By Jeremy Helligar
February 08, 1999 12:00 PM

Eight-year-old Justin Timberlake had just wowed his hometown Memphis crowd when he got his first taste of things to come. Singing live as the warm-up act for a lip-synching contest, the third-grader and future member of the pop group ‘N Sync had hit all the high notes of a New Kids on the Block tune before jumping offstage into a screaming throng. “Little girls in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth grades just surrounded him,” says his stepfather, Paul Harless, 40, a marketing director. “It was like something out of a Beatles movie. They had him pinned up against a wall. Some wanted to get his autograph. Some tried to give him money.”

Back to the future. As a member of music’s hottest poster-boy band since Backstreet Boys, Timberlake, 18, is getting used to hysteria. Virtually unknown in the U.S. just one year ago, ‘N Sync–which also includes Lance Bass, 19, JC Chasez, 22, Joey Fatone Jr., 22, and Chris Kirkpatrick, 27–spent the holidays ensconced in Billboard‘s Top 10 with both its 1998 debut, ‘N Sync, and its November follow-up, Home for Christmas, which have sold 5 million and 1 million copies respectively. “It’s like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney,” says Fatone. “It just keeps going. We knew we were going to be successful, but we didn’t know it was going to happen as fast as it did or as big.”

The year-end double play topped six months of boffo buzz that began last July with the group’s popular Disney Channel special. In addition to the monster album sales that followed, ‘N Sync merchandise, including T-shirts and posters, has brought in millions, and their official bio has sold more than half a million copies. The only thing missing from ‘N Sync’s pop invasion is critical respect. “If all it takes for pop stars to win adolescent hearts and minds these days is the adequate abilities and pallid hooks of this bunch,” sniffed the Los Angeles Times, “then every other semiattractive singing, dancing young man in America should take heart.”

Such perceived shortcomings don’t deter their often shamelessly adoring fans. “In Germany two girls faked fainting and then jumped onstage,” says Fatone. And, adds Timberlake, “there was a girl at an airport who tried to go through the security baggage thing to get to us.” While the guys are flattered by the attention, they’re also puzzled by it. “When we read teen magazines, and they’re like, ‘These Fab Five hotties,'” says Fatone, “we’re like, ‘Wrong!'”

But comparisons to Backstreet Boys are not misplaced. The two groups were launched by the same manager (Johnny Wright, who also guided New Kids), and Kirkpatrick attended Orlando’s Valencia Community College, from which he graduated in 1993, with Backstreet Boy Howie Dorough. Although the two acts are duking it out on the charts, ‘N Sync denies rumors of a rivalry. “There’s always a little bit of, ‘Man, they’re doing that. I wish we could do that,'” says Kirkpatrick. “You know, a little envious, but who wouldn’t be?”

Like their bubblegum counterparts, ‘N Sync came together in Orlando, where Kirkpatrick, a Clarion, Pa., native, was singing and dancing in productions at Universal Studios theme park. Looking to start a group in 1995, he hooked up first with Timberlake, whom he had met at local auditions. Next came Chasez, a native of Washington, D.C., who had appeared with Timberlake for two years in the Disney Channel’s 1988-95 revival of The Mickey Mouse Club and was seeking to continue in a similarly squeaky-clean vein. “I wouldn’t go on TV grabbing this, that or the other and have my parents looking at that,” says Chasez. “That’s just the way I was raised.”

Next aboard were Brooklyn-born Fatone, Kirkpatrick’s fellow performer at Universal Studios, and Bass, a daycare worker from Clinton, Miss., who was recommended by Timberlake’s vocal coach.

Once they were in sync vocally, Timberlake’s mother, Lynn Harless, now 38 and owner of an Orlando management company, made them ‘N Sync by rearranging the last letters of their first names. In 1996 they teamed with Wright and signed with German label BMG. Scoring international hits with “I Want You Back” and “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” they spent the next two years touring in Europe, Asia, South Africa and Mexico with Harless and Bass’s mother, Diane, acting as chaperones. “We took care of them, fussed at them if they weren’t getting enough rest or food,” says Diane, 47, an English teacher in Clinton. “It was exhausting.”

Still unknown back home, ‘N Sync was introduced to U.S. audiences in April 1998 when BMG-imprint RCA Records released the debut album. Nearly one year after hitting the teen scene stateside, the guys remain connected to their pubescent following. “Age doesn’t matter,” says the dread-locked Kirkpatrick, who is twice as old as his average fan. “Especially with my hair the way it is. And I love little kids.”

Perhaps, though he’s not likely to father any of his own anytime soon, as he and the others remain steadfastly single. “If you want to try and become serious,” says Fatone, “you’re like, ‘I’ll see you in a couple of months. I gotta go off to work.’ That’s the hardest thing.” Nor is the schedule about to lighten. Having wrapped up one leg of their U.S. tour last month (they’re scheduled to head back out in March through May), the group is already recording a third album, due in the fall. And, carping critics be damned, they’re not about to change. “We’re not going to pierce everything that we have and paint our faces trying to get a different market,” says Kirkpatrick. “We’ll grow with our audience. We’re just going to keep doing what we do.”

Jeremy Helligar
Mary Green in Louisville and Grace Urn in Miami