It’s been a year since Sanjaya Malakar stepped into the spotlight and grabbed the nation’s attention with his American Idol performances and his ever-changing hairstyles. Since then, the 18-year-old has adjusted to life after Idol, which still includes being recognized by fans wherever he goes and making special appearances across the country.
Most recently, Sanjaya spent a busy weekend in New York, where he sang for Long Island resident Rachel Lader, who celebrated her bat mitzvah bash at the Oheka Castle in Huntington, N.Y., March 8.
“It was so amazing. I never thought that Sanjaya would be singing to me in person,” Rachel, 12, tells PEOPLE. “I had to pinch myself.”
For the lavish Oscars-themed, black-tie celebration dubbed “Rachel’s Red Carpet” Saturday, Malakar was the hit of the night. The teen heartthrob sang “Happy Birthday” and got down on one knee to serenade her with “Isn’t She Lovely.”
The next day, Malakar headed to the Borders bookstore at The Shops at Atlas Mall Queens to greet “fanjayas” and sign copies of Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soul. There, PEOPLE caught up with the singer to get his take on the crop of new contestants — including his thoughts on Amanda Overmyer‘s hair — and find out about his life after Idol. –Paul Chi
Have you been watching season 7 of American Idol?I’ve been able to watch a couple shows and just see where the competition is at this point. There are a lot of great and talented singers. It’s awesome! It’s a little weird to watch, though, because it brings back a lot of awesome memories from being on the show.
Do you have a favorite contestant?I don’t have any specific favorites yet but the bar has been raised and the fact that they can play instruments is really cool. For me to watch brings a whole different aspect of being a musician … It’s definitely a great competition.
David Archuela is 17, which is how old you were when you performed on the show. Do you have any advice for him?It’s hard growing up in front of everybody and everyone saying to you, “Why didn’t you do this?” They forget you are learning as you go. But he doesn’t really need any advice from me. He’s great and already seems to be a pro … But my main advice for him and anybody else is just really be yourself and be true to yourself because if you’re going up there and trying to do what you think you should do to impress someone then will immediately see it.
What do you think of Amanda Overmyer’s hair?She has awesome hair! I really like it because she goes out there and she rocks it with her performance. She takes risks and she has her image and she just goes out there and does it. And it’s really cool to have a unique image and know that it’s you. Her hair is just part of her personality which is great.
Paula Abdul has a new music video. What do you think of it?I’m so proud of her being able to go out there and come back out with some great songs and an awesome video. She looks amazing. It’s really cool for her to do that. She’s an awesome singer and dancer and she still has it. I’m a huge fan and I love her. Paula is great.
What do you think about all the fans that are here to see you?It’s so much fun! I get to see the who have brought me to where I am now. It’s so cool! Sometimes you really forget these are the that supported you and they really are your backbone. But it’s weird. I literally came from high school to this so it’s kind of weird sometimes to have fans shouting your name and wanting a kiss from me. But it’s fun and I get to meet new and meet new personalities. But it can be overwhelming sometimes. But it’s a lot of fun!
What’s the biggest challenge you face since appearing on Idol?Obviously being recognized. I’m no longer able to just walk down the street and sing and have not know who I am.Charley Gallay/WireImage