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Members of The Clef Hangers, Desai's old a cappella group at UNC, were on hand at Alumni Hall to roast him a bit about his overachieving ways.

American Idol contestant Anoop Desai gets a warm, if restricted, reception back in Chapel Hill 

Anoop, there he is

Click for larger image • At Chapel Hill Town Hall, Anoop Desai receives the key to the city and a declaration of Anoop Desai Day from Mayor Kevin Foy.

Photo by Allie Mullin

Click for larger image • At Chapel Hill Town Hall, Anoop Desai receives the key to the city and a declaration of Anoop Desai Day from Mayor Kevin Foy.

The big screen set up behind the podium of Alumni Hall at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill was there for a different reason than most folks would probably expect on May 4—like, say, watching Anoop Desai's highlights on American Idol.

After all, he was the Carolina Club's guest of honor that afternoon. Hundreds of folks—friends, classmates, fans, members of his family—gathered in the hall to see their favorite homeboy of the moment, and wish him well in his future musical career.

"I think he's got a shot, because he's very personable," says Rosemary Vasan of Raleigh, who brought her 14-year-old daughter Kiera along for the event.

"He's got a beautiful voice."

Desai's old friend Sam Thorp, 23, puts it even more succinctly.

"He just embodies the whole Chapel Hill, renaissance-man feel," he says.

The fans in the audience—many were teenaged and female—would probably have loved to relive Anoop's Idol triumphs in clips they've already seen on YouTube dozens of times. But Desai, who just came back from Hollywood after getting eliminated from the Fox show on April 22, didn't need to see or hear himself singing "Dim All the Lights" on a big screen right now. There'll be plenty of that music stuff when he goes off to rehearse for the American Idol tour, happening this summer.

Instead, the presenters at his UNC tribute are giving him something he really wants: a highlight reel of all that Tar Heels basketball he missed during grueling weeks of doing the TV show.

Well, he didn't miss all of it. Nothing was going to stop him from watching his school's team win the NCAA Championship game.

"I faked being sick," he admits, to laughter from the audience. "I had a very conveniently timed stomach thing."

That's a pretty bold admission for the 22-year-old to make while he's still under contact to the tightly run American Idol. The conditions of his deal prevented him on May 4 from singing for those gathered at the event—or at any non-Idol event. And good luck getting an interview with the kid. When it comes to media control, and image control, Fox and American Idol run a shadow government that would make Dick Cheney's robot heart thump fast with envy.

(For example: My attempt at The News & Observer in 2006 to talk to former co-workers of contestant Kellie Pickler at a Sonic restaurant in Albemarle yielded zilch. The young lady who answered the phone informed me that employees were forbidden to talk about Pickler. Yep, Idol rules the world, even down to its crappiest burger joints.)

North Carolina has a good history with Idol. Like Pickler in Season 5, Desai went out ranked as No. 6, and ranked two spots higher than Rockingham's Bucky Covington, and two notches below Burlington's Chris Daughtry, both of whom were also in Season 5.

In Season 2, Raleigh's Clay Aiken made it to No. 2, after elimination and a wild card comeback—much like Anoop, who was spared from earlier elimination this season, which undoubtedly raised many local hopes. In Season 3, Fantasia Barrino of High Point would take the grand prize.

Careers, too, have been a mixed bag for N.C.'s Idol alumni. Aiken went from pop singer to out-and-proud Broadway star. Pickler has made it pretty big in country music, though not as big as her BFF Taylor Swift. Barrino did two albums and an autobiographical TV movie based on her book, and has been cast in the national touring musical version of The Color Purple. Country singer Bucky Covington seems destined to be an opening act for life. And Daughtry became a brooding rock star in the dreary Nickelback vein.

Asked about his own career path in a press teleconference the day after his elimination, Desai had some ideas. "I know I want to go the pop/R&B route," he said. "I know I want to put my own soul in pop songs."

After the UNC event, Desai and members of his family would head over to Town Hall, where Desai would receive the key to the city and a declaration of Anoop Desai Day from Mayor Kevin Foy, and do some more poster-signing for fans. He even signed a few for Town Council members.

"It's really funny to see him signing all these autographs and things, because we know him as our student government leader," says Anna Baucom, 23, who graduated with Desai's class in 2004 from East Chapel Hill High.

Click for larger image • Anoop Desai signs posters at Chapel Hill Town Hall, including a few for Town Council members. - PHOTO BY ALLIE MULLIN

Back on his home turf, where he grew up, Desai seems pretty unaffected by celebrity. The only visible American Idol mark on him is the cranked-up dork couture of the modern young nerd—that's his image. At the Carolina Club, Desai wore a pink shirt with a big, even pinker pink bowtie; a white jacket with razor-thin black pinstripes; black slacks, and shoes that are green, white and red.

But Desai's current style is just an extension of some very real, endearing nerdiness—check out the YouTube videos of the Clef Hangers, Desai's old a cappella group at UNC, whose members were on hand at Alumni Hall to roast him a bit about his overachieving ways. Sartorially, these boys make The Lettermen look like Marilyn Manson. OK, that's exaggerating. But these guys are the real deal, and Desai is too.

It's unlikely he'll get remade by the industry too much—unlike Bucky Covington, who went from being a bar-band rocker from hard-partying Rockingham to getting cleaned up as some family-friendly version of a small-town boy, suitable for Idol and Country Music Television.

With Anoop, there's no pesky grime to scrub off. He is what he is, and makes it clear when he speaks to the audience that he's always Tar Heel blue, through and through. He talks about his special relationship to the university, and how weird it feels to be recognized while in line at Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen.

At the end of the UNC program, the audience rises and sings "Hark the Sound of Tar Heel Voices."

"Remember, we did not see, or hear, or witness Anoop Desai singing!" General Alumni Association President Douglas S. Dibbert joked to the crowd, mindful of Idol-imposed restrictions.

It's impossible to tell from behind the front row, where he is standing next to his mom Nalini Desai, whether Anoop Desai moves his lips during Eve Carson's favorite song, and if he did, who could fault him?

It's been a little more than a year since the former student body president was murdered, an anniversary that Desai acknowledged on the March 5 edition of American Idol. He also credits Carson with giving him the courage to compete on the show.

And on this day, even though he didn't win, Anoop Desai is back here to remind his fellow students that, sometimes, many times, good things can happen to good people.

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