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I've known I was different ever since I was five years old. For one thing, I had what I guess you could call innocent crushes on boys.
I knew it was wrong; at least that's what I was taught by my family, my church, my friends, my whole world. That was the overwhelming message I kept on getting. How could I ever admit to what everyone else believed was such a bad, even biblically evil thing, especially to my parents and grandparents, who doted so much on me and made me feel like I was a little prince?
I understood in my heart it wasn't wrong to be gay, but I also knew instinctively that I had to play the game in order to live in the world I was born into.
In all honesty it didn't seem much of a problem to me when I was growing up in Mississippi. There were girls around. I even dated a few, but only because that's what everyone else did. I never thought about it, or felt funny doing it. As for dating guys, it never even entered my thinking that such a thing was possible.
At least not in Mississippi.
That's where I was born, in 1979: the heart of the Deep South. My parents liked the name Lance, so that's what they decided to call me. They'd had it picked out for their firstborn son even before they were married. If they had a boy, they'd agreed, he'd be James Lance Bass, after my dad, James Irvin Bass, Jr. My parents considered making me a III. Thank heavens they settled on Lance!
I was raised in the town of Ellisville, about seven minutes outside of Laurel. Despite my early sexual feelings, I had an extremely happy childhood. I loved my parents, Jim and Diane. I loved my sister, Stacy. And I loved singing in the church choir. My dad was a medical technologist in the Ellisville hospital. I more or less grew up in hospitals, which is why to this day things like having blood work done never freak me out.
We were a completely traditional Southern family. I was brought up a strict Baptist, in the steep shadow of the church where, as it happens, I sang for the very first time. As far back as I can remember, I loved to sing. No one in my family was ever in show business, but my mother's beautiful singing voice put me to sleep each night as a little boy. Even when I'd go off with my dad and grandfather on pheasant hunts in Texas, my mom would tape-record a lullaby so I'd be able to fall asleep in my sleeping bag.
My granddaddy's brother, Uncle Julius, lives near Cape Canaveral. When I was nine years old, my daddy and granddaddy took me to visit him, and that's when I saw my first live space launch. I'll never forget the sight of it! We were there with thousands of people, right near the gigantic countdown clock, the shuttle in the background. Everyone counted down together as the rumble started and the rockets ignited, and the whole thing started rising, shooting straight up into the sky. It was spectacular to think that there were people in there who were actually going into space! That was the day I decided I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.
It was something I talked about all the time. Finally, when I turned ten, my parents sent me away for a week one summer to Space Camp at Cape Canaveral. I was certain from then on that my future was to be involved with space. It was the sky, not the stage, that first captured my creative imagination with such an extraordinary display of wonder, probably because singing just came so naturally to me.
My mom taught sixth-grade math at the elementary school I went to, and she remembers that as a toddler I loved singing in our living room for anybody who came to visit. I used to work for hours making up little shows for my parents and their friends, then get all dressed up in costumes that I put together, sometimes performing with my sister.
When I was ten, Dad was transferred to the town of Clinton, in central Mississippi, so the entire family just picked up and moved everything we had from one house to another. Dad happened to know this family in Clinton that was moving to Ellisville, so we simply traded houses. I have to say, the move was both exciting and traumatic for me; I was happy moving to a new place but sad that I had to say good-bye to all of my friends. I knew I was going to especially miss my best friend and next-door neighbor, Brett. He and I had become close playing in the woods that surrounded Ellisville. To me Clinton was, by comparison, a major metropolis. I was a little scared, and I felt a touch of loneliness, a feeling I wouldn't fully understand, or accept, for years to come. Even back then I didn't know how to reach out with my real inner self. I was much better at holding myself back and pretending that things didn't bother me when they did. That was the way of life I had learned, to hold feelings in for the sake of...well, for the sake of what, I'm really not sure.
I started fifth grade in Clinton and made the adjustment to my new school fairly easily. Soon enough I had new pals and was enjoying my new life. In seventh grade, when I was twelve, I met a boy named Darren Dale. He quickly became one of my best friends. We did a lot of things together, like fishing and going to the movies, but one thing we really shared was a love of music. That was crucial to me, because music was the only way I had to truly express my feelings while still being able to keep them contained. Other people's songs became vehicles, free rides, in a way. I was only the messenger, or so I wanted people to believe, dressing up the words and music of someone else to make them sound all pretty and sweet. By making the music acceptable I was able to make myself acceptable as well, and for me that was extremely important. I could expose myself and keep myself hidden at the same time.
Both Darren and I sang in the local church choir, but I think Darren, in his way, took it much more seriously than I did. I used it as something of a disguise; he used it to bare his soul. Because of that, I guess, even though we both had pretty good voices, he was often the one chosen between the two of us to take on solos.
This one time there was a school music program that called for a quartet. Darren already belonged to it, and because I had a naturally deep singing voice, he urged me to try out. I made it and became its official bass singer, the first time I ever formally sang in a group. Our debut song was "Sixteen Candles," a pop tune that had been a big hit for a group called the Crests.
I discovered much to my surprise and delight that I had a really good time doing this kind of loose, undisciplined singing, as opposed to choir music, which I'd always found much more restrictive, if also protective. Now I felt free, wanting and able to move around like I was in one of those old fifties bands. I loved the feel of letting go, even this little bit, of letting the inside me out through the ringing harmonies of the quartet. This is really cool, I thought to myself, the way our voices are able to blend without instruments playing behind them.
My bass voice surprised a lot of people that night. I remember that after the show my mom and dad asked me where on earth that sound had come from. I didn't know then and I don't know now. For the moment singing would be my only liberation, that voice the only part of me no one had seen before allowed to take shape.
So I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. For the moment I was thrilled that I could please people in this new way. Now I wanted to sing every opportunity I got, in every school and church program that was open to me.
For the next several years music remained my only source of any kind of real freedom, mostly because it relieved me from the dull reality of ordinary everyday schoolwork. So much so that one day when I was thirteen, in the eighth grade, I remember coming home and saying to my dad, "I hope you won't be mad at me if I don't play baseball this year, but I want to try out for the Showstopper group."
He didn't seem to mind at all.
I was relieved at what I took to be his tacit understanding of my situation, at least as much as he could. I'd never been that interested in sports, I guess because I was always the smallest guy on any team I tried out for. Throughout middle school I was always the second shortest kid in my class. The other kids used to call me Half-Pint. It was only when I sang that I felt ten feet tall and was able to convince all the others of my stature. I could hit a note as well as the star quarterback could throw a football.
I naturally gravitated toward the singing crowd, and by this time all my close friends in Clinton were really good singers. The day my friend Darren suggested I try out for the Mississippi Showstoppers, a group he'd been part of already for a couple of years, was the day I decided I would never play team sports again.
The Showstoppers were privately sponsored by the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum and each member was paid, get this, a hundred dollars a year! We did tons of shows for that hundred dollars, the first money I ever made in show business. I sang a country song for my audition: "I Want to Be Loved Like That." I was so nervous that I was shaking in my fake country cowboy boots. I guess I was all right, because when I finished, right then and there Boyce Vandevere, the Showstoppers director, offered me a place in the show.
Showstoppers was a trip, literally and figuratively. What was so important was learning how to perform like a professional. Every season we came up with a completely new show, and during summer vacations we'd do it somewhere every other weekend. State fairs, political fund-raisers -- it didn't matter to me as long as I got to sing.
Those summer dates marked my first exposure to real celebrity. In Mississippi there weren't any local singers I looked up to, but there were always some older Showstopper alumni who'd come back to visit. A lot of them went off and won state-fair singing competitions, and that made them celebrities to me. I remember thinking back then, Wow, how cool it must be to have someone look up to you that way.
The only actual celebrity I met back then happened to not be a singer at all: It was quarterback Troy Aikman. I got his autograph when I was twelve, on a church trip to Dallas, Texas. I met him at a mall, where he was getting his hair cut and twenty other kids were pestering him for his autograph. Never did we realize we might be bothering him. Looking back, I know now that meeting Troy Aikman set the tone for how I would eventually treat my own fans. He was so gracious to everyone. A lot of other guys would have gotten annoyed, but he signed his name for all. These days, whenever I think, No, I don't want to do this, I remind myself of Troy and I'll sign every autograph and pose for every picture.
Our vocal coach in the Showstoppers was a fellow by the name of Bob Westbrook. Although Bob lived in Memphis, he would drive down to Jackson to coach us and teach us how to sing the music for our shows. In my second year with Showstoppers, my ninth grade or freshman year in high school, Darren and I picked five guys from Showstoppers and formed our own group, Seven Card Stud, to compete in some more state fairs. We did a lot of old fifties stuff -- medleys of songs like "Sh-Boom" and "Blue Moon." The three mid-level competitions we won took us to the Mid-South Fair, the state level, in Memphis, Tennessee. I guess you could say it was our regional version of American Idol.
We had such starlight in our eyes, we believed we were going to blow everybody away. Then the final votes came back and it turned out we'd lost -- to a girl who was deaf! The song she sang was "Why Haven't I Heard from You" by Reba McEntire.
Despite that setback, we continued to compete, certain we'd eventually get our ticket to stardom punched. We only got as far as fourth place. However, it wasn't a total loss. Traveling for competitions, I discovered for the first time that there was another world outside of Clinton, places I could really excel, and not just as a singer. I made a mental note that as soon as I could, I would travel anywhere else where the promise of true freedom seemed to await me.
Seven Card Stud performed in Washington, D.C., and New York City, tailoring each show to fit the location. We did shows for Senator Trent Lott at various social and political affairs. It was great fun and I made a whole lot of new friends.
I also got my first exposure to the phenomenon of screaming girls.
I didn't react the same way as the other guys. I didn't find it titillating or any kind of a turn-on, but I loved the energy that was behind it. Again, I had to suppress what I was really feeling in order to be "one of the guys." It wasn't all that hard; it just wasn't me.
When Seven Card Stud played itself out, I thought that that was it: The fun and games were over, and so was my so-called big-time show-business career.
It turned out not to be so. My self-confidence as a singer had grown considerably, along with my desire to expand the boundaries of my world. When the next opportunity came along to break out of the pack, I leaped at it. In my freshman year I tried out for the big high-school show choir we called Attache;. Attache; was, without question, the school's highest singing and social level to achieve, and it provided a chance to appear in its big show each fall and spring. It was like being on The Corny Collins Show in Hairspray. Getting into Attache; wasn't easy, but I had a good teacher. I just kept following Darren, trying to learn from him, doing what he did, and singing the best I could.
At the end of the year the school posted a list in the hallway of who had gotten in for the following year. I remember seeing Darren's name first, then my own, hardly able to believe it! I was so excited! Only a few slots opened up each year, and I had been chosen. Once again fortune smiled on me and punched my ticket. I was searching, yearning, trying to stretch the limited boundaries of Mississippi for myself, and I had succeeded in doing just that. My voice was my ticket to freedom.
The fall show was usually a big performance at the school, with all eighteen boys and eighteen girls in the group participating. People would come from all over the region to see it. The spring concert was even bigger. We'd get to take it to Florida, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio to compete with other schools' Attache;s in major national competitions. Our shows were really showcases, the material mostly a combination of Broadway songs like "Beauty and the Beast," current Top 40 pop tunes, and a medley from a classic musical like Guys and Dolls, all selected to show off our voices. The training and the touring were invaluable lessons in what today I guess I'd call amateur professionalism. A lot of what I did and learned in Attache; carried over to my work in *NSYNC.
Our director at Attache; was a fellow by the name of David Faire. He was mullet-haired and no-nonsense, but man, could he play the piano and teach music. He'd been brought down from Illinois, and his intensity followed him around like an aura. He's the reason I have the musical and performing concentration and discipline I do today. From the first day he arrived, he was constantly challenging me, yelling at me, sometimes embarrassing me in front of the others, more like a drill sergeant than a director, but he proved to be the best of the best. He could hear a voice go out of tune if he was having a conversation with someone twenty feet away.
David and his wife, Mary, were kind of like a hippie couple. She had long, straight, bright-blond hair with curly ringlets on the ends, never wore makeup, and made every costume and every prop we used in Attache;. They particularly liked seventies rock, especially the group Journey, so we did a lot of those songs, while wearing silly sequined costumes that Mary made. It's a wonder I didn't get my butt kicked wearing something so fab-u-lous. But I didn't care.
Although I always felt very mature for my age, and most of the adults I came into contact with seemed more like friends than authority figures, in an oddly likable way the Faires became surrogate parents, especially when we were on the road. They watched over us and treated us like we were their kids. That built a lot of trust in me. This was something that was to happen over and over again in my life, sometimes with wonderful results, other times not so great.
Throughout my time in Attache;, I always had this feeling that one day I was going to be famous. I just knew it. At the end of the school year I wrote in my classmate Keri Martin's yearbook, "Keep this autograph because I'm going to be famous one day." Even though she was the one everybody believed was going to be a big Hollywood star, I just had this gut feeling that something would happen to me, even beyond Attache;, that was going to be very, very special indeed.
In Mississippi you can apply for a driver's license at a younger age than in most other states. I took my first drink when I turned fifteen and got my driver's license later that same year. Once I had it, when I wasn't working with Attache; there was nothing I'd rather do than drive around with my friends.
And date girls.
Even though it wasn't something I wanted to do, I knew that I had to be seen with them, to protect myself, to keep myself in check. Although it might seem to be, it wasn't confusing to me at all. I was very clear on my feelings, and they were separate from what I believed I was supposed to do. Most of all I wanted to fit in, to be one of the guys with all the girls. So I dated, had fun, and proved extremely popular because I never tried to do anything that was considered too forward or out of bounds. I was a very polite, safe date. I guess what saved me most in those days was that I didn't know what true love was. Instead I just imitated what I thought everybody wanted from me, and that got me through the night, so to speak. I played the role of the pleaser and did it very well. Nobody ever suspected a thing inside of me was different from any other Mississippi teenager of the day.
On weekends we'd pile into someone's car, and whoever was driving might pull into the local supermarket, where we'd pick up a six-pack and then hang in the parking lot, everyone's favorite spot, sitting in the car drinking beer and trying to figure out what we wanted to do next.
We'd drive around back roads -- we called it "country road ridin'" -- while playing silly games, like if a certain song came on the radio, everyone would have to drink a beer, things like that. Someone would always be the designated driver and take us to the middle of nowhere. We'd sit in a circle and sing a song, and whenever anyone messed up, we'd all have to take a drink. We'd hang out for a couple of hours just drinkin', singin', and havin' a good ol' time. Church on Sunday, church on Wednesday, and country road ridin' on Friday night -- that was my high life in Clinton, Mississippi.
There were also some favorite local spots we would hit, like the fire tower, or what we called "the other end of 80," which was a little road behind Highway 80 that wrapped around into a dead end. This was where all the local kids really bonded. We'd light a big fire and sit around it for hours, just talking about all that was important in our lives. Again, I played along, giving the others what they wanted, though never daring to go near the darker feelings within, which I couldn't yet quite make out.
We also liked to have parties in our homes where we could all get together and dance and have a little fun with about a dozen of our best high-school friends. No one paired off romantically, which was a great relief to me. We all just sort of hung out together.
One thing I loved to do back then and still do today is throw parties -- especially at Halloween. One Halloween I hosted a Clue-themed party. That was my favorite movie at the time. All my friends got dressed like the characters. We made a home video of it and whenever we'd watch it we'd laugh our heads off. That was my directorial debut.
I remember one Halloween night more than any of the others. We were hanging out at the supermarket parking lot. As usual there was nothing special to do, so we decided to go halfway across town to our friend Nathan's house, about a seven-minute drive from where we were. I was in my friend Jason's car, a little white two-door job with a muffler that dragged along back on the ground. It was almost impossible to get in and out of that car if you were sitting in the back; I got in and it was so cramped that I could barely even put on my seat belt. Just as we were about to pull out, one of my friends, Laura, came over, tapped on my window, and asked me to ride with her. I told her no way, I was already buckled into this sardine can and I wasn't about to get out. But she was adamant and wouldn't let up. Finally I squeezed myself out and rode with her.
When we got to Nathan's house, we waited for forty-five minutes and there was no sign of him. As it turned out, the car Jason was driving and Nathan was riding in had been involved in a terrible wreck. The car spun around and hit another car, and the back end, where I'd been sitting only minutes earlier, was totaled. It looked like an accordion. If Laura hadn't forced me out of Nathan's car, I could have been seriously injured.
While I have vivid, fun memories of those times, I remember hardly anything about my school classes. When I look back now, I realize how unprepared for the real world I actually was. Forget about regular lessons -- nothing interested me except singing! Lucky for me I was able to put that to good use; otherwise who knows where I would have wound up. I guess I just seemed to know that something special was going to happen to me.
In fall 1995, my junior year, I was elected vice president of our class and was put in charge of the float for the homecoming parade -- a very big deal. Every grade had to make a float to compete with the others, and it became very intense. There'd be float parties, and of course the sophomores would get egged and we'd destroy their floats -- all the good stuff! Our football team was going to play the Hornets, a team from a nearby school, so I came up with the idea to make a giant Raid can. To make the "spray," we borrowed David Faire's smoke machine that he used for his shows, and with that we'd "raid the Hornets." It was all great fun. By the way, we tied the seniors, even though our float was so much better. Of course!
Friday afternoon was the big homecoming parade, which was awesome, and then on Saturday night I would be going to the homecoming dance with my friend Lacey. She was a year older than me, which felt normal because I always hung out with older kids. It also meant she knew a lot more -- how to drink, how to smoke, all the "cool" stuff.
It wasn't until I got home from the parade that I found out my mother had received a call from a woman by the name of Lynn Harless. Her son, Justin Timberlake, wanted to know if I'd be interested in joining a new pop group called *NSYNC.
I was in the kitchen when Mom came in and asked me if I knew who Justin Timberlake was.
I had heard of him; he was one of the kids on The Mickey Mouse Club. Then she told me about the phone call.
All I could do was stare back at her in disbelief.
Copyright © 2007 by Lance Bass