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The Boston Phoenix Hangin' Tough

New Kids 4-evah!

By Jason Gay

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999:  "The first time I saw the New Kids on the Block was in 1988, back when they were opening for Tiffany," Julianna Mardo says. "Six Flags in Atlanta -- small stage. Nobody knew who they were. I went with my sister, and we saw these five guys singing 'The Right Stuff,' and I was like, 'Yeahhhh!' "

Eleven years, five albums, two boyfriends, three proms, one college diploma, and an estimated $4000 worth of merchandise later, Julianna is still a diehard New Kids on the Block fan. Except now she isn't a 12-year-old from New Jersey with big hair and a mega crush on lead singer Jordan Knight. She's a well-coifed 23-year-old portfolio administrator for a small investment firm in downtown Boston.

With a mega crush on Jordan Knight.

"I never stopped liking them," Julianna says matter-of-factly. "It wasn't cool, I got made fun of, whatever. But the older you get, the more respect you get if you stand up for what you believe."

Cut the snickering. After enduring years of abuse, Julianna and other NKOTB fanatics are entitled to feel a little better about themselves. The New Kids are back -- kind of. Two ex-Kids, Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre, are in the midst of Travolta-like career resurrections; both have new solo albums that have sold more than 500,000 copies apiece. Knight just wrapped up a sellout tour with neo-Kids 'N Sync and got nominated for an MTV Video Music Award. This Sunday and Monday, September 5 and 6, McIntyre is playing to packed big tops at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, in Hyannis, and the South Shore Music Circus, in Cohasset.

The musical success of Jordan and Joey has spawned a new generation of New Kids worshippers and stirred the nostalgia of old fans. Warming to this unforeseen trend, Columbia Records recently released New Kids on the Block's Greatest Hits. Reinvigorated New Kids fan clubs are making their presence known at concerts and on radio stations, the Internet, and MTV. There's even a national New Kids convention -- NKOTB 2000 -- planned for next June in Framingham. ("Let's get together and celebrate the KIDS they were, and the MEN they've become," cheers the convention organizers' Web site.)

No doubt the New Kids' second coming is fueled in part by a teen-pop sunburst that's yielded the likes of 'N Sync, Britney Spears, and the Backstreet Boys. But a lot of it is the work of aging superfans like Julianna Mardo -- the shrieking teens and pre-teens of the late 1980s and early '90s who are now professionals and parents in their 20s. They are the Blockheads: the true believers who never stopped spreading the gospel according to Jordan, Joey, Donnie, Jon, and Danny.

And there are more of them than you think.

It always starts with a favorite kid, says Nicki Cross.

"Donnie [Wahlberg's] fans are like these wild crazies," she says. "You see the tough girls and you think, 'They must be Donnie fans.' The young ones are always Joey fans, always. And the older fans are into Jon [Knight] -- my sister, who is three years older than me, was a Jon fan. If you have taste, you're into Jordan. Jordan was also the romantic one. And Danny? Danny was the fittest one. If you like fitness, you're into Danny . . . he was also an excellent dancer."

Nicki and Julianna and I are eating a light dinner at the Back Bay Bertucci's. Nicki, who lives in Worcester and works as a communications coordinator at the Staples corporate center in Framingham, is the chairman of the NKOTB 2000 convention committee. Julianna (whom Nicki calls "Jules") is the treasurer and location coordinator. Between bites of bruschetta, the two talk excitedly about the New Kids' rebirth -- and, of course, about the good old days.

"We used to do some extreme stuff," says Nicki, who is 23 and grew up in suburban Connecticut. "Every year, when the new phone books came out, we used to get our hands on a Boston phone book. We knew all their siblings' names, and we'd call the phone numbers that were in their names. Like, if it said D. Knight -- like David -- we knew that David Knight was Jon and Jordan's brother. We'd call the number just to see if it was connected."

"The first time I saw a picture of Donnie with a cigarette in his hand I went home and cried for hours," says Julianna.

"I once got up at 6 a.m. to do my hair and makeup for a New Kids concert," says Nicki. "And we weren't even leaving until 11."

"I wrote letters to Oprah begging her to have the New Kids on with me," says Julianna. "I was like, 'I'm in love. I really am. I love Jordan.' I was, like, 14. I wrote to Oprah at least 40 times."

Julianna presents a typewritten sheet of paper that is probably best described as her New Kids résumé. Among its disclosures:

  • She has spent as much as $275 for one ticket to see NKOTB.

  • On three separate occasions, she stayed awake for 72 hours in order not to miss any New Kids appearance on the United Cerebral Palsy telethon.

  • She once wrote a 386-page story about the New Kids.

  • Of course, other eight-to-16-year-olds did similarly obsessive things (excluding, perhaps, that 386-page story). But where many fans ditched the New Kids like training wheels, moving on to grunge and hip-hop, superfans like Julianna and Nicki have never abandoned their roots. Their fanaticism extended way beyond seventh grade, into high school, college, and even adulthood. Last winter, Julianna and Nicki spent more than six hours waiting in the freezing cold to meet Joey McIntyre at a CD-signing event. When spring came, they both stood outside the premiere and after-party for Donnie's movie Southie. And they both have tickets to Joey's two shows next week.

    "My mom says, 'I can't believe you're still a teenybopper,' " says Nicki. "We joke around at work, and my co-workers say I'm going to be the only 40-year-old teenybopper."

    As pop-music phenomenons go, the New Kids era was relatively short. The Dorchester-bred band burst onto the scene in late 1988 with its second album, Hangin' Tough, which featured "You Got It (The Right Stuff)" and four other Top 10 hits. That was followed in 1989 by the re-release of the Kids' first recording, the eponymous New Kids on the Block (known among fans as the "Baby record," since it was recorded in 1986, pre-puberty for Joey) and a quickie Christmas record, Merry Merry Christmas. The group peaked in 1990 with its fourth record, Step by Step, and the subsequent Coke-sponsored "Magic Summer" stadium tour, which was followed by 1991's "remix" album, No More Games. By then, however, New Kids backlash had set in, and things started going downhill. The group's rap-flavored 1994 comeback attempt, Face the Music -- for which the New Kids clunkily restyled themselves NKOTB -- was a commercial flop. Most of the group's remaining fans fled to the hills.

    "I went through four years of my life thinking I was the only fan left," says Julianna. "It was really hard, because it made me [question] my faith in people. How could they love something so much for three years, and then all of a sudden hate it?"

    But a funny thing happened on the way to the cutout bin: the Internet. After years of isolation, girls still clutching their Danny Wood dolls in Des Moines went online and realized they were not alone. To hear Amy Beth Lavelle describe it, she had pretty much put the New Kids in her rear-view mirror until she got a computer in 1997. "I went on a Yahoo search and found all these Web sites and kept up that way," says Amy Beth, who lives in Buffalo, New York. "It's kind of funny how it happened."

    Today, there are more than 200 New Kids-related sites on the Internet, including the worshipful Day Dreaming of NKOTB (http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Mansion/8122, with Donnie Wahlberg wedding photos!), the cute Confessions of a Recovering New Kids Addict (http://www.lifeaskew.com/nkotb/newkids.html), and the official site, Keep Keepin' On (http://www.nkotb.com), an exhaustive fan-operated site that the group adopted as its own. There are New Kid pages in French, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese, and each New Kid also has sites dedicated to his own exploits. Most of the sites feature photos, group members' personal histories, and trivia; some include chat rooms, memory pages, fan fiction, and even poetry (sample: "Jordan Knight, you're my one and only/Without you, I feel very lonely").

    Laugh if you want, but the New Kids' passionate Web following directly contributed to at least one member's comeback. After struggling to get a recording deal, Joey McIntyre cut his solo album, Stay the Same, on his own, and then hawked it on his Web site, http://www.joemcintyre.com. With minimal radio airplay, Stay the Same sold more than 2000 copies online, and record companies took notice. McIntyre signed with Columbia, the New Kids' old label, which then released the album under its own name, launching Joey Fever, Part II, in earnest.

    "My roommate was in the shower listening to the radio, and she comes out saying, 'Omigod, Joey McIntyre is on the radio!' " Julianna Mardo recalls. "I ran into the room and turned on Kiss 108, and found out a day later that he was having a concert [in Boston]. I couldn't believe it. It all started again. It was dead for years."

    The new New Kids shows are quite different from those heady Magic Summer days, fans report. For one thing, the venues are considerably more intimate. Joey and the gang once played Foxboro Stadium, but his solo comeback tour was launched with two club dates (both sellouts) at the Paradise. And the fans, of course, are older. "When Joey broke into 'The Right Stuff' [at the Paradise], I had a beer in my hand," says Julianna. "It was such a mind tease: I'm not 12, I'm drinking a beer, and Joey McIntyre is on stage."

    Jordan, who made his eponymous solo record with help from megaproducers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, chose a more conventional touring route, opening for New Kids wanna-bes 'N Sync (a line-up that could be compared to Mick Jagger warming up for the Black Crowes). Julianna, who plunked down $100 for a ticket just to see her dream boy sing four songs at the FleetCenter, says she was one of the oldest fans in the arena.

    The recent converts are a source of much debate among NKOTB diehards. "I'm happy that Jordan has more fans," Julianna says. "I thought it was so cute when the little 'N Sync fans were like, 'Jordan Knight, he's kind of cute . . . oooh, I like this song!' But I'm like, 'Shut up -- I know every word!' "

    Nicki laughs. "You're like, 'You were in diapers.' "

    "Yeah," Julianna says.

    "At first they [the new fans] really did bother me, too," Nicki says. "When I went to Joe's Providence show, I saw girls who were, like, younger than 13. I'm like, 'Hello, were you even born?' And it really did annoy me, but I'm focused on Joe being successful. And if his wider fan base is going make him more successful, then I'm psyched for him."

    Of course, the return of the New Kids threatens to rekindle another tradition: abuse. Getting ragged on has always been part and parcel of the Blockhead experience. The New Kids might have sold more than 35 million records, but few musical groups of the past decade have been more reviled. Critics absolutely loathed them. Teenage boys could be even more cruel. "Even back in fourth or fifth grade, you had guys who called them New Fags on the Block or whatever," says Josh Bean, a rare male New Kids diehard in Tampa, Florida, who corresponds with Nicki and Julianna by e-mail. "So I kind of got used to it at an early age."

    But most New Kids fans are tired of taking crap. Several fan Web sites have passwords designed to root out "nonbelievers" (to enter one site, you must type in the name of Donnie's son, Xavier). Fans are especially distrustful of the media, which they blame in large part for the group's downfall. When I first e-mailed Nicki and Julianna to research this story, they suspected me of being an evil prankster who was putting them on.

    Still, Nicki and Julianna believe the worst is over. New Kids fans have gotten older, and so have the critics; the abuse has mellowed, they report, even from men. "At [the Paradise] there were guys there with their girlfriends," says Nicki. "That was so cool."

    Things have come a long way since 1993. Julianna is "out of the closet" at her investment firm; even her boss knows that she's an NKOTB fan. Nicki, also out of the closet, recently hosted a superfan get-together at the Hard Rock Café, which was followed by what can only be described as drive-by shriekings.

    "We had fans from all over, and afterward they wanted to see the [Kids'] houses," Nicki recalls. "We had a girl from Georgia, a few girls from New Jersey, girls from Washington State and Oregon. When are they going to come out to Boston again? So we know where they live and we went ahead and did it. We went to Jordan's. We went to Joe's house. We went to Joe's dad's house. We went to Danny's mom's house. Stuff like that."

    Most tour stops consist of little more than driving up, looking, and taking off. But during one of Nicki's tours, Joey McIntyre's father spotted the gang hovering outside -- and, instead of calling the police, he invited them inside. They shot the breeze about the weather and MTV. He showed them videotapes of Joey and his family performing at the Footlight Club, in Jamaica Plain. To prove it, Nicki produces a photograph of the elder McIntyre squished between beaming twentysomethings. "He's awesome," says Nicki, who in one of the pictures sports a broken ankle encased in a blue cast. "He signed my cast."

    Nicki and Julianna say they are careful not to cross the line. After all, youthful obsession is one thing; stalking is another. "There's a group of girls who have coined the term 'lawn dogs,' " Nicki says. "These are girls who go to the [New Kids'] houses and just sit on their lawns and wait for the guys to come out. But I'd never do that. We know Joe's schedule, we know when he's home. Once I knew he was sick, and I was like, 'I could go and bring him some chicken noodle soup.' But I'm not going to go sit on his lawn." (For the purposes of a Phoenix photo shoot, however, Nicki and Julianna are more than happy to pretend they're lawn dogs outside Chez McIntyre in Brookline.)

    A healthier outlet for fanatics may be the NKOTB 2000 convention. Set for June 23 through 25 at the Framingham Sheraton Tara, the convention will feature a DJ dance, video clips, memorabilia, a New Kids version of Jeopardy!, an awards ceremony, and a Saturday-night surprise that Nicki will describe only as "big." There is already a convention committee of 60 people, a NKOTB 2000 Convention Web site (http://members.spree.com/entertainment/nkotb/), and convention business cards and fliers, the latter of which have been distributed outside Joey and Jordan's shows. "We're expecting anywhere between 100 and 400 people," Nicki says.

    But right now, the focus is Joey, who's coming back to town. When September 5 rolls around, the hairspray will be broken out. The tunes will be cranked. And since everyone's 21, the pre-show libations may be a little more potent than Dr Pepper.

    "We got a hotel on the Cape, in Hyannis," says Nicki. "We were going to get a limo, but it didn't work out. We're all staying together -- [our friend] Debbie and Jules and I and Debbie's two cousins, or cousin, whatever. When we get ready, we'll be sitting there primping like it's the prom."

    "You guys are going to take your time, right?" Julianna asks Nicki. "Because I was worried about this. Like, today, I'm taking a shower and I'm like, 'I'm not too looking forward to next week, because I'm going to get ready. I'm curling my hair.' "

    Nicki laughs. "You would think it's a big date or something," she says to me. "You want to look good for them."

    "You have to!" says Julianna. "Because what if?"

    How long is this New Kids flame going to burn? One imagines women in their 50s attending an NKOTB reunion tour in 2025. Think of all the New Kids paraphernalia that Julianna has stockpiled back in Jersey -- dolls, posters, buttons, marbles, beach towels, paper tablecloths, and a phone. It's not just junk. That stuff is worth something to someone.

    Not that Julianna's selling, of course. "She's going to be buried with some New Kids stuff in her casket," Nicki jokes.

    "I told my mom that if I ever died, God forbid, Jordan has to be there," Julianna says.

    "He'll sing at your funeral."

    Julianna laughs. "Yeah."

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