Big Poppa can barely squeeze into the room. The floor is covered with boxes full of packages--hundreds of packages, each one containing a resume and a videotape, each one sent by somebody who wants Big Poppa to make him a star.
Big Poppa inches into the room and cranes his neck to watch the videotape that's playing on the TV screen. A young guy is dancing, spinning, belting out a song: "Tearin' up my har-ar-ar-art---"
"Not bad," Big Poppa says.
Big Poppa is Lou Pearlman, the Svengali of pop music, the king of the boy bands. He finds young kids who can sing, molds them into bands, turns them into stars. He created the Backstreet Boys, who have sold more than 30 million records, and 'N Sync, who have sold nearly 10 million, and LFO, who sang this year's big summer song, "Summer Girls."
Now he's creating a new band, this one for a still-untitled TV show that will air on ABC next year. It'll be that oxymoron called "reality TV"--every aspect of the band's life, public and private, will be videotaped and packaged into half-hour segments. The ABC executive in charge of the project calls it "a docu-soap." All the tapes stacked in this room are from kids desperate to get on the show.
"Oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhhhhh," the guy on the screen sings, flailing his arms around like Liza Minnelli on speed.
"He's got a good pop sound," says Andrea Emms, who is screening these videos for Pearlman.
She'll put this one in the call-back pile. Next year, this kid could be huge, living the whole lifestyle of a Pearlman star--the money, the magazine covers, the crowds of screaming teenyboppers--and maybe even a multimillion-dollar legal battle against Big Poppa, which seems to be almost a rite of passage with Pearlman's bands.
"All right," Big Poppa says. "Good."
He sounds a tad distracted. He's not really focusing on finding a star right now. He's searching for something far more elemental--food. It's nearly noon and Big Poppa is famished. A pudgy teddy bear of a man, weighing well over 200 pounds, Pearlman, 45, lumbers down the hall, past the framed gold records and into the kitchen. He had this kitchen built so the bands recording here in O-Town--his Orlando headquarters and studio--will never have to waste time going out to eat.
His chef pops out, bearing a tray of Ritz crackers and her special gourmet tuna salad. Big Poppa sits down, tucks a paper napkin into the open neck of his blue shirt and digs in. He doesn't even bother with a beverage.
He polishes off a couple of tuna-topped crackers and then describes the TV show in his Queens-accented staccato: "We'll find five guys, multi-ethnic, who sing and dance, possibly play some instruments, and put them all together in a group. They'll live in Orlando, cameras in the house, watching them learning, living and so on, to the point where they record a couple of songs and have a chance to perform. And it's 13 episodes."
Of course, Pearlman will be a character in the show. "I'll be Big Poppa," he says with a laugh. "I'll be the one kind of coordinating the thing."
Pearlman will also have a bit part in the movie he recently produced--"Jack of All Trades," which will be released next summer. It stars Paul Sorvino and Hunter Tylo, with cameos by most of Pearlman's pop stars.
"Basically, it's about a gigolo who ends up being hired to seduce a wealthy woman to find out about her company, which is being taken over," he says.
He put up the money--$16 million--and dreamed up the story. "It all came out of my little brain," he says, grinning happily.
Big Poppa is having the time of his life. Despite all the nasty lawsuits, show biz sure is a lot more fun than aircraft chartering, which is where he started out.
As a kid back in Queens, Pearlman played guitar in a band but he never quite made it as a musician. After college he drifted into the airline business, chartering planes, helicopters and blimps. He rented a lot of planes to touring rock stars--Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones. In the early '90s, a band called New Kids on the Block chartered one of his jets. He'd never heard of them so he called his cousin Art Garfunkel and asked how they could afford to charter his jet. Garfunkel informed him that they were worldwide teen idols who'd sold a billion dollars worth of records, concert tickets and souvenirs.
"I said, 'I'm in the wrong business,' " Big Poppa recalls, smiling over his dwindling pile of tuna and crackers. "So I decided to try it."
He did his homework, boning up on the career of Berry Gordy, the pop genius who created the Motown hit factory. Then, while keeping his day job in the airplane business, Pearlman decided to try his hand at star-making. He chose Orlando, where he had a blimp-rental business, because it was a magnet for young people seeking singing jobs in the local theme parks. In 1992, he held auditions, selected five cute young boys who could sing, and moved them into a house there.
Pearlman, who has never married, acted as surrogate father and coach. He hired voice teachers and choreographers, who trained the kids in Pearlman's blimp warehouse. He hired songwriters and record producers to craft a smooth, syrupy pop sound and then he got the band, which he named the Backstreet Boys, a record deal.
The record bombed in the United States--where kids then preferred the harder-edged sounds of rap and grunge--but it shot up the charts in Germany. So Big Poppa sent the group to Europe and then Asia. After they'd sold millions of records overseas, he brought them back home, and they soon found themselves mobbed by hordes of hormone-addled pubescent girls.
By then, Pearlman had created another, nearly identical, boy band and called it 'N Sync.
"It was starting to work with Backstreet," he says, "so I knew it would work with 'N Sync because you have Pepsi and you have Coke, you have McDonald's and you have Burger King. And if I didn't do it, somebody else would."
Big Poppa takes another cracker, shovels up a mound of tuna and pops it into his mouth. His PR guy, Jay Marose, walks in, carrying a big telephone console. He plugs it in and hands the phone to Pearlman.
"What's happening?" Pearlman says to whoever's on the line. "Great . . . Good . . . Okay . . . Okay . . . And no per diem, right? . . . Just tell him the budget is $1,200 a week. . . . Keep me out of it, just tell him that's what the budget has--$1,200, no per diems included. That's just the way it is."
He hangs up, then calls for his messages, which he does every 15 minutes, Marose says, no matter what else he may be doing. Big Poppa likes to stay plugged in.
"Somebody has cloned Backstreet Boys," Pearlman announces, relaying one of his messages. "There's a group going around saying they're Backstreet Boys and they did two shows already, one in Iowa and the other in South Dakota, putting on shows for 1,000 or 2,000 people. They look like Backstreet Boys."
Big Poppa will have to put a stop to that. Big Poppa doesn't let anybody clone his bands except Big Poppa.
Big Poppa's Big Problems
"The man is a chronic liar," says Donna Wright. "All he does is lie. I don't like him very much."
She's talking about Pearlman. She used to work with him. Now she's suing him. She claims he owes her millions of dollars.
"It's all about greed," she says, sitting in the kitchen of her sprawling house in Orlando, puffing on a cigarette that she just ignited with a barbecue starter. Behind her, a swimming pool shimmers in the sun. In the next room, an MTV video award statue is propped on a big white piano.
Wright and her estranged husband, Johnny Wright, managed Backstreet Boys for Big Poppa. She took the Boys on tours through the United States and Europe, chaperoning five teen heartthrobs who were thousands of miles from home. It was tough work. She did it for six years and earned $2 million, but she claims that her contract with Pearlman entitles her to another $14 million. She says she's willing to settle for a quarter of that.
Wright's lawsuit against Pearlman, which is pending in a Florida court, is hardly the only legal squabble over the huge pile of money generated by Big Poppa's bands. In May of 1998, the Backstreet Boys--characterizing themselves as "indentured servants"--filed suit against Pearlman and the Wrights, charging them with carving up $10 million in profits while forking over only $300,000 to the band. That suit was settled on undisclosed terms last year. Now, a spokeswoman for the band says the Boys won't talk about Pearlman.
Last month, another legal battle erupted after 'N Sync announced that it was leaving its current record company, RCA, for a more lucrative deal with Jive Records, the Backstreet Boys' label. Immediately, Pearlman and RCA's parent company sued the group for $150 million and threatened to prevent the band from using the name 'N Sync, which Pearlman had copyrighted.
This week, 'N Sync responded with a $25 million countersuit, charging Pearlman with fraud and claiming that Big Poppa had helped himself to half the band's record royalties, more than half of its merchandising sales and all of its publishing income. "For years, the members of 'N Sync have been the victims of a con man, plaintiff Louis J. Pearlman, who has become wealthy at their expense," the band's lawsuit states. "They have been cheated at every turn by Pearlman's fraud, manipulation and breach of fiduciary duty."
Pearlman dismisses all these legal wranglings as standard operating procedure in the music business: "It's a common practice in any profession where people get rich overnight."
He denies that he owes Wright any money or that he has ripped off either band. All these squabbles are between lawyers and record companies, he claims, and he remains close friends with the members of both bands.
"I think if you talked to the boys," he says, "you'd find that there's no animosity between them and me."
Unfortunately, the boys aren't talking. But in an affidavit, 'N Sync's Joshua "J.C." Chasez described Pearlman as "an unscrupulous, greedy and sophisticated businessman who posed as an unselfish, loving father" and who "while hugging us and calling us 'family,' was picking our pockets."
'Life Is Good'
Big Poppa is perched behind his desk, checking his messages again. He looks up and sees Phoenix Stone, who might be his next big star.
"Is that song ready yet?" Big Poppa asks.
It is, and Stone rummages through his backpack, looking for the tape. He's 23, with blond bangs that make him look like a surfer. This song will appear on Stone's debut album, due for release early next year. But right now, he can't find the tape.
"It's in my car," he says, and he hustles out to fetch it.
While he waits, Big Poppa talks business. His artists--he has 10 acts--have sold 65 million records worldwide, he says. "We have sold--between records, tours, merchandise, everything--about $2 billion retail."
He declines to reveal just how much of that money went to him, but his Cheshire cat grin suggests that it was a sizable sum. "I'm doing all right," he says coyly. "I have three Rolls-Royces and a limousine. Life is good."
Stone returns with the tape and Pearlman pops it into his office stereo system. The music blares out. It's typical Pearlman pop--a drum machine thumps out a catchy beat, synthesizers pump out a lush wall of sound and Stone sings, "I'll never fall in love again, I swear."
Stone sits on the couch, his head bobbing to the beat. He was one of the original Backstreet Boys but he dropped out before they hit the big time, opting for a solo career. He writes his own songs and he likes to play them for Pearlman, who, he says, has a knack for making a song more "radio friendly," giving it more "ear candy."
Now, Stone stares at Big Poppa, who stares at the stereo, as if he can see the music coming out of it. He sits motionless, except for one jiggling foot. His big, round face holds no expression.
On the tape, Stone stops singing and there's an instrumental break. Pearlman doesn't like it. "This part here--I'm getting a little lost," he says.
The song continues. Stone sings the chorus again and then the music fades out.
"Great sound!" Pearlman says, popping out of his chair. "But that middle part--there's nothing there. It's sort of half this, half that."
He rewinds the tape, plays the instrumental break again.
"The problem is the mix," Big Poppa says. "The horns are buried way down low. They should be bold and bright."
"I had it mixed in London," Stone says. "I wasn't there." He says he'll get it remixed and suggests somebody to do the job.
"Good," Big Poppa says. "He has ears."
Keepin' It 'Real'?
The makeup guy spreads a towel over Pearlman's shirt and starts rubbing some kind of goop on his face.
Big Poppa's going on TV. A crew from the E! entertainment cable channel has come to O-Town to interview Pearlman about his upcoming TV show and the whole concept of "reality TV." They've got him perched in his recording studio, seated in front of his million-dollar Sony mixing board. The makeup guy is working on his face while the rest of the crew chimes in with advice.
"Higher up into the hair line."
"Go up under the hair a bit."
"Give him a bit more in that spot."
Apparently, you can't look too real when you discuss "reality TV" on TV.
When the camera starts rolling, Pearlman perks up, promoting his TV show with the enthusiasm of a carnival barker. "It's all going to be nonscripted, right on the spur of the moment, so their personalities will show," he says. "We'll get to know these guys."
The interviewer listens to all this and then asks a deep, philosophical question: "Can a reality TV show accurately represent the subject's life?"
"Yeah," Pearlman says. "As long as the cameras are placed correctly, and are not in their faces."
He keeps going, spinning like mad, hyping the show. "It's kinda where the Monkees and the Partridge Family meets the Backstreet Boys or 'N Sync--that's kinda what they're trying to do."
What will happen, the interviewer asks, when the show's 13 weeks are over?
"Hopefully, it will build up big," Pearlman says, "and we'll have another season to see where it goes."
Then he starts thinking. You can practically see the wheels turning inside his big round head. He smiles mischievously.
"Once they're successful and they've done 13 weeks," he says, grinning, "then they can bring a lawsuit against me."
CAPTION: Lou Pearlman created the Backstreet Boys, inset, and their clones 'N Sync, generating tons of money and several lawsuits.
CAPTION: Lou Pearlman, left, with hoped-for next-big-thing, Phoenix Stone, at his Orlando studio. Another project is a teen "docu-soap" for ABC.