Monica Rizzo and Michelle Tauber
May 07, 2007 12:00 PM

Before he amassed an army of Fanjayas, before he brought the Crying Girl to hysterical tears, before he rocked that ponyhawk-seen-round-the-world … what was Sanjaya Malakar really like? “I can honestly say I was obnoxious,” the recently axed American Idol contestant says of his early high school years near Seattle. “I was annoying. I would take my guitar to school every day and sit in the back of chemistry class singing and playing,” he recalls with his famously impish grin. “Everyone would say, ‘Shut up, Sanjaya!'” Still, “I was really popular because I was the rebel,” he says. “People either loved me or hated me.”

Love him, hate him, or simply can’t ignore him, there is no doubt that Malakar, 17, has been the most polarizing Idol ever—a distinction he playfully embraces as much as the national obsession with his hair. “I’m just myself,” says Malakar, whose post-Idol whirlwind has included everything from a trip to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (as PEOPLE’s guest) to reading the Top 10 list on The Late Show with David Letterman. Despite enduring months of withering criticism—Simon Cowell deemed his final April 17 performance “horrendous”—and backhanded support from the Web site, he remains as unflaggingly upbeat as ever. “Sanjaya is like a duck—a lot of stuff just rolls right off of him,” says his mom, Jillian Blyth. Says Sanjaya: “I know if I read too much of the bad stuff I’ll get shot down and if I read too much of the good stuff I’ll get a big head.”

And he has nothing but effusive praise for his fellow contestants (see box) and even Cowell: “Simon basically was saying, ‘Come on, Sanjaya, you can do better,'” says Malakar. “But behind [the critical persona] is a shiny, happy person.”

A shiny, happy Simon? We’ll have to take his word for it—but it’s that kind of sunny-side-up optimism that got Malakar to Idol in the first place. The second child of Jill, 41, a Seattle native who ran a cleaning service, and Vasudeva Malakar, 44, a musician who emigrated from India more than 20 years ago, Sanjaya was 3 when his parents divorced. Even then, “Sanjaya was constantly singing and dancing and making some kind of distraction,” says Blyth. Recalls his sister Shyamali, 20, who also tried out for Idol: “We would make up stories and do music video reenactments, like Bobby Brown’s ‘Don’t Be Cruel.'”

Malakar’s early style sense was as distinctive then as it is now. “In first grade I would wear cutoff shorts, long underwear, rain boots, a T-shirt and carry a double umbrella—that was my fashion statement,” he recalls, adding that it wasn’t until Idol that he started putting much thought into his look: “It’s easy to be fashionable when you get $400 [Idol‘s wardrobe stipend for contestants] a week.” And those hairdos—and don’ts? “I was like, [the viewers] are focusing on my hair, so why not change it up and in my own way make fun of them for caring so much?”

Throughout the show he had the support of his family—especially his mom and sister, who he says had the biggest influence on him growing up. “I’ve always gotten along with girls better because I was raised by women,” Sanjaya says. As a result, “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.”

As for his pre-Idol dating life, “I had a girlfriend but she became clingy, and I didn’t want to get into a really serious relationship because I was 16,” he says. “I just wanted to date and have fun.”

He picked up his now-famous hula skills—which he displayed early on Idol—in Hawaii. His free-spirited mother moved the family there in 1996, when Sanjaya was 6 years old, and he and his sister became active in children’s theater. Returning to Seattle in 2000, Malakar found himself avoiding “cliques” and instead hanging with an outsider crowd who often ditched school. “I failed a lot of classes because I skipped class and I wouldn’t do the homework,” he admits. Recalls his best friend Elise Stukenberg: “He used to walk around the streets singing at the top of his lungs.”

Intent on becoming a musician, Malakar opted to take the GED high-school equivalency exam after his sophomore year rather than sit in another classroom. “He’s not into structure,” says Blyth. “I said, ‘Okay, we’ll have him do the GED and then he can pursue the thing he’s passionate about—music.'”

His Idol exposure has allowed him to do just that. The show “was like my junior and senior years of high school,” he says. He’s taking the parting advice he received from the judges—”Randy [Jackson] and Simon came up to me and said, ‘Hey, this isn’t the end'”—and hopes to pursue a showbiz career. “I’d love to go to Berklee College of Music,” he says. “I play guitar. I play spoons. Not very well, but I can play them!” Whatever’s in store for him, he has no plans to change his inner Sanjaya-ness. “I’m just quirky,” he says. “I’m a weird person, but it’s cool. If there weren’t weird people, the world would be boring.”

For more on Sanjaya and daily Idol updates, breaking news and more, go to PEOPLE.COM/IDOL

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