The real sign of superstardom: Half the world loves you, the other half hates you. By these standards, 'NSYNC is the biggest pop group on the planet. At the mere sight of 'NSYNC, fans scream, cry, and hyperventilate. Meanwhile, boy-band bashers boo, wince, and curse. Like them or not, their third album, No Strings Attached, set a record for most albums sold in a week (2.4 million), and they've won countless Billboard, American Music, and MTV awards.
These five guys--Justin Timberlake, 20; JC Chasez, 24; Joey Fatone, 24; Lance Bass, 22; and Chris Kirkpatrick, 29--have fans camping out for concert tickets and fellow stars dying to meet them. We couldn't help but wonder if all the admiration had gone to their heads--especially since they've named their fourth CD Celebrity.
Justin swears he and the guys don't have inflated egos and that the title's meant to be sarcastic. "We're basically mocking the [celebrity] scene," he says. Making fun of their star status is nothing new for 'NSYNC. On Saturday Night Live they've done less-than-flattering skits about boy bands, and protrayed themselves as goofy posers on The Simpsons. "We figured if people thought we lip-synced, we'd go with it and show them we could make fun of that image," explains Lance.
So who are they really--the jet-setting band who rubs elbows with Hollywood big shots or just five down-to-earth guys who haven't been affected by fame? We talked to their family and oldest friends to get the answer.
HOW THEY'VE CHANGED: They're worshiped by millions of
Six years ago they were performing in Orlando, FL, high schools and malls, hoping people would actually show up. Now, to their surprise, they're filling stadiums with 75,000 screaming fans. It would be easy for 'NSYNC to start tripping about their popularity, but the people close to them would never let that happen. "My friends are always like, 'What's so special about you?' And I'm like, 'I don't know!'" laughs Lance. His mom, Diane Bass, often asks herself the same question when she spots girls sneaking around outside hotel rooms and hiding under tables waiting for a glimpse of her son. The strangest fan story she's heard: a 4-year-old whose imaginary friend is Lance. "Her family even has to set a place for Lance at dinner," Diane says, baffled.
Chris's uncle, Jason Eustice, 29 (he's actually four months younger than his singing nephew), doesn't think of Chris as a star either. "He's the same hyper kid," says Jason. "We'd ride go-carts, push each other in my grandma's wheelchair, and dam up the creek in her backyard. He was a skinny twig; I was a big marshmallow."
The reality of Chris's fame sinks in when Jason goes to an 'NSYNC concert. "Once I was standing in line at a Nashville show, holding two meet-and-greet passes," says Jason. "A lady saw that I had an extra, so she offered me $200 to give it to her 13-year-old daughter. I was like, 'Ar you crazy?' I just gave it to the girl for free. When she saw 'NSYNC, she dropped to her knees and started bawling. I thought, Oh my gosh. What did I just do to this child?"
HOW THEY'VE STAYED THE SAME: They're fans themselves.
They've flown to Italy for the weekend to have dinner at fashion designer Donatella Versace's house. Tom Hanks has met with them about a movie deal. And they party with celebs like Felicity's Keri Russel, American Pie's Shannon Elizabeth, and 7th Heaven's Beverley Mitchell. You'd think they'd be right at home with other pop stars, but Justin confesses he freaks out when people like Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, or Brian McKnight go to their concerts. "That's major," he says. "I remember going to see Janet during her Rhythm Nation Tour when I was 11. I couldn't sit still."
They try to play it cool in front of other celebrities, but Chris admits it's hard not to be starstruck. When he met one of his biggest influences, Michael Jackson, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum inductions, he nearly died. "He's the most gracious person I've ever met," gushes Chris. "I was like, 'Look, Michael--if I can even call you that. Should I say Michael Jackson? Mr. Jackson?' I told him it was such an honor to meet him and induct him, and he said, 'No, no, no. It was such an honor for me.' I was like, 'Shut up! Don't you understand you're a legend?'"
HOW THEY'VE CHANGED: They can't go out without being mobbed.
"Nothing can beat a urinal," Lance laughs, when asked about the craziest place he's been recognized. "You're in the bathroom and someone will strike up a conversation like, 'I saw your last tour. Can I get an autograph?'" After washing his hands, he gave one.
When Lance wants t oavoid a toilet ambush, he slips on a wig. "People may be staring at me because I look like an idiot, but they have no idea who I am." Every now and then a fanatic goes a little too far. Lance says people have tried to follow him home. "I'll drive down the interstate trying to lose them, but I don't go too fast because I don't want them to get hurt," explains Lance. "I coulde never see myself going to a star's house. What are you going to do when you get there? Say, 'Can I come in for coffee?"
Justin's the most recognizable, so he has to put up with the most prying. "It gets to be too much about my personal life," he says. "We don't have the luxury of working a 9-to-5 job. Everyone thinks I'm a celebrity 24/7 and that I should always be on."
"I'm not Justin Timberlake, so I can go anywhere I want," jokes JC, as Justin walks past attour cover shoot. "I think success damages a lot of people and they become reclusive, but we're still out there every day. I usually go to my mom-and-pop shops for breakfast when I'm home."
The guys sign autographs with a smile no matter how tired they are, as long as it doesn't intrude on their family time. Joey's brother, Steve Fatone, 26, explains how Joey recently got upset at his cousin's wedding when guests asked him to take pictures and sign autographs. "Joey was like, 'Look, this is my cousin's day. I'm not working.' People don't separate the fact that signing an autograph or taking a picture is part of his job," says Steve.
HOW THEY'VE STAYED THE SAME: It's all about the music.
If their popularity disappeared tomorrow, the five would be fine--as long as they could still perform. With each album, the guys have taken on more writing and producing roles, especially Justin and JC. "We love doing what we do--not necessarily the photo shoots and parties, but we feel at home onstage and in the studio," says Justin. "It's not about the money, or we would have been gone by now because we're all pretty much set."
JC adds, "We're not cranking out tunes because we want to gain respect in the industry. We do it because we enjoy it." Justin says that if they hadn't formed 'NSYNC, they'd still be friends. "I'd call them every day to get a burger, and we'd be writing and performing together even if we were playing for $2 at a coffee shop like we used to."
Justin's not exaggerating about their start. While Chris was working at Orlando's Universal Studios in 1995, he decided to form a singing group. He met Joey at work and Justin at auditions, who brought in JC, his friend from The Mickey Mouse Club. To fill the bass vocalist spot, Justin called his voice coach, who recommended Lance. They clicked and a year later, Lou Pearlman was managing them. Along with their Orlando neighbors, Backstreet Boys, they became one of the biggest acts in pop. That's when they realized they were being ripped off. "It was three and a half years before we ever saw a penny," says Lance. "At the time, we thought it was normal and we were just paying our dues--until our attorneys told us we deserved a lot more." So the boys split from their management and record label and headed to Jive, once again sharing a bill with BSB.
HOW THEY'VE CHANGED: They look like rock stars.
From the fur-trimmed jackets to the bedazzled denim, 'NSYNC is known for bling-blinging, especially on awards nights. Just like the fame, their new look is something they had to get used to. "I look back at some of our old photos and I think, Why did we do that?" says Lance. "The clothes and hairstyles we wore--yuck!" (What? You didn't like those bright track suits and bleached-blond dye jobs?) JC, a recovering jeans and T-shirt guy, admits he never thought he'd be wearing some of the extravagant stuff he does now. "But the more you're exposed to it, the more you don't mind it," he says. "I can't believe I've worn an $8,000 jacket."
HOW THEY'VE STAYED THE SAME: They haven't forgotten their roots.
They may talk the talk and walk the walk, but the guys are all from small towns and working-class families. Chris grew up in Clarion, PA, with his single mom, Beverly Eustice, who had to move the family a lot in order to find work. "I don't take anything for granted," says Chris, who spent time on welfare and was homeless for periods as a kid. "My family never had a car or a phone because we couldn't afford one," he says.
Trace Ayala, 20, a fashion designer who has been Justin's best friend since childhood , says Justin came from a fairly modest upbringing, too. "His family never could have afforded the things Justin has now when they were in Memphis." Though Trace says some people have accused Justin of changing since 'NSYNC exploded, he thinks Justin's the same kid who wanted to be the center of attention. "At school dances, he was the first person out on the dance floor [that hasn't changed], and he was always doing Michael Jackson impersonations or mimicking routines he had seen on Saturday Night Live," says Trace.
HOW THEY'VE CHANGED: Money's no object.
Multiple cars, houses, motorcycles--they've got it all. Justin maxes out at six cars and four motor-cycles. But you won't find any 24-karat-gold bathtubs or mini amusement parks in their pads. "VH1's Behind The Music has probably saved our lives," jokes Lance. "We saw how MC Hammer lived like a rock star for a few years, then went broke."
So they live, ahem, simple lives. "I have a normal house," says Joey, who only gets to spend a month out of every year there. "It's a three-bedroom with a pool and jacuzzi--nothing major except for a movie theater and a room decorated like Star Wars." Yeah, nothing major.
Chris prefers to spend his money on high-priced toys. His uncle Jason says Chris's motorcycle and cars are all for different occasions: "The Suzuki GSX-R600 racing bike is for blowing off steam. The convertible is for cruising with the top down. His roadster is his all-purpose vehicle, and the Lincoln Navigator is for entertaining people."
HOW THEY'VE STAYED THE SAME: Family and friends are more important than money.
"I love taking them out on the road with me and letting them enjoy the perks," says Lance. JC also comes from a tight-knit family. He's grown especially close to his younger sister, Heather, 23, and brother, Tyler, 19, as they've gotten older. Tyler even shares a house with JC in Orlando and goes on the road with him during time off from college, where he plans to study entertainment law.
JC's fondest childhood memory is playing hide-and-seek with his family. His ultimate place to stash: under the piles of laundry in the basement. JC loves when his mom cooks a big pot of chili and they just hang out and talk.
HOW THEY'VE CHANGED: It's hard to start--and keep--relationships when the world is watching.
Justin has managed to have a two-year-plus romance with Britney Spears, even though he's had to deal with reports of Britney's seeing everyone from Prince William to the half-naked guy in her steamy "Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know" video. "I think people know everything there is to know about me and Brit," says Justin. "And if they don't, they just make it up."
The other guys aren't with pop princesses, but their relationships are scrutinized, too. In the past, 'NSYNC girlfriends have had countledss websites dedicated to them (some very mean, peppered with a lot of four-letter words; others nice and supportive). Right now, Justin, JC, and Joey are the only ones who have solid relationships, so their girlfriends get the bulk of the attention. The tabloids have linked Lance to Beverley Mitchell, but they're sticking to their "just friends" story. And since Chris broke up with his longtime girlfriend, Danielle, last October, he's back on the market for the first time since he's been a pop icon.
"The hardest part is the initial meeting, because you never know what their motives are," explains Chris. "It may be because I'm famous, or because I have money. We'll start talking and they'll say, 'I was just making tacos last night with my silver spatula, because that's my favorite food and color.' Then I'm like, 'Uh-oh, here we go,' 'cause every magazine has printed that those are my favorites. As long as girls are honest, I don't care what they say."
But the biggest dating dilemma comes with having security guards follow their every move. Justin often hits clubs alone or with friends, but the bodyguards have to come along when he and Britney double-date with Trace and his girlfriend, Jenny (a singer in the girl group Innosense, which Britney almost joined before she scored her solo deal).
JC says he can go out and abouit with his girlfriends sans security in New York, L.A., or Orlando, because everyone is used to spotting him there. Chris, on the other hand, ahs had a few hot dates fizzle because he's had to bring a chaperone. "I took a girl to the movies and my bodyguard was sitting right behind us," he says. "It kind of ruined the intimacy of sipping out of the same cup."
HOW THEY'VE STAYED THE SAME: JC still likes older women.
His current girlfriend, Bobbie, is two years his senior, but he started the pattern way back in high school. "When he was a freshman, he dated a senior," says his mom, Karen. "I was like, What does she see in a freshman? But evidently she thought he was cute--as a couple more girls have since then."
HOW THEY'VE CHANGED: They have to put up with everyone dissing them.
"From the beginning, people said, 'Oh, they're fake.' But we were working our butts off," says Lance.
It's even harder for the guys' moms to handle the put-downs. Karen admits she hates reading that her son is lip-syncing, because she knows how hard JC has worked to perfect his vocals. Lance's mom agrees. "You just have to really get think-skinned," says Diane Bass. "I want to call the critics up and set them straight, but I never do."
Then there are the critics on the street. "For no reason, people will say, 'You're one of those bye, bye, bye boys,'" says Chris. "It's like you have to prove yourself every time you go out."
Justin's friend Trace has been there for a lot of hte not-so-friendly moments. "We'll go to clubs and all the guys will yell stuff at him sayng he's gay. But Justin always comes back with a funny one-liner like, 'Ask your girlfriend if I'm gay.' That usually gets them to back off," says Trace. He thinks Justin's more of a homebody since he became famoous, riding motorcycles around his neighborhood or fighting it out on PlayStation II. "Sometimes I wish he wasn't so big so it could be like it was when we were growing up," says Trace. "When he comes home from the road, he's too tired to do anything but sit."
HOW THEY'VE STAYED THE SAME: They focus on the positive.
Even though critics have typecast them as the Spice Boys, they haven't let that affect their morale. "I try not to read the reviews, because I don't want them to mess with my confidence," says JC, as he runs his fingers through his hair. "If I'm doing crap music, I'm doing crap music, but at least it's from the heart. People who don't take us seriously at this point just aren't going to. I'm not writing and performing to please them, but the people who actually enjoy our music."
Lance admits he can't help taking a peek at the critiques. "In the end, you have to know it's just their opinion. And even if they like you, it doesn't make you more talented or successful," he says.
So, has celebrity changed 'NSYNC? If they were jerks before they got famous, they'd be jerks now. But they're not. If you look past the glitzy clothes and enormous paychecks, these five guys are still the same hardworking boys-next-door who love telling dirty jokes and making fart noises. (If you don't get that last part, check out ym.com for the behind-the-scenes scoop on our 'NSYNC photo shoot.)