BEHIND THE MUSIC
Lance Bass on How the Con Man Behind NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys Preyed on Young Stars
Lou Pearlman created the biggest boy bands of the ’90s. He made them superstars, swindled millions and, a new documentary alleges, pressured them into ‘questionable scenarios.’
Austin, TEXAS — The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story, directed by Aaron Kunkel and produced by NSYNC’s own Lance Bass, will forever change the way you think about the boy band era. Behind the smooth vocal harmonies, synchronized dance moves, coordinated ‘90s ensembles, countless No. 1 hits and legions of fervid fans, there was one man: the late, disgraced Lou Pearlman. The Pilgrim Media Group and Lance Bass Productions documentary, presented by YouTube Originals, deep dives into the human costs of Pearlman’s biggest crimes.
Interviews with Ponzi scheme victims shed some light on his empire of lies. Pearlman defrauded investors, defrauded banks, and even attempted to cheat his own legal team. He was ultimately sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of conspiracy and money laundering, having stolen over $300 million from investors through fictitious businesses with faked financial statements. In 2016, he died in federal custody.
Pearlman’s dual legacies, as a decades-long con artist and the man behind some of the biggest boy bands of all time, are forever intertwined. Pearlman used stolen money to finance his bands, and impressed investors with his entertainment industry success stories. He also infamously swindled his own artists. Speaking to The Daily Beast ahead of The Boy Band Con premiere at SXSW, producer Lance Bass explained that, “Everyone in this film is a victim in one way or the other.”
Like any good con artist, Lou Pearlman promised the world. “Lou gave us all the ability to have lives today,” Aaron Carter insists at one point in the film. “Who knows where I would have ended up in Tampa, you know? In jail?” Through his Trans Continental Records, Pearlman was able to churn out a slew of profitable boy bands, from the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC to O-Town and LFO. But Pearlman didn’t treat his artists like walking ATMs—at least not at first.
The Backstreet Boys’ AJ McLean recalls when he and Nick Carter “had a double birthday party at Lou’s house”; they were always encouraged to invite friends over. It was a pool party. “[Pearlman] was a big kid,” McLean notes. “His house was like a giant theme park.” O-Town’s Ashley Parker Angel agrees that, “It was like Disneyland,” and similarly recalls “boy band parties” that Pearlman would host at the mansion.
Pearlman’s efforts to ingratiate himself with the groups was, at least in part, financially motivated. The Backstreet Boys were the first of many musical acts to successfully sue Pearlman, after they saw Lou reap the majority of the rewards for their astronomical success. One of their many issues with the contract was Pearlman’s official designation as a sixth member of the band, a claim he also made with NSYNC.
“I think he lived vicariously through all of these groups, making himself a part of each of the bands,” Bass told The Daily Beast. “That’s just a personal choice for him, that he wanted to feel a part of the group. And to us it really made sense too because he’s like, look, if I’m the sixth member then you won’t have to pay for lawyers, you don’t have to pay a manager…You know, this is what you get with me being a member. You get everything for free. And it didn’t quite work out that way,” Bass laughed.
Bass, who speaks earnestly in the film about his close relationship with Pearlman, how he “made you feel great, like someone cared,” underwent a painful process of disillusionment. “There were a few moments where I realized something wasn’t right,” he told The Daily Beast. “One being when we finally got our first paycheck after working three years, with No. 1 albums and tours and millions and millions of merchandise being sold, and we got a check for $10,000 and we were still in debt $1 million. That’s when I realized, OK, there’s something wrong here. And then that just kind of snowballed into what it did.”
Pearlman had been charging the bands for the lavish dinners that they had assumed to be expressions of his gratitude. Expensive “gifts” were unknowingly bankrolled by their success. “It’s easy to take advantage of someone like us,” Bass explained, “because we just didn’t know.”
Ashley Parker Angel describes a similar realization in the documentary: “I could’ve made this much working full-time at Starbucks.”
Throughout the film, we watch as Pearlman’s offerings of abundance—the mansion pool parties and “free” private jet rides, the promises of success and superstardom—start to rot. Pearlman’s Orlando estate goes from being described as “Disneyland” to “something out of a horror movie set,” with cameras set up throughout the premises and a control room in Pearlman’s bedroom, “so he could see everything that was going on.” Nikki DeLoach, from the girl band Innosense, says that they would often use a tanning bed in Pearlman’s house, later learning that “he was recording the whole thing,” and would show the boy banders video footage. “That felt pretty darn violating,” DeLoach concludes.
Other interviewees are adamant that they never witnessed sexually predatory behavior on Pearlman’s part. Aaron Carter is particularly emphatic, at one point insisting, “Shut up about that, guys…that is not true.”
“It’s all lies,” the pop star continues. “I went into that tanning bed all the time.”
In 2007, Take 5’s Tim Christofore, who joined the band at 13, told Vanity Fair that he remembered “one sleepover when he and another boy were dozing and Pearlman appeared at the foot of their bed, clad only in a towel. According to Christofore, who now runs a small entertainment business in St. Paul, Minnesota, Pearlman performed a swan dive onto the bed, wrestling with the boys, at which point his towel came off.”
“On a separate occasion,” The Vanity Fair article continued, “Christofore and another band member telephoned Pearlman to say they were coming to his home to play pool. When they arrived, Pearlman met them at the door naked, explaining he was just getting out of the shower. Another time, Christofore remembers, Pearlman showed him security-camera footage of his girl group, Innosense, sunbathing topless. On still another occasion, Pearlman invited all five band members to watch the movie Star Wars in his viewing room. At one point the film switched off and was replaced by a pornographic movie.”
In The Boy Band Con, O-Town member Ashley Parker Angel explains that, “It’s sort of out there that Lou had this dark quality to him where he would use his power and influence to try to manipulate young performers into these really questionable scenarios.” He recalls being pulled aside by a Trans Continental employee and warned about unconfirmed “rumors” that Lou “might have a thing for boys.”
“I tried to protect the kids,” publicist Jay Marose told Vanity Fair in 2007. “You’d see Lou kind of moving in on one of them, and you’d just tell someone, ‘Get that kid away from Lou before it’s too late.’”
“He’d come into the rehearsal room and he’d be like hey guys, let’s see your abs, take off your shirts,” Angel continues. “I’ll never forget the one time I was alone with Lou.” Pearlman called him into his room, and told him that in order to be the Justin Timberlake or Nick Carter of the group, he needed to be in great shape. “He was very good at playing on your desire to be successful,” Angel explains. “He takes it another step further and says, I minored in physical therapy in college, I can give your muscles a pump without you even working out.”
“This is kind of what everybody’s been talking about,” Angel remembers thinking. When the phone rang, Angel seized the opportunity to run away. “He was just a very touchy guy,” Bass confirms in the film, saying that Pearlman would often give them massages. Angel also recalls a story that the late Richard Cronin of LFO told him, which Cronin also told during a Howard Stern interview. According to Cronin, Pearlman told the band that a very powerful man in Europe with “a big recording company” could skyrocket their success in return for sexual favors. In Cronin’s own words, as told to Stern, Pearlman said, “All he wants to do is touch your penis and play with it.” Pearlman offered to help them “practice for it,” allegedly saying, “I was a psychology minor, I’m going to help you through it.”
During the Howard Stern interview, Cronin alleged that Pearlman “spelled it out for me one day,” saying, “‘I want to touch your dick, I want to massage you a little…I’m not going to play games anymore.” Cronin hypothesized that, “He just wanted to have dudes around him and have an excuse,” saying, “He needed you to sing a little bit, but he really just wanted guys that he thought were good looking around him…the guy was such a creep.”
“Rich’s story is one of many,” Bass told The Daily Beast. “I’m on tour with O-Town right now, and just talking to those guys…I mean, the stories they’ve been telling me, I’m like, oh gosh, I wish I had the rest of you on film. Because as long as I’ve known, I’ve never had any confirmation about him being a predator in that way. I would have loved to have grabbed some guys that really had some stories, but they just weren’t willing to come forward right now.”
He added that Angel’s recollections didn’t surprise him at all, saying, “When we were with [Pearlman], you know, I never got warned like that, I never felt in danger at all. But we were one of his first bands, and then we kind of left. Everyone that came after the success of Trans Continental had whole different experiences. They definitely spent a lot more time with Lou than we did.”
Ashley Parker Angel concludes that it’s “not uncommon” to be “preyed on by those who are in positions of power—it’s a very old story.” The Boy Band Con director Aaron Kunkel stressed that there was a continuum of exploitation, telling The Daily Beast that, “There’s all different kinds of ways that he would put you in a questionable situation, and the guys just had to go along with it because Lou had the power.” Kunkel explained that Pearlman was able to hold up the success of his early bands as a means of signing new talent, despite rumors of Pearlman’s predation and clear evidence of his greed. “The success that Backstreet and NSYNC had definitely gave Lou a lot of power over a lot of other artists, because they were the beacon on the hill that everybody else wanted to reach.”
“That was the dilemma for a lot of the guys after,” Bass agreed. “They knew they had horrible contracts because we presented that to the world, but they still had to sign it because, what else are you going to do? It’s this or nothing.” He hopes that this documentary will serve as a “cautionary tale” for young talent across the entertainment industry. “Surround yourself with really great people that will not lie to you and that you trust, because that’s hard to find in this business.”
For Bass, making the documentary offered some closure, given his admittedly complicated feelings towards Pearlman. When Pearlman passed away, he explained, he didn’t know how to feel. “And doing this film, I feel so much more relief, and I feel at peace with it all, and I 100 percent have forgiven Lou…But I was hoping to hear a little remorse out of him at some point. I’m sorry, or something—just to know that he knew what he did. But I think until he died, he truly believed all his lies.”
Bass recalls that, in lieu of an apology, Pearlman contacted him “years ago” with the idea of doing a TV show together. “The whole reason of doing the TV show, according to him, was that he wanted to help pay back all the Ponzi scheme victims,” Bass explained, somewhat incredulously. “So he would create these boy bands from prison and manage them from prison and all the money that they would make and accumulate would go to pay off the Ponzi scheme people. But I’m sure it was just because he wanted to be famous again.”