WITH HER NEATLY CURLED COIF AND HONEY-dipped southern drawl, retired real estate agent Sadie Bomar hardly seems like a power player in the game of love. But the 69-year-old grandmother of pop star Justin Timberlake just may hold the secret to her grandson’s heart. “He always calls me when he’s coming home and says, ‘Granny, please don’t forget my peach cobbler!’ ” says Bomar, who lives next door to Timberlake’s mom and stepdad in Millington, Tenn. After delivering a batch to him in ’00, “he hid it on his tour bus,” she recalls. Bomar’s only request? That he return her favorite casserole dish. “He brought it back to me a month later,” she says. “He’s a very thoughtful boy.”
Thoughtful? Absolutely. But a boy? Think again, Granny. At 21, the ‘N Sync heartthrob is finally stepping out on his own, with a new album—his first-ever solo effort—and a newfound freedom: bachelorhood. After seven years as the hottest ‘N Syncer and two as Britney Spears‘s boyfriend, Timberlake is now, well, Just Justin. Which suits him just fine. “Right now I want to enjoy life,” he declares. Holed up in a studio in Virginia Beach, Va., where he is recording the new album, Timberlake says he wrote the songs to reflect his growing independence. “I’m throwing it out there, seeing what happens,” he says. “I’m testing the water, man.”
When it comes to diving back into the dating pool, though, Timberlake is still getting his size-11 feet wet. Less than six months after his split from Spears, 20, Timberlake still can’t bring himself to utter the words “break up.” “It hurts too bad to say it,” he says. Actually doing it has been even worse: “You get to a point where you’re crying yourself to sleep at night.” Given the scrutiny surrounding their relationship, “I feel like I’m in the middle of a soap opera. I honestly know what it’s like to have a broken heart now.”
And don’t listen to the reconciliation rumors. For the time being, at least, the 6’1″ Timberlake says he is definitively unattached. Even so, he says, “I love Britney, and I’ll always love her.”
So what went wrong? Blame the usual suspects: youth, distance and competing careers. “You can’t have a real relationship when you see each other only two days a month,” says Timberlake’s mother, Lynn Harless, 41. Timberlake, who calls the breakup “mutual,” agrees, noting that his priorities are shifting. “I just want to focus on my career,” he says. “I want to enjoy the simple things. I want to take three days off when I want to, not when it’s on my calendar. I want to go run in the park with my sweats on because I can. That’s where I’m at right now.”
Although still nursing his wounds, he has not allowed a broken heart to get in the way of a good time. Since splitting from Spears, Timberlake has hit the dance floor on both coasts—sparking romance rumors in April after a particularly close encounter with ‘N Sync dancer Jenna Dewan, 21. (For the record: “I haven’t been with anyone,” he says. “Not a date, not a kiss.”) And during the group’s recent tour, Timberlake partied almost nightly with his bandmates and visited the strip-club circuit. A little post-Britney debauchery? You bet. After the strain of maintaining a long-distance relationship, “that’s when it’s time to take a break and sow your oats,” he says. “It’s part of being 21.”
Those close to him, however, say that beneath the single-guy bravura, Timberlake is still a one-woman man. “Ever since I’ve known him, he’s always had somebody,” notes fellow ‘N Syncer Lance Bass, 23, who first met a 14-year-old Timberlake in 1995. “That says he doesn’t enjoy the chase that much.”
Timberlake himself confirms that sentiment. “I never liked dating in the first place,” he says. “I believe it’s about four to six weeks of somebody acting like somebody they’re really not. And you start to see the real them and you’re like, ‘Whoa! Where did you come from?’ ” Still, he does have his preferences. “He always said he was a butt man,” says his mom with a laugh. Of course, “a good vibe and a big heart” also help, says Timberlake. Adds Bass: “He’s a great flirt. He knows how to make girls laugh.”
And how to make them swoon. A self-described “hopeless romantic” who lights candles in his hotel rooms wherever he goes and revels in the old-fashioned bathtub he had installed in his Orlando home, Timberlake has displayed a flair for the grand gesture since before he was old enough to drive. His mom recalls an adolescent Justin wooing a girlfriend with a carefully planned picnic. “He bought a bottle of sparkling grape juice, Alfredo pasta and fixed up a basket,” says Harless. “He’s thoughtful about trying to surprise people.”
She should know. “When he was little, I used to say, ‘Justin, someday when you get rich and famous, will you buy me a Harley?’ ” recalls his mom. (She and Justin’s father, Randall Timberlake, 42, divorced when Justin was 3.) “It was just a joke between us.” Gotcha, Mom: Several Christmases ago, when Timberlake cashed his first big ‘N Sync paycheck, he surprised his mother with a jewelry box. Inside? The keys to her very own hog.
Of course, Timberlake reserved his most romantic surprises for Spears. “My head spun,” he says of their first meeting as costars on The Mickey Mouse Club in ’93. They reunited in ’98 when Spears appeared as an opening act for ‘N Sync. By the time their relationship was in full swing, Timberlake had traded grape juice for more elaborate overtures. On Valentine’s Day, 2000, “we were rehearsing, and one dude comes in and reads a really nice note to Britney from Justin,” recalls choreographer and producer Wade Robson, 19, a friend of both stars. “We thought it was going to end there, when all of a sudden a five-piece band comes in and plays Michael Jackson’s ‘The Lady in My Life.’ That’s typical Justin.”
Growing up in Millington, Timberlake honed his yes-ma’am manners early on. “I’ve never seen Justin sit down and eat—even a sandwich—without saying grace first,” says his grandmother. Five years old when his mother got remarried, to banker Paul Harless, 44, Timberlake and his stepfather forged a tight bond. His dad eventually remarried and had two more children—Jonathan, 8, and Stephen, 3—and both families now live within five miles of each other. “He’s talked to me about how he really hopes his daddy is there for his brothers,” says his mother. “He’s thought about what kind of father he wants to be.”
But fatherhood can wait. For now, Timberlake—who began taking voice lessons at age 8 and has been working steadily since his Mouseketeer days—is having too much fun indulging his childhood fantasies. “Y’know what? You’d think we’re 13 when we’re together with all our toys,” says R&B singer Brian McKnight, 33, a pal since the mid-’90s. “The thing is, we’ve got grown-up toys now.” No kidding. Timberlake’s car collection includes three Mercedes, two Cadillac Escalades, an Audi TT, a Dodge Viper, a BMW and a Porsche, plus five motorcycles and three Sea-Doos.
Did we mention the toy room? An avid basketball and video-game player, Timberlake’s three-bedroom Orlando pad features a fun zone complete with pinball machine, Xbox and PlayStation. He also invites friends for weekly matches of Cranium and charades. “You want him to be on your team,” says pal Robson. “He’s quick.”
Claiming not to have inherited his granny’s kitchen skills—”I can cook a mean Pop-Tart,” he says with a laugh—Timberlake instead spends time on the putting green he recently had installed in his backyard. “I took up golf last year and I love it,” he says.
Not that he’ll be trading his hip-hop look for PGA-approved duds anytime soon. With five tattoos and counting, “he comes home and says, ‘Look what I did!’ ” says his mom. His approach to grooming is far less spontaneous. “He’ll take an hour to get ready,” says Bass. “Everything has to be perfect, especially his hair.”
Ah, The Hair. Since achieving stardom, Timberlake’s blond curls—now shorn—have been more closely scrutinized than his ex-girlfriend’s navel. “When he had curly hair, we’d joke around with him, like, ‘Uh-oh! Curl No. 66 is out of place!’ ” says Bass. “He wants to make sure he looks good.”
That perfectionist streak can sometimes lead to a temper, says his mom, who acknowledges, “he can be moody, mostly when it comes to his work.” Nonetheless, “he’s not a grudge holder,” says Robson.
Clearly that seems to be the case with his famous ex. “I still talk to her on the phone,” says Timberlake. “I hold her in the highest light.” Despite the split, “he’s like a member of our family,” says Spears’s father, Jamie, 49, who lives in Kentwood, La. “He’s a good kid.”
Make that a man—and one who is unlikely to be single for long. “I think he’ll be a very loving husband, and when he makes the commitment, that will be it,” says his grandmother. “For that reason, I’d like him to take his time and be sure of everything.”
Todd Gold, Marisa Laudadio and Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles and Chris Coats in Kentwood