This profile is part of Queerty’s 2022 Out For Good series, recognizing public figures who’ve had the courage to come out and make a difference in the past year, in celebration of National Coming Out Day.
Name: Sanjaya Malakar, 33
Bio: Sanjaya Joseph Malakar was born in Seattle, Washington. A childhood spent singing local gospel choirs honed his vocal skills. He found nationwide fame at the tender age of 17 when he appeared in 2007 on the sixth season of American Idol.
With his geeky charm, his performances split the judges but he proved endearing to audiences. He became a household name and earned himself a loyal following of “Fanjayas”.
If Sanjaya, who underwent several style transformations on the show, was viewed by some as a joke contestant, it was a joke the teen appeared to be in on and happy to play along with it, so long as it allowed him to pursue his dreams of singing stardom.
At the same time that people debated his performance skills, others were speculating about his sexuality. It was a conversation the shy teen was clearly not ready to discuss.
He told People magazine in 2007 that he was used to such speculation:
“I got teased in school because people figured I must be gay because I understand women. I think that’s why guys didn’t like me—because I got along with girls so well. When I went up to girls they would give me a hug and a kiss on the cheek like I was their gay friend. But I was the straight guy that understood them.”
Despite claiming he was straight, many remained unconvinced. Then again, Sanjaya was only 17. Maybe he hadn’t figured things out for himself.
After American Idol, Malakar enjoyed a stint on I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here in 2009. He released some music but major success eluded him. He continued to perform at restaurants and small clubs but made the decision to step away from the entertainment industry around the time he turned 30. Sanjaya now works as a pastry chef in Montana.
Coming out: In August, Sanjaya gave an interview to the LGBTQ-oriented Adam Sank Show podcast.
“I identify as bisexual,” Sanjaya revealed.
“At the time [of American Idol], I did not know, which was why it was so weird for me,” he told Sank. “I grew up in a time when being called ‘f*gg*t’ in school was the worst thing that could ever happen to you.”
He said he found the constant speculation about his sexuality confusing.
“I always got along with theater kids,” he said, recalling his childhood. “I always got along with the gay kids and the girls, so I was like, ‘OK, this is like my people.’ But I don’t know. Everyone keeps telling me that I am gay, and I’m like, 7. I don’t even have any attraction to anyone, so why are you telling me this?’”
“Then American Idol happened, and everyone was like, ‘Oh, he’s gay,’” Sanjaya said. “And I was like, ‘OK, well now I have to say no,’ because at this point they’re forcing me to make a decision and define myself.”
He says that, behind the scenes of Idol, “All of my publicists were like, ‘Oh, just tell everyone you’re single. Be ambiguous. No one needs to know anything about anything because you don’t want to lose your fans.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, but why am I manipulating what I know of myself to figure out what kind of fans I’m going to get? Because I’m still trying to discover who I am.’”
No joking matter: Sanjaya says he views his time in the limelight of American Idol as a “dream sequence” in his life. But it’s a chapter he has no desire to keep repeating.
Sanjaya has returned for the odd guest appearance on the show but says he always felt producers made him out to be a novelty. He grew tired of it. Check out the clip below.
He told Insider in July that he was invited to appear as one of the past contestants to mark the 20th anniversary of the show last May.
“I’m totally down,” Sanjaya told producers. “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 sending this message, the Idol team told him it would be too expensive to fly him to Los Angeles. The offer evaporated.
Sanjaya has no regrets about standing his ground. He now realizes the importance of living life on his own terms. Even if he didn’t secure the musical success he wanted, it sounds like he’s found something more important: himself.