was on my high-school football team and did really well at one game one time and people remember it and bring it up for a second,” he told Insider.
He knows many people who stop him still see him as the child who competed on “Idol” back in 2007.
“They hear me sing and they’re like: ‘Oh wow! I had no idea that you could sing like that.'” Sanjaya said. “And I’m like: ‘Well, I couldn’t. It’s been 15 years of me working on it, but thank you.'”
He has since traded his microphone in for an apron
Several years ago, Sanjaya stepped back from the music industry and started working as a pastry chef.
Though he still loves singing, his biggest passion is cooking. He made croquembouche — an intricate French dessert consisting of pastries piled into a cone shape — for his sister’s wedding and regularly prepares his grandma’s egg-custard recipe.
“I tend to make myself comfort-food foods, and egg custard is the ultimate,” Sanjaya said. “It’s just milk, egg, sugar, vanilla, a little bit of nutmeg, and it’s perfect.”
Asked whether he would ever mix his passion for cooking with reality competition shows, he said the stress would “ruin cooking” for him — as it did with singing for a little bit.
But he said he could envision himself briefly returning to the world of reality television for a show like “The Masked Singer” just to see the looks on people’s faces.
“I would want to go on, sing a song or something, have people be like, ‘Oh, shit!'” Sanjaya laughed, “and, then, be done.”