When the joke is on the celebrity

Updated: Sep 30 2008, 07:50am hrs
A young man with an unusual perspective on the ups and downs of life is singing the praises of being prepared financially. The verb in that sentence may help you guess his identity. He is Sanjaya Malakar, who may be the most talked-about contestant to appear on the popular reality series American Idol. Malakar, who turned 19 on Wednesday, is featured in a commercial for Nationwide Financial that is part of the next installment of a campaign carrying the theme Life comes at you fast.

The rise of Malakar last year from unknown Seattle-area teenager to national sensation as a finalist on the sixth season of American Idol was meteoric. The debate over his talent, or lack thereof, and his wacky hairstyles attracted so much attention that he has become part of American popular culture. He has been parodied on television shows such as Saturday Night Live and in movies like Meet the Spartans. He is the most recent in a string of offbeat personalities signed by Nationwide to illustrate how rapidly the vagaries of life can change your financial needs. The others include the former rapper MC Hammer and Kevin Federline.

In each instance, the celebrity is in on the joke, poking fun at himself and his experience with the potentials and pitfalls of stardom. The commercial with Malakar is among six, all humorous, that are being aimed at Americans of South Asian heritage. Consumers from South Asian countries like India and Pakistan are a quickly emerging market for a lot of reasons, said Steven Schreibman, vice-president for advertising and brand management at the Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company in Columbus, Ohio.

Especially if youre going to continue being an entertainer, be in the media, you have to have some humor about yourself, said Malakar.

NY Times / Stuart Elliott