In the very, very, very beginning of this wild season of American Idol, there were two Malakars: Sanjaya, 17, whom we've heard a thing or two about in the preceding months, and Shyamali, 19, who joined her younger brother for the Hollywood leg of the experience, but couldn't crack the top 24 (let alone the top eight). With Sanjaya sequestered as he braved this past week's performance and results shows, TV Guide invited Shyamali to offer insight into her brother's moment under the pop-culture magnifying glass.
TV Guide: How has Sanjaya been doing?
Shyamali Malakar: I am proud of Sanjaya and how he handles the controversy around [Idol]. He doesn't read the blogs and doesn't watch TV — he's isolated in the environment — so he doesn't have to be as exposed to it as I am. But it doesn't seem to be getting him down. It is such an interesting phenomenon when everybody knows who you are. But because I know it is not worrying him, it is not discouraging to me.
TV Guide: You and Sanjaya both auditioned for American Idol. Did you feel competitive?
Shyamali: We have never been competitive, have never been in a competition against each other. We have had different interests but we worked together, just not a lot.
TV Guide: Were you shocked when you were not chosen for Idol?
Shyamali: I thought from the beginning that he would make it through, but I was definitely surprised [that I didn't], since on a professional level I have more experience and am much more able to deal with the pressure. I was not angry but disappointed in the process. I am not resentful. It is definitely a high-pressure thing. The closer I am to it, the happier I am [not to be] the one [enduring it].
TV Guide: Do you give Sanjaya advice on song selection or his look?
Shyamali: There has been a lot of conflict in advising him. Sometimes he does not want to take my advice. I think, "Why wouldn't you want to?" But he is 17 and "knows everything."
TV Guide: Pre-Idol, what was his high point in music?
Shyamali: The Total Experience Gospel Choir, out of Seattle. Pastor Patrinell Wright, the leader, is amazing and has helped him grow vocally and taught him about performance and technique. I was in theater a lot more consistently than Sanjaya, but he always knew he wanted to sing.
TV Guide: How do you feel about Simon Cowell, who kicked you off and has been tough with your brother?
Shyamali: I admire Simon for being honest, but I do not know that he is right in everything he says. He tries too hard to be mean, and I tried to change [his opinion of me]. If you can't sell yourself, it is hard for other people to accept you in the end.
TV Guide: What is your first memory of Sanjaya singing?
Shyamali: Sanjaya was always singing — as soon as he could talk he would sing. He would sing himself to sleep, he used to sing in class all the time... and get in trouble for it! He was always singing to himself when he got bored or distracted. It was a never-ending issue with my mom at the school. He is a really great singer.
TV Guide: Are there deep religious musical roots in your family?
Shyamali: We first started singing in a Hindu temple when we were young. I started doing musical theater when I was 10 years old, at the Hawaii Children's Theater. I sang in a chorus in school, and in high school I was in the jazz choir. My dad is a singer, and when he was in India he was raised in a temple and followed a strict music program. He came to America to be an inspirational singer for a temple when he was 20 or 21. So we have always had music in our house, an eclectic mix.
TV Guide: Sanjaya is 17. Is he still in school?
Shyamali: Sanjaya got his GED [at the time] he was accepted to Idol. I studied music in India, but I do not know if that is on his agenda.
TV Guide: What about all the criticism? Is it tough on him, or is he milking it? Is he thin-skinned?
Shyamali: He is thin-skinned as far as being empathetic and having concern for friends and family, but he does not worry about criticism. He has no trouble changing his style and crazy hairdo, he does not care what people say. He says, "I am confident." I believed Simon more [when he was criticizing me] than Sanjaya believes him [now].
TV Guide: Does he wear a good-luck charm?
Shyamali: There was a necklace he was wearing for a while, but now he is wearing my grandpa's wedding ring. He was very close to my grandpa, who died when Sanjaya was 5. He feels that Grandpa would be proud. My mom gave the ring to him, and sometimes he puts it in his pocket.
TV Guide: Describe the Idol experience for the Malakar family.
Shyamali: It has been both a learning experience and a dream come true. I never would have expected to get the exposure and recognition and popularity that Sanjaya has gotten, because there is no other way to achieve it. It is a whirlwind of craziness, random people prying into your personal life. It is hard to prepare for, it all happens so fast. It has definitely changed everybody's lives, for all of my family.
TV Guide: What is going on in your own life these days?
Shyamali: I was at Evergreen St. College, and now I am getting ready to move to L.A. to pursue a music career.
TV Guide: Are you surprised that Sanjaya has made it this far?
Shyamali: I did not expect him to get as far as he did, and I did not expect him to be such a phenomenon, but he could get as far as [the top] four or five. I did not think Stephanie [Edwards] or Sabrina [Sloan] would get cut out so early, and I did not see Gina [Glocksen] going before Haley [Scarnato]. It is hard to predict.
TV Guide: Do you think your brother could make it to the finals?
Shyamali: I could see Sanjaya and Melinda [Doolittle] in the end, which would be crazy. It all depends on who is more popular.
American Idol viewers speak out about Sanjaya in this video.
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