Louis J. Pearlman, the onetime dirigible magnate who went on to found two of the most successful pop acts of all time—Backstreet Boys and their biggest rival, *NSYNC, how's that for a monopoly?—died in prison on Friday of undisclosed causes. He was only 62, which is hard to believe; like Angela Lansbury, he always projected a carefully crafted image that was far older than his years.
I have conflicted memories of the man who liked people to call him “Big Poppa,” having met and worked with him often in the late '90s and early '00s. I have too many anecdotes for a blog post, but the following form the guts of my take on the man who really, really enjoyed making the bands.
In 1998, I was the young founder of the country's first all-color, all-glossy teen-entertainment magazine, Popstar!, which was published by a seedy porn outfit called Mavety Media. It was—to put it mildly—a huge challenge for me to create, with the help of a talented designer and just one assistant editor, a 100-plus-page national magazine aimed at teen and tween girls out of the offices of a company that was also producing titles like Juggs and Playguy, the latter of which looked like a teen magazine if all the boys were naked. But it was a joy, too, not only envisioning and directing the execution of something that would find its way into hundreds of thousands of young people's lives each month, but doing it without the backing of a Hearst or a Primedia or even a Sterling/Macfadden. Instead, I had to work with a Sydney Greenstreet-like former Sunday school teacher who enjoyed telling stories of trips to Asia involving girls being lowered onto his manhood, and who started the first gay-porn mag out of the trunk of his car, but who craved legitimacy and was using me, in part, to get some.
I had no idea what I was doing. Any gay man who figures he knows what little girls like because we're in touch with our own inner little girl is bound to fail. My earliest work on my teen mag is rather beefcake-heavy, but I eventually discovered my readers preferred boycake. One person who knew that secret from day one was Lou Pearlman, who was fond of saying things like, “As long as God's making little boys, He'll be making little girls, and they'll love each other.” (And he would be right there collecting a tariff on that love.)
Even if I was not a natural-born little-girl whisperer, I was nothing if not an open-minded researcher. I was soon able to figure out which acts my readers wanted and locate their handlers. Getting them to bother sending materials to a start-up was another thing entirely. Bubblegum-pop machine Jive Records couldn't be bothered with me. I tended to do much better when I went directly to the parents, or to the managers, like Lou.
I got Lou's info and sent him a letter, explaining that I had launched a magazine, showing him the coverage I'd given his acts, and asking him to help make sure we received attention from the correct publicists. He called me up, and I can still hear his friendly voice. As lethargic as he looked, a man who was arguably eating at least some of his desires, Lou was a very direct and personable speaker. He praised my magazine and pledged to help me out. In truth, he knew a good thing when he saw it—I was giving him unparalleled coverage, including lavishing attention on his as-yet-unbroken acts, so it was not too hard for him to realize he should make sure images and interviews flowed in my direction.
Like my porn boss, he was using me for legitimacy.