AJ MCLEAN, WHO IS ONE-FIFTH OF the Backstreet Boys teen-pop supergroup and the one with both the most tattoos and the most rakishly cut sideburns, is sitting inside his hotel room recalling a warning recently passed on to him by management. “What management said is, ‘Watch out for this certain girl who is obsessed with you and will not be happy unless she pulls a Romeo and Juliet and kills you, then kills herself,’ and I’m like, ‘Jesus, now I gotta go onstage after you tell me that? Just great.’ “He pauses, shuffles his hands through the pile of fast-food containers in front of him, finds his pack of cigarettes and lights one up. Exhaling, he says, “I mean, I’m singing pop music. I don’t want to worry about some psycho girl. What do you do? Or, what can you do? You can’t do shit. You’re stuck. So you live in a bubble.”
Today, the bubble has expanded to take over much of the thirty-seventh floor of Le Parker Meridien hotel, in Manhattan, not far from the sunflooded greens of Central Park. Inside it are the five boys – besides AJ, there’s Kevin Richardson, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell and Nick Carter – plus their five bodyguards, three stylists, a hair groomer, a PR lady, a manager-type lady, a girlfriend (AJ’s, named Amanda) and a few others. They’ve been in New York for a week so far. They don’t go anywhere without their bodyguards. If they do, strange, disquieting things happen. Once, at a mall back in Orlando, where the group got its start, AJ allowed a beautiful female fan to cozy up next to him for a photograph. Suddenly, she started quaking, like she was having a grand mal seizure. When she calmed down, AJ said, “If you don’t mind my asking, what the hell happened to you?” The girl said, “I just had an orgasm.” AJ said, “Well, OK, now…” And then he got the heck out of there.
So, they spend most of their time looking at the world from the thirty-seventh floor, living out of suitcases, surrounded by half-eaten McDonald’s cheeseburgers and Big Bertha golf clubs that don’t get swung often enough. At the moment, they are awaiting the release of Black and Blue, their third record. In the balance hangs the future of boy bands everywhere. Should it flop, word will spread that such groups are on the way out. Should it sell, then long live not only the boys but all the other teen acts currently trying to make it, as well as already successful acts like 98 Degrees and ‘N Sync.
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Of course, in some ways, the Backstreet Boys wouldn’t mind if ‘N Sync dropped out of sight. The boys were the first of the new crop of boy bands, their first two U.S. releases, Backstreet Boys and Millennium, huge multiplatinum hits, altogether selling some 60 million copies. Then, earlier this year, along came ‘N Sync’s No Strings Attached album, which sold 2.41 million copies its first week out, breaking the record held until then by the boys. Now the boys have a chance to win back the honor. And it looks like they might: Record stores have pre-ordered 5 million copies of Black and Blue, and industry observers are making deeply positive predictions. Says Tom Calderone, an MTV senior vice president, “The anticipation is there.” Says Louise Barile, editor of teen fan-mag Tiger Beat, “We used to think boy bands had a twoyear life cycle, but I think the Backstreet Boys are going to keep on going.” And yet they worry. They worry that the album will fizzle, that their fan base has dried up or been swiped by their competitors, that when they go to MTV to drop off the video for the new album’s first single, “Shape of My Heart,” only a few fans will show up to witness the well-publicized event. “We’ve been out of the mix for so long,” says Nick Carter, tremulously, “maybe it’ll only be fifteen people.” Frankly, that’s one of the things about the Backstreet Boys: They can be pretty big worriers, about their legs being too skinny, about their stomachs getting too big, about being singled out by Kevin as the group’s most enthusiastic masturbator. But that’s the way it is inside the Backstreet Boys’ bubble.
FOR THE MOST PART, OF COURSE, IT’S BEEN a beautiful if not altogether easy glissando of a ride to the top. The boys were living in Orlando in the early 1990s, all sons of the middle class (or lower), eager to make it as entertainers in one of the nearby theme parks or in any other similar theatrical enterprise. They meet middle-aged aviation tycoon and major-league dreamer Louis Pearlman, who thinks that with his backing the lads can become the new New Kids on the Block. Starting in 1993, he drops about $3 million on their careers. In return, they give him their lives. They play shopping malls, Sea World and high schools nationwide. They get a contract with Jive Records. They can’t make any headway in grunge-loving America, so they go to Europe. The youngest back then is Nick, 13; the oldest is Kevin, 20. They conquer some of Europe. They conquer more of Europe. They conquer Europe again. They are moneymaking gods in Europe. Eventually, in mid-1997, they release “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” in the U.S. It’s a smash. They take heat for probably being little more than talentless, soulless lip-syncers.
They also wake up one day and realize that, for all their efforts and all their touring, they each have less than $100,000 in the bank. Plus, behind their backs, Pearlman has formed another all-boy band, ‘N Sync. Feeling betrayed, Brian – a regular churchgoer who knows a thing or two about right and wrong – calls in lawyers. Suits are filed, against Pearlman and two other managers Pearlman has hired. The Millennium album is being recorded. The boys are about to go on tour. The suit, rancor-filled and corrosive, threatens to screw this all up by bogging down the boys in a legal ruckus. So they decide to settle. The settlement gives Pearlman one-sixth of everything the boys make. The boys think this is grotesquely unfair. “It’s ridiculous,” says Brian. “He’s doing no work.” But the show must go on. And anyway, the money galls them less than the presence of ‘N Sync as chart-busting rivals. “It’s not ‘N Sync itself but where ‘N Sync comes from that digs me, digs me, digs me – and gets me, still and to this day,” says Kevin one afternoon, morosely. “Mr. Pearlman was always speaking loyalty and preaching loyalty, saying, ‘I love you guys; you’re like my sons.’ And I’d lost my father to cancer. So I looked at Lou like a father figure. But I was naive, and he’s a liar. We’ll always remember him for helping us get started. But we’ll also remember him for screwing us blind and building another group behind our backs.”
That’s one reason why the title of the new album is Black and Blue, for the way Pearlman bruised and hurt them. That’s also why, in the official Backstreet Boys Press-kit bio, there is no mention of Pearlman. It’s as if he never did anything for the group. He has been expunged. “We’re on to bigger and better things,” says Brian. “And we’re better men for it.”
INSIDE THE BUBBLE, UP ON THE THIRTY-seventh floor, in a room cluttered with the anonymous but functional belongings of the seasoned, rootless traveler, and with the shades drawn on both the light and the darkness of the outside world, AJ McLean, 22, is saying, “Nick and Kevin probably have the quickest tempers, but I probably have the worst temper. I just go off. Like when I broke up with my exgirlfriend, and our song came on the radio, I just grabbed a baseball bat and beat the crap out of the damn machine. When I get stressed out, I get really violent toward myself and just say, ‘Screw the group! To hell with everything!’ There have been times when I wake up like that and think I don’t want to do this anymore. But then I sit back and think further, and then I’m like, I do want it. I live for it. These guys are my best friends. They been there for me, and I’ve been there for them.”
He lights a cigarette and shrugs. “Anyway,” he goes on, “I’ve been in this business for twenty years. I don’t know anything else. I don’t want to know anything else. I live, eat, sleep, breathe, shit – whatever – this business. This is my life.”
Part of his life today also revolves around his girlfriend, Amanda, who used to be part of the girl group Innosense and is sleeping in the next room, sheets tucked up around her neck. They have been together for two and a half years. She’s truly gorgeous. In AJ’s opinion, she looks like him “with tits” or “exactly like Elizabeth Hurley.” Which means, of course, that AJ himself must look exactly like Elizabeth Hurley without tits. To a blind man, maybe. Actually, he’s kind of rougher- and tougher-looking than Elizabeth Hurley (though his legs are skinnier, much to his dismay). He’s got a gravelly smoker’s voice. He favors black watch caps pulled down snugly over his wiry, red-tinted hair; likes to cuss; and doesn’t want his fans to think that just because he smokes, it’s cool to smoke (he plans to quit before the next Backstreet Boys tour begins early next year). He’s also friendly and forthright. You want to know how old he was when he lost his virginity? He was sixteen. Anything you want to talk about, he’s willing to talk about, too.
“Sure, there’s temptation on the road,” he says. “I’m gonna look, but you don’t want to grab, because it’s going to be on your conscience the rest of your life. Anyway, Amanda and I, our relationship, especially physically, is beautiful. I mean, we’re not physical in a sexual way every day and every night. Kissing to me is more sensual and more sexual and more intimate than bing-ba-da-boom, I’m done. That’s just retarded, man.
“It’s really, really terrible how this world revolves around sex,” he continues. “I don’t profess to be a pastor. I go to strip clubs every so often. I’m a guy. I do the normal guy shit. But people aren’t focusing on the bigger, better issues, such as love, which is the kissing and the holding and the walking with hands together and the arms around each other – the more romantic things.”
The things that seem to be at the heart of all their records? He smiles broadly. “Exactly!”
The product of a broken home, AJ moved with his mom from Kissimmee, Florida, to Orlando when he was in the seventh grade, to further his already strong interest in performing. Pretty soon, he was cast in a Nickelodeon show, which led to roles in numerous musicals and plays, and, eventually, when he was fifteen, to the Backstreet Boys. Those years, especially in Europe, were difficult. Hewas lonely. He missed his mom. At times, he got pretty depressed. “The minibar at the hotel was paid for by the record company, and after the show, I would sit up there in my room,” he recalls. “I couldn’t go down to the bar; there were too many fans downstairs. I would just sit there and watch a movie and drink a shot of Jack or a beer, whatever.”
Since then, he’s figured out what he needs to do to keep himself happy. He needs to stay busy. After the end of the last tour, and on behalf of VHI’s Save the Music charity, he went on the road solo, called himself Johnny No Name and had a ball belting out tunes by Stone Temple Pilots and Rage Against the Machine, punctuating his set with the kind of pelvic thrusts and old-fashioned floor humping that would make the typical Backstreet Boys fan blush.
He’s also bought himself a 10,000-square-foot house near Orlando, where he can race around in one of his two Sea-Doo jet skis, the fastest money can buy. He’s got Vegas and Jack Daniels, a couple of fourpound Yorkies, to cuddle when he’s not cuddling Amanda. He recently picked up a fancy CL 600 Mercedes, with a fat V12 engine, and tinted windows that just happen to be illegal in Florida. “Sure, the windows are illegal,” AJ explains breezily, “but if I get stopped, I say, ‘Look, this is who I am; if you still want to give me the ticket, that’s fine, but I’m doing this for my own protection.’ It’s a pretty dangerous business I’m in, when you think about it.”
But even with all this stuff to occupy his mind, he still loses it sometimes. This last happened a month ago, while he was sitting in a car outside an Orlando pool hall. He started crying, and he couldn’t stop. “I just started freaking out, thinking about my relationship with Amanda, and is that going to last when I go on the road, and is my mom going to be OK and all this other stuff. I mean, issues engulfed me. And I just sat there for about thirty minutes and cried and yelled and swore at the world. And then felt better.”
Slurping on a soda, he says, “Amanda is a big help. She can actually speak in tongues. I caught her doing it once. It’s fascinating. We’re all strong believers in God, but she’s helped me get closer to Him. When I’m pulling my hair out, she’ll say, ‘Sweetheart, let’s sit down and pray, and everything will be fine.'”
So, there’s AJ. Clearly, he’s got some things going on. He seems OK, though. Really, he does. Except that he soon throws all such judgments into doubt by confessing that he’s a huge fan of The Golden Girls TV show, featuring the often-randy high jinks of those withered old bats.
IF ANY BACKSTREET BOY HAS DERIVED strength from God these days, however, it’s Brian Littrell, 25. With his choirboy face and crinkly smiling eyes, the boy just oozes probity and moral strength. And it’s true. For instance, let’s say you wanted him to pose for a photograph with the rest of the boys, surrounded by nearly naked women. He wouldn’t do it, even if it would be a tasteful photograph. Wouldn’t do it even if the rest of the boys begged him.
“I know the body is a work of art,” he says, “but I’d rather not open myself up to criticism. I understand we’re a group, and we normally stand together, but there are going to be cases where I just can’t disrespect myself and stoop to that level.”
In a sense, then, Brian is the prig of the band, the guy who doesn’t go clubbing and who explains, “I’d rather be watching ESPN in my hotel room. And I was that way even before I got married.”
Oh, well, what can you do? But the good thing is, he’s not smug about his goodness, nor does he give the other guys grief about their (relative) badness. It’s just the way he was brought up. From the time he could walk he attended a Baptist church back in Lexington, Kentucky, where he sang in the choir. Actually, in those days, he had a lot to thank God for. When he was five, he developed a staph infection from which doctors said he wouldn’t recover. Then came a bacterial infection; if he survived that, doctors said, it would be as a vegetable. He beat both illnesses, as well as openheart surgery in 1998 that took care of a cardiac defect, and so he often says, quite rightly, “I tell you, I am a walking miracle!”
Today, though, on the thirty-seventh floor, he is ghostly pale and suffering from a bad early-fall cold. He’s sniffling, and his smooth Southern twang is somewhat muffled by nasal crosscurrents. Nonetheless, he seems to enjoy recounting again the now nearly mythic moment, on April 19th, 1993, two weeks shy of the end of his junior year in high school, when he was pulled out of history class to take a call from his cousin in Orlando. Kevin said, “Why don’t you come and, you know, sing with these guys down here? I’m in this group and, you know, we’re going to make records and be famous.” And Brian said, “OK.” Thus were his plans to one day attend Cincinnati Bible College scotched and an entirely different future assured.
He shakes his head, still seeming somewhat amazed by the serendipity of it all, and goes on to give a rather dreamy-sweet declaration of just what it is that he likes best about being a Backstreet Boy. “We’re blessing people’s lives with a song. We didn’t intend on doing that, but it happened. I think it just comes with the quality music and the quality show.”
Because of his brushes with death, he says he tries not to get wound up about anything anymore. It’s better to take it easy. He’s got a wife to think of (actress Leighanne Wallace, whom he married last September). So even if the new album stiffs, well, he can handle that, too: “I went from singing in front of twenty people in a church to singing before 70,000 people at the Georgia Dome. If that’s as big as it gets, and that’s it, then I’ve touched people’s lives and maybe it makes a difference. That’s the way I look at it.”
Isn’t there anything wrong with this fellow? Doesn’t he have any bad habits, besides taking four sugars with his coffee and biting his fingernails, which doctors have told him he must stop lest new germs find their way into his body? Doesn’t he harbor some secret, life-in-the-bubble anger, like AJ, the stereo-system killer? He thinks about this for a moment. He can’t come up with anything. He doesn’t even swear a lot, pretty much confining himself to such words as appear in the Bible. “I’ll say damn and hell and – is shit in the Bible? I don’t know if shit‘s in the Bible. No,” he says at last. “So, it’s just damn and hell and ass.”
A while later, though, after Brian joins the rest of the guys for lunch, another possible truth emerges. They’re talking about a subject near and dear to many young men. Farts. Kevin has singled out Nick as the group’s most frequent farter.
“Like all human beings,” says Kevin, “we’re pretty nasty sometimes, but Nick’s consistently funky.”
Nick’s eyes bulge. “Oh, come on!” he shouts.
“You even pull your cheeks apart,” says Brian. “You lean over to do it, man! One time in Europe, we were onstage, and Nick let one go, and it was like a green film. I was singing, ‘I’ll never break your – argggg!'”
“Hey, man, we all fart,” chimes in Howie, merrily. “We’re men. We do it loud and proud!”
“But Nick does it especially when we’re eating,” complains Brian. “Splat! I’m like, ‘Doggone, can’t you wait until we’re done?'”
“Kevin always blames me,” moans Nick. “I’m relaxing, everything’s nice and calm on the waterfront, and Kevin’s like, ‘Nick, did you fart?’ And then Brian’s always like, ‘Dude, you shit?’ And I’m like, ‘Man, why do I always have to be the one that farted?'”
“All right,” says Kevin, taking charge. “Enough about the farting.”
But it’s too late. The cat’s out of the bag. Seems that shit is in the Bible after all. Who knew?
KEVIN RICHARDSON, 28, IS BROODING about Lou Pearlman again and the recent Pearlman-produced TV series Making the Band, about the creation of a boy band, in which Pearlman presents himself as quite the musical genius. “When I saw that,” says Kevin, “I about puked. I mean, the average person sitting there watching that show is probably like, ‘So this is how the Backstreet Boys came to be.’ No, it’s not. All he did was give us money to go into the studio and work on our craft, which we are thankful for. But he’s making himself to be the guy twisting the knobs, and it’s just not so.”
His leg is in a brace because he recently crashed his dirt bike and had to undergo knee surgery. He shakes his head, disgusted, and hobbles over to a table to pour himself some juice. Returning, he swings the leg onto the couch and begins talking about what it was like growing up in the wilds of the Daniel Boone National Forest in eastern Kentucky, on the grounds of the summer camp that his dad ran. It took him forty-five minutes to get to town, so he spent much of his time either tinkering with radios or helping his father around the camp. He had plans to become a jet-fighter pilot after high school but, at his parents’ suggestion, ended up moving to Orlando. Then, in early 1991, his mom called to tell him that his father had cancer. “Honey, you may want to come home,” she said.
Recalling this, Kevin takes a deep breath and starts to cry softly, his head bent. When he finally looks up, his eyes are wet and red. “It’s OK,” he says. “I don’t mind talking about my dad.”
After his father’s death, he stayed in Kentucky for a year, then returned to Orlando, where he met Pearlman – he called him Big Poppa back then; he calls him Mr. Pearlman today – and started hanging out at Pearlman’s house while they all went about getting the group off the ground. In those days, of course, if Kevin had wanted to get married, Mr. Pearlman would have had a cow, just as he had a cow when he learned that Kevin had gotten his bellybutton pierced. In the post-Pearlman world, however, Kevin can do whatever he pleases, and six months ago it pleased him to get married to his girlfriend of eight years, Kristin Willits. They’ve since moved to Los Angeles, where Kristin is an actress and where one day, Kevin may try his hand at directing, unless they decide to have kids, in which case they’ll probably move back to Kentucky.
In many ways, Kevin has grown up to become the most grounded of the boys, but it took him awhile to get there. “In this business, it’s so fast and there’s so many parties. After a show, you’re wound up. You can either go to your room and flip channels or go out to a club and chase women and get laid. I’ve been with Kristin for years now, but we went through a period where we’d get in fights, and we called it quits for a while. And then I did the party scene. It was great for a little while, but then it was empty and lonely.”
Frowning, he says, “You’re going to think this sounds stupid, but I would feel bad if I had a one-night stand. I would feel guilty. Some women, it’s no big deal: ‘Hey, let’s go.’ But with others, I could see it in their eyes; when I look into their eyes, that they were – oh, I don’t know. It’s different for women, giving themselves. So I was feeling guilty.” He laughs. “Hey, I have some morals. What can I say?”
He also has to answer to older brother Tim, who is a minister in the Church of Christ. Sometimes on the phone, Tim will ask Kevin, “What does it gain a man to get the adoration of the whole world but to lose his soul?” Not much, Kevin says. Then Tim will want to know, “Are there any pelvic thrusts in your choreography for this tour?” Dance is sexual sometimes, Kevin tells him. And then Tim will ask Kevin to report on the condition of his soul. And what Kevin says is, “I feel that it’s in good shape.”
Like Brian, he grew up in a Baptist church, so he started off with strong religious feelings. Then, in high school, he joined a Pentecostal church, where members spoke in tongues. This was a confusing time. He wanted to speak in tongues, too; he’d go to the altar, get the hands laid on him, but the babble never arrived. He began to think the others were faking it, to prove how holy they were. He left that church but has been looking for answers ever since, most recently in a book about the teachings of the Dalai Lama. “It’s mostly dealing with his views on maintaining a general state of happiness,” he says. “It examines Western and Eastern Philosophies on things like depressions and staying happy.” Smiling gently, he adds, “Not that I’m depressed or anything.”
Kevin may be a little more meditative than the rest of the boys. But he’s the oldest, and sometimes it’s been up to him to keep the others in line, especially Nick, who can get petulant and surly. All of the guys have had a hand in helping the youngest Backstreet Boy get through his juvenile years, but none more than Kevin, and it has not always been easy. “
You name it, we’ve got into a fight over it,” he says. “I’ll try to give him advice, but I’m kind of blunt. It pisses him off, and he gets mad. He’s hit me in the face, right here in the cheekbone. He’s hit AJ, too. He’s a good guy, but he went through this swinging stage.” Just then, Kevin pauses, perhaps thinking back over the entire long, improbable swerve-and-tilt of events. “You know, a lot of people thought we’d be gone by now. How long it can go, I don’t know. But it really is an extraordinary situation we’re in.”
JUST HOW EXTRAORDINARY IT IS ONCE AGAIN becomes clear when the boys hop into limos and head to MTV to drop off the “Shape of My Heart” video. There aren’t fifteen girls waiting there but around 5,000, all whipped up and hissing things like, “We’re not friends when it comes to the Backstreet Boys,” and “God forbid one of these girls gets in my way,” and “I’d kill, kill, to get a picture.”
Up in the MTV building, the boys hang out, nosh from a spread and deliver the new video to Carson Daly on Total Request Live. At one point, Kevin sees David Boreanaz, star of the TV show Angel. Kevin reminds Boreanaz that they once appeared on Saturday Night Live together, and says, “Hey, man, I enjoy your work.” Boreanaz says, “Hey, man, good to see you.” And that’s all he says. A bit later, the boys pile back into their limos and flee the Times Square area. The place is positively argle-bargle with frantic, freaking-out, Backstreet Boys-loving teenage girls.
“Living la vida loca,” says Howie Dorough, 27, hunkering down in his limo. The girls are banging on his window with fists and elbows. They see what they want inside, and they want him now. “Go, go, go!” Howie’s bodyguard shouts at the limo driver. And off they speed, finally shedding a couple of the more wild-eyed, tenacious fans.
“Gee, I hope no one gets hurt,” Howie says, which only makes sense for him to say, because both inside the group and out, he’s known as Sweet D, just the nicest guy, the peacemaker, the soft one who is most easily hurt (and on whom Nick likes most to Pick). He’s got the mellowest eyes and the easiest smile. He’s also one of the single, available Backstreet Boys, though he’s not looking. “This year, I’ve decided that a relationship is not right for me. I’ve seen some of the other guys. They work so hard with their girl-friends. They gotta call them on the phone. ‘OK, I’m here in the hotel room. No, I’m not going anywhere else. ‘I’m like, I’m young. I have the chance of a lifetime here. I don’t want to look back and think that I never really enjoyed it because I had a girlfriend and felt trapped.”
So, he’s freewheeling these days and always up for an after-show bash or going to an awards show. Back in hometown Orlando, he’s even bought himself his own club, called Tabu, with a VIP area in it so he can go there anytime he wants and mingle with the crowd or not mingle, as he wishes. He’s involved in lots of other business stuff, too – real-estate ventures, mostly, as well as a company that plans to sell CDs out of vending machines in movie theaters – and also has put on numerous concerts to benefit the Caroline Dorough-Cochran Lupus Foundation, named for his sister, who died of the disease in 1998.
Because of all these involvements, he’s never seen a single episode of Friends or Seinfeld. Not long ago, he went to a hockey game, found his way into the dressing room afterward, walked out with some hockey player’s stick with the guy’s autograph on it and hadn’t hit the exit before other players were whispering, “Dude, I’ll give you 100 bucks for that stick,” which got him to thinking that maybe this Wayne Gretzky guy was someone whose name he ought to know. But that’s the way it goes when you live in the bubble. Howie’s perfectly happy there. It seems his biggest worry is that his tummy’s a little doughy. Even so, it has taken him awhile to get used to his particular role in the group.
Back at the hotel, up on the thirty-seventh, he’s sitting in the bathroom while a groomer works on his hair. For the past several weeks, he’s been wearing his black hair ironed flat, with lighter-colored extensions pinned in, though in a day or two, he will return to his natural curly look. As the group optimist, he says, “We haven’t reached our total height yet! We’ve still got a lot more to accomplish!” Then he says, “There’s been times when I’ve gotten upset because I don’t feel I’m being utilized as much. Like, they wouldn’t use me to sing as much, leadwise. I’d get really hurt. But I realize I need to take a step back. This is a team. And I’m a team player. If I’m not there, it’s not the Backstreet Boys. We’re five-part harmony, not four.”
And as a team player, far be it from Howie to reveal the name of the group’s most frequent masturbator. He’ll laugh and giggle about it, but his lips are most definitely sealed.
“OK, I rub one out every once in a while,” Kevin drawls, “but if one of us is a chronic masturbator, it’s Nick.”
All the boys are in the hotel, and with Nick Carter thus singled out, all hell breaks loose. When the riot’s over, Nick rolls his eyes and says, “Why does it have to be me? You know you all do it just as much as me.”
“Well,” says Kevin, “I’ll put on the pay-per-view every now and then and check it out.”
Suddenly, one of the other boys starts singing a song from the disco era. “We’re coming out,” goes the tune. “I want the world to know…”
And then Nick says, again,”Why does it have to be me?”
Kevin shrugs, as if to say that’s just the truth of the matter, just as it’s the truth that twenty-year-old Nick is the farter king, not to mention the sloppiest of the boys and the one with the smelliest feet and the one who, when he gets upset, is the most likely to start throwing his fists around, though not so much recently. Says AJ, “None of us will ever understand what goes through that boy’s head sometimes. He was twelve years old when this group started. He went to school in a hotel room. He never experienced homecoming, prom, football games, being on the football team; you know, your first kiss, hanging out with your boys, pulling the bra straps from the girls, whatever. The things that every kid goes through, he never went through. He never had a normal life. None of us did – but him, especially.”
Later, Nick leaves the hotel, signs some autographs, poses for pictures, and then he’s in a limo, looking out through tinted windows, his long frame spread across the seat. He’s a good-looking kid, with a flop of blond hair and a broad, appealing face. “Yeah, it’s true. I really haven’t been able to do the things that every normal kid gets to do,” he says. “I don’t regret it, because I love what I’m doing. But there’s another side of me that wishes I could have experienced those things,’ cause I guess they are a really important part of everybody’s life.”
He pulls his coat, a brown corduroy duster, closer around him. In the front seat, his bodyguard stares straight ahead. “It’s affected me to the point where I can’t look at things normal,” Nick continues. “It’s hard for me to get a grip on reality. When I’m in my room, it’s like you almost feel like a king. But I can’t go outside and do anything, you know? I tried the other day. It’s not that things happened. It’s just that in the back of your mind, you know that there’s always somebody watching you.” He pauses for a moment. “That guy right over there. He doesn’t have to worry about that. But I do. Sometimes I sit back and wonder what it would be like if it wasn’t like this.”
Like normal kids, of course, Nick’s got his hobbies: drawing, boating, scuba diving, shooting hoops and playing video games. And he’s had girlfriends. In fact, not long ago, he broke up with one, his live-in of the last year or so. (“Are you sure?” AJ’s girl Amanda said to Nick earlier today. “Because you just keep throwing her out and bringing her back.” Said Nick flatly, “It’s been two and a half weeks.”) But even so, he’s come to realize just how different he may be, having grown up in a bubble. “Like, I have other friends, but I can’t really call them friends like the guys are to me. We love each other a lot. I mean, every part of what I am, it’s a part of them. I’m a little bit of Howard, a little bit of AJ, a little bit of Brian and Kevin. You know what I’m saying?
“But another thing is, I’ve been in this business so much and seen so much stuff that it’s almost like my feelings are kind of numb. It takes a lot for me to cry. I don’t cry. You know what I’m saying? The things I’ve gone through, some of them are surreal, so things don’t seem real to me. My ex-girlfriend used to get really mad because I wouldn’t cry. I just have dried-up, dried-up tears, I guess you could say.” For a while, Nick is silent again. The limo ambles along into the early part of a Manhattan night. He’s got places to go. He will be getting there soon enough.