Two weeks later, on a hot Monday in Los Angeles, 'N Sync are on a back lot at Sony Studios, waiting to shoot the video for "Pop." They're sprawled out around a plain rectangular table, each man doing his own thing. Justin, 20, the Southern boy with a bunch of black in him, is with the black bodyguards, wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, watching Spike Lee's concert film The Original Kings of Comedy on a portable DVD player. Lance, 22 – the supernice, humble, patient guy who's so pretty he almost looks like a girl, and who never, ever stops smiling – is playing backgammon for the first time with a buddy. JC, 24 – the shy, pensive one – is quietly observing the game with his beautiful green-eyed girlfriend, Bobbie Thomas, leaning on his shoulder. JC is a few notches below mellow offstage. He's the one with the greatest distance between his onstage and offstage personae, the one most likely to meander right past you so silently you wouldn't even notice him. (He's also a Picasso fan, which is interesting because his strong, squared-off nose seems a touch too large for his face, as if he's a Picasso figure.) Chris, 29 – the very bowlegged, sarcastic, irreverent jokester – is taking in the scene with a Handycam. Chris is a real football-, hockey-, drinking- and motor-cycle-loving guy's guy. "I'm like a bunch of college guys got together and said, 'Let's make a dude, a crazy dude,'" he says. "And they made me." Staring into the viewfinder of his Handycam, Chris spies a shapely dancer who's showing off the zipper running horizontally across her derriere. "You know," Chris says, "if you fart, you can just open that up, and the gaseous fumes can fly out." Everyone laughs, especially Joey, 24, seated inches away from Chris, with a shapely dancer at each shoulder as if he were a young Hugh Hefner. He's a relaxed guy at ease with himself, but also a giant wild boy with a rambunctious electricity bubbling constantly beneath his skin, as if he's about to make a party break out anytime, anywhere. The dancer with the zippered ass opens the zipper to reveal a thin vision of her ass cleavage. Joey's eyes grow large. "She could sit on my lap anytime!" he says.
The others focus on Joey. "You know he's feeling better," Justin says.
"He got all those girls around him," JC says. "He don't feel nothing."
They're happy just to see him happy. Two days ago in New Orleans, the guys suffered what may have been the scariest moment of their career when, during a rehearsal, a platform under the stage released at the wrong time and sent 300 pounds of pressure springing up at Joey. "As I picked my feet up," Joey says, "the whole thing releases, and the weight shot up and caught my knee and my calf between the stage and the platform. It was like, wham! I was trapped for a split second." Lance was the first to reach him. He asked if his leg was broken, and Joey said, "I don't think so, but it's burning." Lance lifted up his pant leg. "There was a hole," he says. "You could see the bone, you could see everything. So we applied pressure on it, and the fat was coming out, and it was not good. He can take pain good, but he was in pain. Oh, he screamed. It looked like a bullet went through his leg."
"He ended up going to the hospital," JC says, "and they cut a piece of his leg out and had to rinse the metal out because his leg was caught between two pieces of metal. I don't know how it didn't break. He's a tough kid."
"The good thing," Lance says matter-of-factly, "is he didn't go underneath the stage, because it would've lifted and, like, chopped his head off. He would've been dead. Oh, yeah. It would've decapitated him totally."
All this has made the group suddenly nervous about their show. "This is the most dangerous stage ever for a tour," Lance says. "All the crew's wearing hard hats. There's so much flying, so much pyro. It's dangerous, and there's stairs [that come down from] the middle of the big [video] screen, and they've broken every time we got on them. It's pretty scary. I wasn't nervous till he got hurt. Now I am."
Joey limped slowly into work today with the help of a black cane, happy to show off his big round knee and the bruises and the four staples barely holding together an inch-long cut on the inside of his right calf. (These aren't Joey's first staples. "I got staples in my head 'cause I got hit with a sword when I was doin' a play," he says. "I also got stitches in my legs, my hands, my head.") He's got a Superman-emblem earring in his right ear, and today it's well earned.
In a dressing room, as Joey trims his goatee, JC leans against the wall, watching him. "I was so bummed yesterday without you," JC says. "It was so eerie. Chris was like, 'I don't wanna [shoot the video].' But we had to do it."
"I had so much time to rest it was weird," Joey says.
"Messed with your head?"
"If didn't jump, it woulda been OK. But if I walked out . . . "
"You woulda been dead."
"Right. I keep thinkin' about it over and over."
"You're so lucky."
"Lucky I got fat legs."
Lance says, "He's crippled for a while. We have six more rehearsals, and he'll never be able to do those." But just a few weeks later, Joey is onstage dancing. "He's in pain," JC says in New York, a day after the tour's New Jersey stop. "But Joey's got great showmanship. He knows how to cover his steps 'cause he's been onstage longer than any of us." Joey uses a little brace to help him and is pushing off on his left leg at times when the other guys are pushing off on their right. He's in pain during the show and the next day, too, but the show must go on.
This is the 'N Sync work ethic: 'N Sync get onstage on time every night, do their job with a smile. They offer a very safe star-fan relationship. Their music and videos are free of obscenity, their public personae are free of profanity. You get the sense that they'll never be arrested for anything. "If some twelve-year-old sees on the news that I got arrested for cocaine, that affects a lot of people," Lance says. "I remember when I was ten and I caught my sister drinking. It was so devastating to me." Now that Lance is of age, he prefers Jack and Coke but often volunteers to be the designated driver. "I can have water and feel like I'm getting drunk," he says.
Their wholesomeness, professionalism and origin as a puppetlike boy band lead many people to conclude that their personalities are like their image – that is, wack. An extra on the set of the "Pop" video told a friend, "I love their songs, but they themselves are retarded." Truth is, they're a little more complex than "retarded" suggests, even if they don't always show it in public. "I've gone to a Kid Rock show, and I've seen some of the crazy stuff," Joey says. "Our demographic pulls in a lot of younger kids and their moms. You know how boring it is backstage? We don't party backstage. We're never drinkin' before the show. We just warm up our voices and hang out."
"Our show doesn't allow us to do booze or anything like that," JC says, "because we wouldn't be able to execute it physically. So that's a bonus for us that we can't get mixed up in that junk." They prepare like pro athletes, restricting their backstage area to just group members an hour before showtime for vocal rehearsals and mental prep. After the show they act like pro athletes, too. "Before the band even hits the last note, we've already gone to the bus," Joey says. "Then I'll go to clubs, and that's where the crazy part is." (In New York, the China Club seems to be a group favorite, but there's always Mug Shots on First Avenue. "It's the coolest dive bar in New York," Lance says. "It's very small. One little bar, a pool table and the coolest people. They let me bartend. I'll bring my friends from Mississippi, and there'll be, like, fifty of us in there, and we'll just take over the place and be there till, like, six in the morning just having the best time.")
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