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Justin Timberlake, The Bachelor

Rolling Stone's 2003 cover story: before he was engaged to Jessica Biel, he was pop's Mr. Heartbreak

January 23, 2003
justin timberlake rs914
Justin Timberlake on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Herb Ritts

A month to the day after the release of his solo album, Justified, which has sold more than 1 million copies, and ten days after the debut of his controversial ex-girl-friend-slamming "Cry Me a River" video, Justin Timberlake rolls himself out of bed inside the house where he grew up, near Memphis; hobbles downstairs in his shorts, yawning and bleary-eyed; greets his mom, Lynn Harless, who has been busy cleaning; greets the family dogs, Bearlie and Bella, who have been busy yapping; looks outside at the woods in his backyard and says, "Did I hear somebody say something about food?"

He's been home for three weeks, recuperating from a broken foot that forced him to cancel all Justified promo activities. Last night he went to an Aerosmith concert in town. A few days before that, he went out on a date with a local girl, an astounding thing for him. But, for the most part, he's just been vegging on the couch in the living room, playing video games (Halo, usually), expanding his stomach and letting his mom take a mom's good care of him.

"Here's what I want," he says at last.

"A Philly cheese-steak sandwich," she says, already knowing.

"Yeah. And a salad. And regular fries."

Timberlake bends down to mess with the dogs.

"The doggies are so glad to have him home," Harless says fondly. "They miss him. Actually, this is the longest time he's been home since he left, when he was fifteen."

Easing himself around the couch, Timberlake takes a seat and says that he's feeling pretty good and relaxed, with his album now out and its first two singles, "Like I Love You" and "Cry Me a River," mixing it up on the charts. Recorded with hip-hop and R&B kingmakers the Neptunes and Timbaland, Justified is a collection of loose and swinging dance-floor funk. At Timberlake's insistence, much of it was cut live in the studio, and its confident sound – a combination of Seventies atmosphere and '02 know-how, and about as far away from 'NSync's kiddie pop as you can get – confirms his sharp musical instincts.

"You know what?" he says. "I turned on TRL the other day, and I'm the old guy now. Avril Lavigne and B2K, they're the new little faces of teen pop, as much as they'd tell you to fuck off if you told them that. As for me, I'm somewhere in the middle, starting from zero, rebuilding my whole base. This year has been all about change. Big change. I ended a four-year relationship. I bought a house in L.A. I embarked on a solo career. And, on top of that, I did it all in front of the world, without losing my head. And now, for the past three weeks, I've been here, away from the world. It's been really good."

Of course, it hasn't been all good. His performance at the MTV Video Music Awards received a lot of flak, because he hit the stage dressed like Michael Jackson – gloves, cocked hat – and danced a lot like him, too. More recently, on a New York radio station, he came out and said he'd gone down on Britney Spears during their time together, a crass admission that led to much negative attention. Then there were all the tabloid reports surrounding his alleged romantic exploits with Janet Jackson, Christina Aguilera and Alyssa Milano. And now there's that new flap over the "Cry Me a River" video.

Just for a second, Timberlake thinks about sliding the video into the VCR. It's a peculiarly unsettling four minutes and forty-eight seconds of psychodrama, about a guy who gets even with his cheating girlfriend – a Britney-look-alike girlfriend – by making it with another woman, taping it and leaving the tape for the girlfriend to see. The video is full of Britney imagery – it's got her trademark newsboy cap, Porsche Boxster and sunglasses, and a fairy figurine similar to the one tattooed on her back. But then Timberlake decides that maybe now is not the right time to play the thing. Instead, he starts talking about Spears and about how, early on, he felt blamed for the breakup, when it wasn't his fault at all, and before long he's moodily saying, "I think I still have a lot of feelings, though I don't particularly know what they are."

The Timberlake home is located in an estate-type subdivision twenty miles outside Memphis. It's brick, of a goodly but not ostentatious size, and has a Tudor feel to it, with a neatly manicured front greensward. Inside, Harless has done the place up with statues on tables, comfy couches and a few framed photographs of her son, which he turns face down when she isn't looking and she turns face up when he isn't looking. Upstairs on a balcony is Timberlake's full-size Revenge From Mars pinball machine. Hogging space next to the landing is his gigantic suitcase, which he has yet to unpack. In the living room, two TV sets face each other, with two back-to-back easy chairs situated between them; this is where Timberlake and his lifelong best friend, Trace Ayala, play Halo on the Xbox they bought at the local Best Buy.

Timberlake's parents divorced when he was two; two years later, his mom, now forty-one, got remarried, to Paul Harless, a local banker, and together they raised what to them seemed like a very quiet child. "He always walked around with his head down, so you never saw anything but the top of his head," says Lynn, a trim, attractive woman. She remembers her son as a "perfectionist [who] couldn't stand anything on his shoes or his hands." The two were, and are, exceptionally close. She came up with the name 'NSync, and ever since his Mickey Mouse Club days, when it all got started, she's been his co-manager. Lovingly enough, Timberlake has a tattoo on his back of an angel holding a banner that bears his mom's initials.

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