April 11, 2007 — -- The focus of YouTube parodies and the site Votefortheworst.com, "American Idol" contestant Sanjaya Malakar won a compliment -- sort of -- from the famously curmudgeonly Simon Cowell Tuesday night.
But even if Malakar gets tough love from the judges' table, his family and friends in the audience and back at home are keeping his spirit alive.
Even before he sang one note Tuesday night, Malakar was getting a rave review from megastar Jennifer Lopez.
"I have to tell you he really, really impressed me," she said.
His ballad, sung in Spanish, hushed the excited crowd.
He batted his eyes for the cameras, and the biggest surprise of the night was Cowell's reaction.
"I'm gonna hate myself for this, but it wasn't horrible," Cowell said.
It's been a news-making several weeks for Malakar. America has seemed transfixed by his singing and his hair.
On Tuesday night in Seattle, his hometown choir had its regular practice without him.
"I hope people know I'm so proud of this young man," said Pat Wright, Malakar's pastor and choir director. "He's a perfect example of what our young people are made of these days."
Loved ones say they're not surprised at how far he's gone.
"He was comfortable, really outgoing, always a performer, bouncing off the walls, singing and dancing," his cousin Camila Recchi said.
His aunt Christi Recchi said all the attention had not changed her nephew, and she had a message for the critics:
"There are better ways to spend your time and energy [besides] bashing some 17-year-old kid who has been swept up in this whole thing," she said.
Wright had her own advice for Malakar: "My thing to Sanjaya is to take it all with a grain of salt and laugh all the way to the bank."