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The Sanjaya Mystery

AMERICAN IDOL: Sanjaya Malakar performs on AMERICAN IDOL Tuesday, April 10 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. CR: Frank Micelotta / FOX
Frank Micelotta/FOX
The phone rang, loud. I could tell from my editor's tough tone that something big was afoot.

What's going on with that kid, he asked. The one with the hair. What's the real story? Is someone gonna end up in the slammer? The boss didn't have to drop any more clues.

He was talking about Sanjaya.

How could this skinny teenager with the thin voice and lavish smile become an "American Idol" favorite? Not just hanging on week after week, but with enough juice to maybe win the whole thing, the brass ring, the jackpot, the dream?

I wasn't the only one on the case. The Internet was buzzing like a room full of bookies during a title fight.


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One blogger's Web site drew hit after hit when it made "Who is voting for Sanjaya?" the topic of the day. He mused that pranksters might have figured out how to "crack" Fox's talent show.

Or maybe Sanjaya Malakar (Age: 17. City: Federal Way, Wash.) just has friends in low places.

Like grade school.

"I like his hairstyles," said Kathryn Smith, 7, of Westborough, Mass. She's a regular voter for the kid who's sported everything from a startling "ponyhawk" to curls that looked like a perm gone wrong. Really wrong.

Kathyrn's mom, Michelle Smith, gave up the goods: "She thinks he's cute but didn't want to say so."

Turns out preteen and teenage TV viewers are only about 17 percent of the 26 million plus who watch each Tuesday and Wednesday. I was headed down a dead-end street and had to back up. Fast.

Maybe "American Idol" was executing a clever master plan. Parlaying a love-him, hate-him contestant into endless publicity. The payoff so far? Commentary from presidential contender Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton ("People can vote for whomever they want"). Even a pro-Sanjaya newspaper editorial.

The No. 1 series and star-making machine was just begging to be frisked. When host Ryan Seacrest gives up the total vote but not each singer's tally, is he hiding something? Is it really Malakar's popularity that has kept him from landing in the gutter, joining the lowest of the low vote-getters?

There have been past rumors of internal machinations. "Idol" has always punched back.

In 2005, the wrong call-in numbers were displayed for three contestants. Was the show rigged? "Rubbish," a producer said.

"Why would we contaminate the honesty of one of the top-rated shows in America?" executive producer Ken Warwick said then. (An independent contractor was blamed for the error. Another vote was conducted.)

The top dog says the show is still on the straight and narrow.

Cecile Frot-Coutaz oversees "Idol" as chief executive officer of producer FremantleMedia North America Inc. She says voting details will remain secret — but there's absolutely no manipulation. She says the weekly tallies are compiled by an outside AT&T lab.

"Look, they have no ax to grind. It's AT&T," she insisted. "They don't care who goes through. It's a bunch of guys on the East Coast just counting up numbers."

A smooth talker. But maybe another dame had a different story.

Ex-contestant Kimberley Locke finished third in 2003, the year Ruben Studdard won. She believes the show is honest. That's what she told Fox's standards and practices reps when they approached her as smoke cleared from the '05 phone number mixup.

Locke points to Malakar as proof.

"Why would (the producers) let something like this happen" if they were cooking the numbers, she asked — the show's good name is on the line.

Locke should know talent: She had a hit single with "8th World Wonder" and her new album is out next month. She considers Malakar the wrong guy for the right show: "It would be most unfortunate if we were looking at him on finale night."

She also offered a clue: Organized efforts to undermine "Idol."

It's a solid lead. Dave Della Terza founded votefortheworst.com in 2004. He proudly claims Malakar as his candidate this year. Besides being awkward and odd, "he seems like he's embracing that he's the worst — ponyhawked, screaming and acting crazy," said Della Terza (Age: 24. City: Chicago).

Chanteuses like Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones are as predictably smooth as 12-year-old scotch. So Malakar is "helping to liven up a really boring season," he said.

Della Terza is having fun. But "Idol" viewer Sharon Mosher of Elmyra, N.Y., is suffering. She thinks the show will, too, if Malakar bests Doolittle, Jones or the talented Jordin Sparks.

"It would not be fair to some of those really wonderful girl singers if Sanjaya won," Mosher said. "I really think it would be the death knell of the show."

No way, insists producer Frot-Coutaz.

Although she doubts he'll win, "He's incredibly charming. I can name a number of pop stars who are not necessarily the best singers but are well-packaged and marketed, and they've done well for themselves."

Case closed.
By LYNN ELBER