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'N Sync Steps Out

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That 'N-Sync'ing feeling is wholesome but not boring; one senses that these ambitious young pros are more interested in getting high on the Billboard charts than on anything else. They all wear bracelets with the letters WWJD on them, standing for What Would Jesus Do? (In comparison, New Kids on the Block were shock rockers who read Malcolm X, and one member even lectured a visiting journalist on how to get a blow job). They are notably well-behaved, amiable Everyguys who generally communicate in the standard gangsta-lite "Whazzup?" lingo so dominant among those who have grown up in the hip-hop era. Still, this is America, and even in malls there's room for some variety, so we get Joey's residual get-outta-here New Yawkisms and Lance's somewhat more refined, Southern-gentleman persona.

Their appeal is testified to in just about every letter being opened right now by Joey's parents in a nearby building – and about 1,500 new pieces of mail arrived today, including one from fourteen-year-old Leilani from Pomeroy, Washington, who tells the group that she likes volleyball, tennis, rollerblading and, of course, 'N Sync and that she hopes to be a toxicologist after she graduates from high school. The remarkable success story that has been built in Orlando – with a bit of old-school showbiz capitalism -has been put together by a fascinating, unlikely partnership between former New Kids road manager Johnny Wright; his wife, Donna Wright; and Louis Pearlman, a cousin of Art Garfunkel's and a colorful entrepreneur in his own right.

"Lou and I and Donna used to joke all the time that we were going to turn Orlando into the next Motown, but we were going to call it Snowtown – because we weren't doing it with R&B acts, we were doing it with pop acts," says Wright, the group's hands-on manager, taking a break in his impressive office, across the parking lot from the studio. "I guess you could say Backstreet Boys are the Temptations and 'N Sync are the Four Tops." If the goal was, as Wright says, to build "a mini-Motown," it's getting less mini by the minute.

This is all a long way from the days in the Eighties when Wright was a nineteen-year-old disc jockey on Cape Cod who played some of Maurice Starr's records. Starr called to tell Wright that he was running a talent show and that if Wright could come up with $1,500, he could get a piece of whoever won it. Wright couldn't come up with the dough, and the group that went on to win the contest was New Edition. So when Starr later called to see whether Wright would drive a van with his new group, called New Kids on the Block, around the Boston area, Wright jumped. "What was supposed to be three days ended up being four and a half years," he remembers. All the time he was road-managing New Kids, Wright was also studying the business from New Kids manager and former Motown executive Dick Scott. Then, in the post-Milli Vanilli era, New Kids fell apart amid allegations that they didn't, in fact, have the right stuff. "There was a witch hunt going on back then, and anybody who didn't write, produce and play instruments themselves was a target," Wright says. When New Kids took a break, Scott moved him over to work with the Europop act Snap!, with whom Wright learned the international market firsthand.

Tiring of the Boston snow, Wright headed to Orlando with Donna in the early Nineties. They kept hearing about Backstreet Boys, a five-member boy group in the New Kids tradition but having been there, done that, Wright wasn't interested. Fortunately, Donna – with whom Wright had run a teen-oriented nightclub on Cape Cod encouraged him to be more open-minded. She went to meet with Louis Pearlman, who had founded the group, and persuaded Johnny to check it out.

Louis Pearlman – who likes to refer to himself as Big Poppa around his acts – grew up listening to a cappella music. He picked up guitar at age eight and eventually played in his own horny rock-soul band, which got as far as opening for Donna Summer and Kool and the Gang, before giving up music to pursue his education. He attended Queens College (Jerry Seinfeld was a classmate), got an MBA, then started law school. Borrowing seed money from his uncle – Cousin Art's dad – Pearlman went into business in aviation, his second love. He began leasing used planes and before long was chartering luxury jets to the likes of Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson. His empire expanded when he got into the airship-advertising business – i.e., blimps. More recently, Pearlman became a restaurateur and the owner of that famous all-male flesh factory, Chippendales.

Still, Pearlman wasn't satisfied with only the edges of show-business profits. Opportunity knocked when the New Kids rented one of his planes. "I said to my cousin, 'How can they afford an airplane, these kids?'" Pearlman recalls. Garfunkel gave his cousin a sense of how much money the Kids were making. "I was on the wrong side of the coin," Pearlman says. "Artie told me, 'You're in business; you like music. You should do something like that.' So as a weekend goof we decided to do a little audition, and one thing led to another."

That was 1992, and that weekend goof eventually led to the formation of Backstreet Boys, a project that Pearlman says he spent nearly $3 million on before dollar one came back. That, of course, was many, many dollars ago. Now everywhere one looks around these parts, there's something else he owns – the travel agency that books the bands, the media company that puts them online, the new $6 million studio where they record.

First came lots of rejection. "We had so many record companies slamming the door in our face," says Wright. "I decided, let's Send them over to Europe and see if we can build a story for them over there." This would become part of the formula that would also serve 'N Sync so well – use easy-to-crack international markets as testing waters and as a singing-dancing-promoting boot camp. Unlike in America, European markets never tire of boy and girl pop acts, as evidenced by the massive success of Take That, the Spice Girls and others. Wright was confident that his American teens would stand out, since "a lot of these groups like that weren't singing, and we were taking a group that could really sing."

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