Before he was implicated in one of the largest Ponzi schemes in U.S. history, Lou Pearlman’s lies started to unravel at a meal with 'N Sync at a Los Angeles steakhouse.
Sitting around the table with their families at Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills around 1999, the boy band members, who lived on a $35 per diem at the time, were excited to learn how much financial windfall awaited them after their debut album sold more than 10 million records. Boy-band fever was sweeping the nation, with young girls wearing T-shirts, buying CDs, holding signs outside MTV’s “TRL” in New York and, most importantly, screaming their lungs out at the very sight or sound of their preferred male quintet.
“I’m thinking I’m the king of the castle at this point,” 'N Sync member Chris Kirkpatrick says in “The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story,” a new documentary on Pearlman’s life premiering this week at South by Southwest produced by YouTube Originals, Pilgrim Media Group and Lance Bass Productions.
The man they had to thank for the worldwide success was Pearlman, the jovial, cherubic mastermind who went from outfitting luxury jets for rock stars to becoming the Berry Gordy of the ’90s boy-band craze, simultaneously managing the era’s two competing juggernauts: 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys.
But when the guys at the steakhouse opened up the envelopes Pearlman gave them at their first check presentation, their hearts sank. 'N Sync’s JC Chasez said he expected there to be “some big, magical check” for selling millions of records, touring with Janet Jackson, dominating the charts and sending teen girls into hysterics. Instead, the checks barely eclipsed four figures.
“Not to sound ungrateful,” said 'N Sync’s Lance Bass in the film, “but when you compare it to how many hours we had put into this group for years, it didn’t even touch minimum wage.”
The boys’ parents were equally upset.
“I just wanted to kill him,” Lynn Harless, Justin Timberlake’s mother, says in the film. Not to be outdone by his mom, Timberlake once described the period as being “financially raped by a Svengali.”
Unbeknownst to the band, however, the fraud Pearlman was committing to the darlings of ’90s pop music was just one of the illicit games he was running. For more than 20 years, Pearlman was also defrauding thousands of investors in a fictitious airline he created in Orlando for more than $300 million.
In 2007, Pearlman was indicted and later sentenced to 25 years for conspiracy, money laundering and making false statements during a bankruptcy proceeding. He died from cardiac arrest at the age of 62 in 2016.
In the documentary, co-produced by Bass, that’s premiering Wednesday at the Austin festival, many of the stars the fallen impresario helped create are speaking out about his life, what went wrong and the scams that affected thousands.
“I don’t think Lou felt bad at all,” Bass said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I think he really believed the world owed him all of this.”
Bass, then a 16-year-old from Laurel, Miss., flew to Orlando in 1995 on a recommendation from Timberlake and Harless to try out for the group, which had a member recently drop out. When he landed, he saw Pearlman didn’t have just a Rolls Royce at the airport but also, for reasons that remain unclear to Bass, a limousine.
“You’re not even thinking this guy could be a crook,” Bass told The Post. “When someone promises you the world, you believe him. Now, if I ever met someone who popped up like a peacock in the beginning, I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re full of s---.’”
It wasn’t always bad between the manager and his boy bands. As many of them reflect in “The Boy Band Con,” the Queens native, often referred to as “Big Poppa,” was a father figure who helped the young men grow up when they needed it the most. But other boy-band members have accused Pearlman of sexually assaulting them, according to a 2007 Vanity Fair story. Pearlman denied those allegations.
“It was like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys,” O-Town’s Ashley Parker Angel says in the film.
Pearlman’s lies were apparent from the start, even if the band members could’t recognize them in the moment.
“I remember Lou coming to me saying, ‘Well, you know you’ll have a No. 1 album, right?’ I go, ‘Why?’ He goes, ‘Well, I bought all the albums to make sure.' He said he bought 250,000 albums to make sure we were No. 1,” Bass recalled. “I thought, ‘Of course he did.’ I know it’s a complete lie now, but I just thought he was professional and that’s just the way the business worked.”
Deciphering fact from fiction in Pearlman’s story has always been a challenge, filmmaker Aaron Kunkel told The Post. When there was one piece of truth, such as Pearlman being cousins with musician Art Garfunkel, there were many other fabricated stories, like the one he told about how he bought a New York Post paper route as a kid and partnered with Dunkin’ Donuts for those who wanted pastries with their Sunday subscriptions. As one childhood friend of Pearlman’s put it, “that was total bulls---.”
“Lou told everyone a different story,” Kunkel said. “You hear about how something would happen and one of the other guys in the band would tell the same story, but the facts had changed.”
In the years that followed messy lawsuits from ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys, both of whom severed all ties with him after multi-million-dollar settlements in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Pearlman found himself trying to recreate the magic of those ’90s pioneers. But it wasn’t his later groups like O-Town that got the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2006. It was his dealings in the fictional Trans Continental Airlines, and the roughly 2,100 people who invested in the fake company, according to the film. After coordinating hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent activity by promising investments that were insured by the FDIC, Pearlman fled the country, reportedly to Israel and Germany. He was finally apprehended by the FBI at a hotel in Bali in June 2007, when a German couple alerted authorities that they had spotted him staying there.
“All of a sudden, things started to make sense,” Backstreet Boys member AJ McLean recalls in the film.
Still, Pearlman didn’t shy away from talking about what he did, suggesting to the Hollywood Reporter in 2014 that he ran a more believable Ponzi scheme than Bernie Madoff.
“Well, Bernie, I mean, he didn’t have anything that really made money,” Pearlman said at the time, adding that he didn’t have a chance to make things right in his own Ponzi scheme.
When Pearlman died while in custody at the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami, some artists interviewed in the film who were previously managed by him said they felt a sense of relief, as several of them accused him of financial or psychological abuse.
“You don’t know whether to cry, laugh, feel relieved, feel happy for everyone else,” Kirkpatrick said. “There was so much wrong with everything about him and what happened that you don’t even know how to take death.”
While Bass now sees his time with Pearlman as a cautionary tale for other artists, he still smiles knowing that the group’s most successful album came in the immediate aftermath of their breakup from their manager in 1999. It was in a London taxicab where 'N Sync thought of “No Strings Attached,” the breakout album whose title served as a nod to their freedom from Pearlman. Soon thereafter was “Bye Bye Bye,” their catchy, and therapeutic, track directed at the man called “Big Poppa.”
“It was a big f-you to Lou Pearlman every time we did it,” Bass told The Post. “You felt like an artist for the first time, without anyone’s hands in it for the first time.”
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