Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer On the Trail of Justin Timberlake

By Ashley Fantz

MAY 8, 2000:  Deep in the belly of suburbia, a frosty-haired boy named Justin Randall Timberlake grew.

Among the hushed cul-de-sacs with names like Polo Run and Autumn Winds, he grew. He breathed air so clean that when it whipped dandelion plumes toward the sky, they mingled with clouds. He rode his bike on trimmed lawns, over medians marked with cherry trees planted exactly 5.8 feet apart. Behind a white picket fence, a 15 mph speed limit, and strip mall signs ORTHODONTIST, OLD NAVY, CHILI's, he grew believing in a Baptist God and saluting the flag.

It was the Eighties. People wore something called Ocean Pacific and acid-washed denim, an ex-movie-star was president, and the life of that boy held awesome promise.

Now Justin Timberlake -- this kid, this man-child of 19, in the year of a new millennium, popping like a pink, gooey ooze of Bubbalicious on the Top 40 charts with four other like-minded burb-bred dudes in a band named N'SYNC -- is a superstar. A playa, a honey, a sought-after trophy of post-pubescence, he has earned his nicknames Mr. Smooth and the Baby. Eighty-five fan Web sites do not lie.

But who is Justin Timberlake? Does anyone know what tears up his heart, what keeps him awake at night, what ponderings of life color his daydreams?

Who is this enigmatic figure in cargo pants?

The Flyer went straight to the source, his publicist's publicist Bennie at Jive Records.

"Would it be possible to get an interview with Mr. Timberlake?" we asked.

"Um, no, that isn't going to be possible, Justin doesn't want to do any press. He and the rest of N'SYNC had a conference last night and they are exhausted, so no, no that can't happen, but I really appreciate you calling, thanks, take care, okay, bye, best to you."

Bennie does not pause when he talks. He is a busy guy. Maybe he needs a publicist, too.

Publicist #1 would not return phone calls.

Justin Timberlake comes screaming into this world with a full head of curly hair at 6:30 a.m. on January 31, 1981. His parents Lynn and Randy provide a loving home in Millington, Tennessee, a sweet, quiet Navy town outside of the gritty "urban" frights of Memphis. He attends E.E. Jeter Elementary. As early as second grade he begins to appear, as his teachers say, "special."

"Justin was not selfish or spoiled," says former principal Mary Ann McNeil. "That kid had talent in every fiber of his being."

Timberlake attended Jeter until the seventh grade and was homeschooled thenceforth. McNeil is now the principal at Collierville's Crosswind Elementary, a pristine learning hub with shiny floors and teachers clad in colorful jumpers.

McNeil tells a story about a Jeter picnic that ended with Timberlake on a flatbed truck, straining his tiny vocal chords, busting a move.

Whenever she hears her famous student is making a television appearance, she calls other Jeter teachers who were present during those formative years.

"All the students loved to watch him dance," she says, looking away in amusement and thoughtful wonder. "I listened to the new CD and saw him, you know, doing that dance move he does -- "

McNeil sticks her elbow out, scoots her right foot quickly across the office's matted blue carpet, as if she's repeatedly stubbing her toe.

"I just love that move," she says.

Timberlake's ex-basketball coach, Kim Lampkins, remembers that Timberlake had a mystical, Midas aura.

"He was good at everything he tried, everything he touched," she says."If he said to the other kids, 'Get in line,' they would all just get right on up and get in line."

Foreshadowing his later success, Lampkins recalls that Timberlake and four ofhis grade-school buddies -- one of whom is mentioned in N'SYNC's latest CD jacket -- used to dress up like the popular boy band New Kids on the Block.

"The parents would rent a limo to take them to birthday parties around town to perform," Lampkins says, smiling and nodding her head. "The other kids pantomimed, but Justin did do a little singing."

Little Justin Timberlake's first photo shoots -- the red-and-white Jeter yearbooks.

1989-1990, second grade. Hair: Flock of Seagulls. Teeth: one space. Eyes: Twinkling.

Combing the pages for his face is futile. Penpal Club? No. Band? Nope. Stockholders Club? Not there either. A kid with large Harry Potter glasses named Shane Love, who holds the crown as Mr. Jeter, dominates most pages.

"Personal Notes" provides the only clue:

"Congratulations to Justin Timberlake for another great year! We're so proud of you! We love you! Mom & Dad."

1990-1991, third grade. Hair: Flock of Seagulls with gel. Teeth: not very visible. Eyes: Twinkling.

The following summer is a season of change. Timberlake makes the cut to sing on Star Search. He winces under the bright lights and sings in a tender falsetto. But the hoopla fades when he loses by just half a star to another child-performer whose rendition of "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" captures the audience's heart. Ed McMahon's hug does not soften the crushing blow.

A hard decision is on the horizon.

Contemplating whether to return to Millington, Timberlake and his parents get on that long highway out of Mid-South suburbia and into a creamy, unexplored oblivion known as Orlando, Florida.

They headed for the Mickey Mouse Club, an incubator of teen stardom that still draws drama mamas to its promising light of television contracts and commercial gigs.

Timberlake makes friends at the Mickey Mouse Club with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, today's fresh-faced embodiments of sex and All-American saccharine.

But the Mickey Mousing around comes to an end when the season wraps. Timberlake, yearning for a normal life, aching for one day without foundation, returns to Millington. He plays basketball. He excels at everything.

1992-1993, sixth grade, Jeter Elementary. Hair: Flock of Seagulls tapered and expertly gelled. Teeth: straight. Eyes: Twinkling.

"Personal Notes": "Justin Timberlake -- Our Superstar! Always aim high and go for what you want! We're proud of you! We love you! Mom & Dad."

Later Timberlake talks about those trying, ping-pong days of celebrity and normalcy.

"I was a little punkass," he says about the Mickey Mouse Club experience. "But I really started to find myself there. It was a good experience. After that, I went back to school for a year and got into trouble -- mailbox bashing and just being a delinquent. I'm just glad I didn't go to a regular high school. I would have gotten arrested by now."

Tennessee and Florida criminal records do not have a file for Justin Randall Timberlake.

Like many regular people, Timberlake has fears, desires, secrets, and likes Cap'n Crunch cereal. Fan-compiled lists of the musician's "favorites" are miraculous insights into this mysterious entertainer. These items are usually cushioned with quotes that suggest the pop prince does indeed feel deeply.

"I'm really frightened of sharks, and spiders and snakes," Timberlake opens up to Teen Voices magazine. "They gross me out. I think it's the three S's: snakes, spiders, and sharks and I'm afraid of dying unloved."

N'SYNC fan Web site operator, Sara from Illinois, believes Timberlake is the "ideal guy" because he is "talented and extremely good-looking." She has seen the group perform five times and is sure that Timberlake's turn-ons are Runts and Spree candies, his teddy bear Coko, and baggy designer clothes. His turn-offs include smoking, hotels that don't have enough gym equipment, and people who do bad things. Sara offers to dispel some rumors about Timberlake.

"Justin isn't dating Christina Aguilera or Bioncee of Destiny's Child," she asserts. "Justin didn't swear at a bunch of fans at an autograph signing."

However, Laura, from Peekskill, New York, whose JUSTIN 4EVER Web site has won awards for its balanced coverage of what's known to insiders as the "Justin/Britney Thing," calls Britney naysayers "naive freaks."

"Of course they are dating, they may even be doing it," Laura says. "I mean, they go shopping together. I've seen the photos!"

Bennie, publicist #2, left this message regarding Ms. Spears:

"Um, no, that isn't true. Justin doesn't want to do any press. He and the rest of N'SYNC had a conference last night and they are exhausted, so no, no, I can't talk about Britney, but I really appreciate you calling, thanks, take care, okay, bye, best to you."

Publicist #1 would not return phone calls.

Back in Millington, the Flyer continues to search for answers to the dilemma, Who is Justin Timberlake?

May Black, a soft-spoken dining room supervisor at Big Dave's Steak & Rib Shack, is befuddled when asked about the town's famous alum.

"I don't know who that is, but I don't work at night," Black says. "Does he sing here?"

Rumor has it that Timberlake's name has been brought up more than once by patrons dining at Cactus Joe's Bar & Grill. Bartender Margaret Tidwell says she "likes N'SYNC, but can't explain why just likes 'em."

Proving that the band appeals to all ages, Tidwell's 29-year-old son has taken a shine to N'SYNC's latest single, "Bye, Bye, Bye." And that is something, Tidwell says, "because he don't like much of anything."

An obviously private person when he's not onstage dodging pyrotechnics and dancing in matching outfits with his bandmates, Timberlake says that fans may have to wait for a VH1 Behind the Music special to understand this man, this myth. Fame clearly torments him subtly, gently -- as this statement uttered to MTV some time back -- reveals.

"Fame is really funny," he begins. "We were on the Regis and Kathie Lee show and some girl in the audience yelled out, 'Justin, sit on my lap!' Excuuuuse me! But I don't know you!"

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