The Sixth Most-Watched Person on Television

Once just a campus celebrity, now a household name: Anoop Desai may not have won “American Idol,” but his rise to pop-culture fame is far from over.

Published in Carolina Alumni Review, July-August 2009.

In their fall 2007 concert video, the UNC a capella group the Clef Hangers starred in a skit in which they purchased a lottery ticket at a Rosemary Street convenience store, won $60 million and immediately adopted a faux-lavish lifestyle: hiring underclassmen to take their tests; playing lawn tennis in plaid knickers and jaunty tam o’shanters; imbibing Chardonnay. In one scene, Anoop Desai, the then- president of and frequent soloist for the Clefs, drove up in a silver Mazda Miata with the top down, wearing fleece and jeans, while his mates struck old-money, Hyannis-Port-style poses on a front porch, the boredom of luxury on their faces.

“What’s up, man?” a safely buckled-in Desai said, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other draped around the passenger seat headrest. “Check out my new ride.”

Desai laughs at the memory of that video, and with good reason. Today he is sitting in the bar at The Franklin Hotel in Chapel Hill, where he has been given the 1,300 square-foot penthouse suite for the evening – on the house, of course. Yesterday, the 22-year-old signed autographs for 400 fans. In a few hours, wearing a pink bow tie and seersucker jacket, he will receive the key to the city on what has officially been dubbed Anoop Desai Day. He won’t be driving a Miata or even his own partially paint-chipped Camry to the festivities. He could, and maybe would prefer, to hop on the NU campus bus to get around town, but as that shuttle rolls past the window where he sits, his limousine (also comped) pulls up to the curb from the other direction.           

“We’re ready whenever you are, Anoop,” says the limo company owner, who will spend most of the day gushing over the former “American Idol” contestant like a teenager with a crush.

Desai smiles, shakes his head and wonders: How did he get to a place in his life where someone would inform him, without irony, that his limo is ready?

“That,” he says, “is just weird.”

Check out Anoop Desai’s new ride: an unexpected and often surreal journey into reality television and its attending microscopic scrutiny, with stops in all the usual places an “American Idol” finalist frequents: the village of cultural stereotypes, the valley of pop-style democracy, and that new port of 21st century American Dreams: the land of overnight fame. Desai hopes his final destinations will include your iPod, your radio airwaves, your sports arena’s stage and your very consciousness. So step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and get your tickets.

Welcome to the celebrity education of Anoop Desai.

A new kind of classroom

Desai sings R&B like he’s been hanging out with that genre’s popular performers his entire life, but he’s never had any serious formal training. His soulful voice is the product of an 8-year-old boy who purchased a Boyz II Men album in 1994, fell in love with its sound, and, with the Clefs, beguiled UNC coeds a decade later with his performances of the former Top-40 group’s hit song, “I’ll Make Love to You.” Desai’s signature moment of swoon came 1:26 into the single, when he dropped to his knees and pleadingly delivered the line, “Girl Reeelax.” It’s a moment that Desai’ples (as some fans call themselves) refer to with biblical-like shorthand as “IMLTY 1:26.”

“By the time he was a sophomore,” said Ali Neff, a PhD student in communication studies at Carolina and academic mentor of Desai’s, “he was kind of the big man on campus. I remember having meetings with him, and other students would walk by my office and see us talking. Later they would come up to me and say, ‘That was Anoop – you know him?’”

While he always was passionate about singing, he was just as intense about his intellectual pursuits, said his mother, Nalini Desai, who works as a biochemist in Research Triangle Park. Her son was always planning. He not only unsuccessfully tried to convince his high school choral teacher to hold an extra class during lunch so he could work it into his schedule, he also haggled to take chemistry by correspondence, “even though I told him this wasn’t possible,” she said, laughing.

“Our challenge definitely was to help him lighten up a bit,” she said of herself and husband, Manoj, who is the information technology project director for the N.C. Department of Justice.

He entered UNC as both a Carolina Scholar and a Clef Hanger, having auditioned the spring before his freshman year. On his way to a double-major in American studies and political science, he won the Peter C. Baxter Prize, the chancellor’s award naming the top student in the American Studies curriculum; and in 2007, a song for which he was the soloist won a Best of College A Capella nod.

Desai wrote papers on Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and Lynyrd Skynyrd in the classroom and sang songs from Mary J. Blige, Justin Timberlake and Ozzy Osbourne on the stage.

“And when he sang,” said good friend and former Clef Christopher Melly, “he had the kind of voice that made everyone stop what they were doing and listen.”

Despite his vocal talent and penchant for achievement, Desai felt no particular pull to audition for “American Idol.” Sure, “Idol,” which just finished its eighth season, is the most popular series on television; the only way to get more exposure is to quarterback a Super Bowl team. About 30 million people watch it every time it airs – which is twice a week. Yes, the winner gets a major recording contract and all the fame and glory he or she can prolong for more than 15 minutes.

But each time his friends would urge him to give it a go, Desai, ever the analyst, would point to a set of facts more appropriate for dreamers than for planners.

“Did you hear what they just said?” he would ask them, pointing to his television after each audition show aired. “They said 20,000 people auditioned for 12 spots. Did you hear that? That’s impossible.”         

Impossible, though, is precisely what “American Idol” successfully peddles. It’s in the business of impossibility – of turning oil riggers and single mothers and bartenders into stars – and that business earns “Idol”’s production company, 19 Entertainment, an extraordinarily lucrative $7 million every 30 minutes.

That impossibility also was the sort of thing that Desai’s good friend, Eve Carson, talked about, the kind of likelihood of the unlikely that she helped others to find in themselves. She once said Desai should try out for “American Idol”; last August, just before beginning his graduate program in folklore at UNC, Desai did just that, as a way to honor the slain student body president’s memory.

Pop culture, of course, plays by a different set of rules than academia. It’s hard to imagine an honors thesis committee giggling like grade-schoolers who’ve just heard a new potty joke while you patiently attempt to explain the premise of your work, as the “Idol” judges did when Desai faced them at his Kansas City audition. Preternaturally cranky judge Simon Cowell first called him “Anoopy” (Desai calmly corrected him, and then suggested the nickname that stuck: ‘Noop Dog), and then mocked his undergraduate research on barbecue and Southern identity.

In post-”Idol” interviews, Desai said he believed that the judges initially thought they had another joke on their hands, someone they could have a little fun with before casting him aside like the thousands of contestants each year who provide more comic fodder than talent.

But then Desai showed them that he was fluent in their language, too. When he’d finished singing “Thank You” by – who else? – Boyz II Men, the mood in the room shifted.

“I didn’t expect that,” said Paula Abdul, summarizing the thoughts of the panel. “I didn’t expect the soulfulness to come out of you.” Even Cowell managed a genuine smile as he punched Desai’s ticket to Hollywood — but not before taking a jab at his looks and labeling him with his first made-for-TV stereotype.

“It’s all a bit geeky, at the moment, though,” he said. “The look. You look like you just came out of a meeting with Bill Gates. It’s all a bit Silicon, high-tech.”

Given that Desai wore an untucked, plaid button down shirt, khaki shorts and flip flops to his audition – not exactly business attire — many viewers wondered if that comment was directed toward Desai’s ethnicity.

 Katherine Meizel, an ethnomusicologist at Bowling Green State University, says the nerd characterization is a popular one on “American Idol,” dating back to Raleigh native and “Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken in season two, and it’s one that fits perfectly with national stereotypes about who is soulful, and who is not.

“When soul is unexpected, you’re dealing with ideas that are intertwined about race and about coolness,” says Meizel, who studies the politics of identity in popular culture and is writing a book on “American “Idol.” “It’s this idea that coolness has to do with blackness, and nerdiness has to do with the opposite. And while, usually, whiteness is assigned to that, in this case, Simon’s comments tie it into this association of South Asian Americans in technology.”

Of course, Desai, who spent his college years studying identities in both political and popular culture, knew well what was happening.

“I knew I wasn’t what they made me out to be in the beginning,” Desai said. “I was always reminded of, in a different way, the beginning of Invisible Man, where the main character thinks his grandfather was this amazing guy who lived up to society’s expectations of him, and his grandfather says to him on his deathbed: just ‘yes’ ‘em to death. You know? Just put a big smile on his face and then subvert them from within.

“On some level, I was reminded of that with ‘“Idol”’: You can think that I’m whatever you want to, and you can put me into whatever category that you want. And I’ll just smile and do my thing.”

Dial for an “Idol”

Because “Idol” winners are chosen by viewers in nationwide voting via phone and text messaging each week, the show’s portrayal of the contestants, both through critiques and video segments, affects the outcome. The marketing dynamics at play are often similar to those in American politics, Meizel said. (With one notable exception: viewers can and are encouraged to vote early and often.) While news media speak of red states and blue states; “Idol” consumers tend to think in terms of nerds, divas, blue-collar backgrounders, hard-luck stories and clowns – a.k.a., “vote-for-the-worst” contestants.

“When you don’t know where to put someone, it’s hard to have an electoral base,” Meizel said. “That’s maybe sad, but it’s tremendously important to have an identity that’s easily reducible on that show.”

Desai is widely considered the most intellectual contestant “Idol” has seen. (One fan started a lengthy thread in the “American Idol” forums called “Anoop’s Big College Words.”) But an R&B sound is rarely linked in pop culture with a guy who does crossword puzzles to relax.

“People expect to see what they hear and hear what they see,” Desai said. “I don’t fit into one of those packages. But that’s always been the case. No one has ever really expected me to sing. It was the novelty of it all that got me onto the show in the first place, and carried me through the early rounds.”

Desai rode that novelty through Hollywood week, a prerecorded singing spree where the almost 150 contestants chosen at eight audition sites nationally were whittled to 36 semifinalists. Desai often wasn’t in Chapel Hill for his folklore studies that fall, though few people knew why until “Idol” premiered in January and revealed that he was a contender. The semifinalists eventually were split into groups of 12 who sang for the popular vote, where the top three vote-getters in each dozen were chosen as finalists.

Despite having what Simon called “massive likeability,” though, viewers eliminated him from his semifinal group, only to have the judges bring him back for a wild-card round, and then surprise him by expanding the usual 12 finalists to 13. Desai got the lucky extra spot.

Desai moved into a mansion in Los Angeles with the other hopefuls and, over the next six weeks, began the work of becoming America’s next pop star: choosing songs to fit each week’s theme – from Grand Ole Opry to Michael Jackson’s songbook – rehearsing them with vocal coaches and the in-house “Idol” band for each Tuesday night’s performance, learning group sings with the other contestants for each Wednesday’s results show, working with stylists to find the right stage look and generally doing everything else that was required of him … including weekly music videos meant to sell cars for Ford Motor Co., one of the show’s sponsors.

Because all of the typical “Idol” stereotypes draped over Desai like a bad suit, he was able to create a space for his own identity in the finals, mentioning Chapel Hill and the University frequently on the air and in other “Idol” media – marking the first time a contestant had ever connected himself so strongly to his college, Meizel said.

“That’s really how he packaged himself on the show,” she said. “He talked about the a capella group, he talked about Eve Carson, he talked about UNC basketball. But that was problematic to a degree, because while the University helped to create his fan base, it could really only take him so far. It has a finite number of people in it.”

That didn’t bother Neff, who credited him with being “brilliant in showing that not only he but other contestants on the show can have much richer and more critical backgrounds than we would think.”

In Chapel Hill, Melly and other friends did their best to mitigate the inherent limits of Desai’s voting base by launching a grassroots “get-out-the-vote” campaign – holding viewing parties, handing out fliers in the Pit and setting up a Web-based store where fans could purchase t-shirts, buttons and, yes, even underwear, with Desai logos, with proceeds going to the Eve Carson Memorial Scholarship Fund. They eventually joined forces with a fan in Connecticut, who had neither gone to UNC nor known Desai personally, but had established a blog about the singer after – one so popular that, early on, it crashed on performance nights.

Melly answered fan mail that came from all over the world, including at least one from a middle-aged woman who claimed to have left her husband for Desai. He found himself fielding calls from the National Enquirer about Desai’s personal life and waking at 5:30 a.m. to do radio interviews about his friend.

“For a while,” said Melly, a bartender at Il Palio restaurant in Chapel Hill, “I was spending my days from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. doing publicity for Anoop. Then I would come to work and take phone calls about him under the bar.”

But as their contestant attempted to recalibrate himself each week – “Once [viewers] got over the idea that I didn’t sound like I looked, then I actually had to start singing well,” he said, tongue-in-cheek – the Anoop Troop found it more and more difficult to mobilize local fans.

 Melly wondered if Desai – who, apart from an early stumble during Michael Jackson week with “Beat It,” was earning consistent and sometimes glowing praise for his singing but still landing in the bottom three vote-getters week after week – would have fared better if he had been from a small town or a non-college town, where voting two consecutive hours for a contestant was the only distraction. Desai had to compete not only with 12 other finalists, but with a successful March Madness run back home.

Not that he minded that competition; of all the things he experienced during his “Idol” run, one of the things that flummoxed him the most was living in a house with a group of young people who did not watch or care about college basketball. Apart from Arkansas native and eventual “Idol” winner Kris Allen, none of the other contestants understood why Desai would hole up in his room in the mansion, watching UNC’s second-round game with LSU and punching pillows to temper his anxiety, while Smokey Robinson rehearsed downstairs.

“It was just unfathomable to me,” said Desai, who faked being sick so he could watch the national title game. “It never even occurred to me that some people didn’t care about basketball.”

But it also never occurred to Desai that he might be confused with a “frat boy” – not that judge Kara DioGuardi, a Duke graduate, didn’t try. Following a shaky performance of Usher’s “Caught Up” during Top 9 week, one that even friend and Clef Ryan White said didn’t work, DioGuardi derisively told Desai it sounded like a “bunch of frat boys dared you to get up and sing Usher.”

Desai lost his patience, glared and asked, “Excuse me?” Though he was not eliminated for the performance, some Internet posters labeled him egotistical, and his fans went on damage control. His parents wrote a letter to followers asking them to keep voting.

“This experience is teaching Anoop the difficult lessons of public life,” they wrote. Desai himself apologized on air the following week for losing his cool.

He admits his reaction may have cost him votes, but Desai remains “miffed” by the DioGuardio comment.

“At that point in the competition, there was no need for that kind of stereotyping,” Desai said. “I thought, ‘Haven’t I already proven that you shouldn’t do that? You knew that’s not who I was from Day One, and now you’re doing it again? At first I was a nerd, and now I’m a frat boy?”

The incident also threw into sharp relief why Desai couldn’t ultimately capture the crown. While his stage performance of Usher failed to captivate, Desai says his studio-recorded version of “Caught Up” was the best of all his “Idol” songs. With pop-R&B, he said, there’s a subtle-but-necessary production quality that can’t be replicated as easily on the “Idol” stage, where vocal bombast is often favored.

“It’s all about knowing what you’re trying convey and getting that across,” said Desai, who calls his voice “record-friendly.” “I did that more successfully sometimes than others.”

Still, by the end of his run, which came three weeks later and left him as the sixth-place finisher, he says he had learned valuable lessons in emoting, phrasing and breathing from the vocal coaches, and forged a kind of mutual admiration society with the judges – particularly Cowell, who Desai once approached off-camera for more detail on the judge’s famously soundbite-ready critiques.

“After (my last) show, Simon was the first one to come up to me and shake my hand and talk to me, and I’ve never seen him do that before,” Desai said. “They know that I see through the lights and the cameras. My whole thing was that I wanted to learn from each song what I could do better. Because at the end of the day, singing is the career I want.”

It’s not over

 To say Desai’s life has changed since leaving the “Idol” stage is like saying — to put it in terms the singer would appreciate – that Carolina squeaked by Michigan State in April. He says he was “probably just the sixth most-watched person in the country,” and his popularity shows it.

He went on a week-long press tour following his ouster, and even now, if he goes to visit a friend in Atlanta, he might be required by 19 Entertainment to stop by the local Fox affiliate and radio stations for interviews. He can’t sing unless 19 gives him the OK to do so. Even his welcome-home celebration was uncertain until his “Idol”-appointed lawyer approved it. Dozens of fan groups follow him on Facebook, and as of this writing, more than 17,000 people and counting hang on his every word via the microblogging tool Twitter.

If he goes for a run, drivers gawk. If he goes out for dinner, or even to the restroom, he’s approached for autographs. If he sits a little too close to a fellow “Idol” finalist, gossip columnists assume they’re dating.

When he returned to his middle school for a visit in May, officials had to shut off the room where Desai was speaking to his former teachers, had to form a hard perimeter around him, because students went crazy at the sight of him and “started banging on the windows.”

 Desai’s parents are even famous; in fact, they are so well-known that an item about their celebrity via Anoop once climbed to No. 3 on the list of most-read links on Entertainment Weekly’s Web site.

 Whether he’s in L.A. or in Chapel Hill, his newfound fame follows him.

 “Anytime you’re rushed into an SUV because you don’t have time to take pictures with the fans that are standing outside ‘The Today Show’…” Desai says, smiling sheepishly, “when that’s your reality, that’s a little weird.”

 So instead of working as a fellow at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C., this June, something he had done for three straight years, he was rehearsing for the 50-city “Idol” Summer Tour with the other top-10 finalists, which began July 5. In September, instead of typing papers on folklore, he hopes to be signing his name to a record deal – which is, of course, the biggest change of all to Anoop Desai’s already charmed life.

 When Desai first auditioned, he says he still saw himself as an academic, maybe even an eventual law student, certainly not a future recording artist. But by the time he signed his first “Idol” contract midway through Hollywood week, as he watched 30 other hopefuls go home daily while he stayed on, he realized, “This could happen.”

Desai no longer felt like a guy who once pretended to win the lottery; he felt like the guy who was one ticket away from actually doing it.

“I definitely wanted to win,” said Desai, who says that “Idol” helped him discover that singing made him happiest. “Very, very badly. It isn’t just about the bragging rights; it’s that if you win, you get the record contract, and you get all these things that now I’m having to work for through a different route and that are very uncertain. If you win, you get a platinum album, guaranteed. That’s financial security, that’s doing what you love, and being appreciated for it.”

 The show’s history certainly provides examples of castoffs’ success. Season five’s fourth-place finisher, North Carolina native Chris Daughtry, recorded a quintuple-platinum rock album with his band. And Jennifer Hudson, an eventual Oscar-winner for her role in the musical Dreamgirls, only finished seventh in season three.

 But the odds of becoming a pop star are still very slim, “Idol” or no “Idol”. “Ambition is necessary to any American Dream,” said Meizel, who once studied to be an opera singer, “but it can also feel a lot like gambling.”

And so: What happens if the recording career doesn’t materialize?

Desai glances out the window at The Franklin’s bar, where his limo-for-the-day sits, still ready and waiting to take him wherever he’d like to go. He’s quiet for a moment while he considers a question that, if made into fact, would mean the unfurling of the last eight, dazzling months of his life, the fizzling of his pop star chances and the need to employ the quintessential fall-back plan, that parachute that allows so many educated dreamers to sleep less fitfully at night – his college degree.

What happens if the dream doesn’t take? He purses his lips thoughtfully, and then he responds the only way a man leaping into the arms of his own faith – and that of a fickle public’s – can: “I just see it happening.”

That he says this with a steady confidence rather than an overreaching bravado is the essence of Desai’s charm, and the thing that might ultimately help him and his gifted voice land on the CD racks next to Daughtry. Love or hate “American Idol,” you can’t help but pull for its sixth-place finisher.

Desai shrugs, checks his ever-buzzing iPhone.

“One of the things that I would like to think is that – like Simon said a long time ago – ‘You’re a likable guy.’ I’d like to think that, wherever I go, people will at least think I’m a decent guy.

“And,” he adds, chuckling, “if they didn’t want to see me fail, you know, that’d be cool, too.”

Copyright 2009 General Alumni Association