Justin Timberlake

By Larry Flick

Originally published on Advocate.com December 10 2002 1:00 AM ET

Justin Timberlake
is an anomaly in pop music. At a time when
jock-grabbin’ rappers and tight-fisted rockers are
mining platinum sales on the basis of a
heterocentricity that specifically—often
phobically—excludes gays, he strives to play on a
level, all-inclusive playing field. Since rising to
fame as the “soulful blond one” in ’N
Sync several years ago, he’s not only captured
the fanciful attention of teenage girls, he’s
also become the object of many a young gay man’s
fantasy—a fact that makes him grin and declare,
“That’s cool. I’m down with
it.”

Actually,
Timberlake is apparently more than cool with queer ties
bound to him. A perennial figure on the tabloid
media’s guess list of closeted
homosexuals—despite a much-publicized romance with
fellow teen dream Britney Spears—he’s
angered not by the sœeculation but by the notion that
he’d conceal the truth about himself. “If I
was gay,” he asserts, “that
wouldn’t be a big deal, so why would I hide
it?”

Just as he
delights in confounding racial separatists by crafting
material that demands airplay on African-American-dominated
R&B radio stations, he playfully toys with
queer-conscious imagery—as evidenced by a
smoldering homoerotic photo shoot he did with photographer
Steven Klein earlier this year for England’s
Arena Homme magazine as well as by his
portrayal of a young Elton John in the video for the single
“This Train.” For Timberlake, it all
adds up to a chance to “step outside
myself” in an empathetic manner. For his gay
audience, it’s a chance to witness and
appreciate the actions of a cool straight man whose poise
and maturity belie his 21 years.

What do you think about the fact that you probably have
as many gay male fans as you do hetero female ones?

I’ve been screaming for years about the
power of music and how the beauty of it is that it can
bring all kinds of different people
together—different races, different cultures,
different sexual orientations. It’s one of the
reasons why I make music—to live in a world
where it’s cool to be whatever and whoever you are.

When did you first become aware of your gay following?
It was always there, and I have always been
aware of it. I’m the kind of artist who wants
to know all of his audience and what they’re about.
Actually, it’s funny to be talking about gay people
being into me and ’N Sync right now, because
I’m also answering a lot of questions lately
about being heard and accepted in the urban world. It
strikes me as odd that people in the media are so
curious or surprised to see people of different
backgrounds or with different lives embracing some of the
same things. I don’t see what the fuss is all
about.

Have you ever felt like you or ’N Sync were being
marketed to specifically attract gay listeners?

No, I don’t think so. From song to song
we saw where things went and let it roll naturally.
There was never a plan beyond making songs that a lot
of people might like.

One typical straight-male teen put-down of so-called boy
bands is that they’re “too
gay.” How do you respond to that?

It’s a case of people being narrow-minded
and judgmental. But that’s part of life, I
suppose. If you put yourself out there, you’re going
to have haters—people who are there just to try
to knock you down. It’s a drag, but at the same
time, I don’t really care. If I was to let everything
that people say hurt me, I’d go crazy. The truth is
that people have wanted to write me and the group off
from the very beginning. After all of that, the least
of my concerns is whether or not people think my music
is “too gay.”

Can you tell me whether any of your
“handlers” are gay?

I respect the privacy of people in my life
because I know what it’s like to have your
privacy violated. Suffice it to say that I have amazing
people around me and some of them are gay.

Without outing anyone, do you know of popular young gay
musicians who are afraid to come out?

I don’t know that I’ve encountered
anyone who’s afraid to come out as much as
they’ve chosen not to at this point in their lives.

Have you discussed this with them? What do you think
about how hard or easy it might be to come out?
As far as America is concerned—as opposed to
Europe, where there’s a vast difference in how
gays are perceived—the need to stay in the closet
seems to stem more from childhood and less from pressures of
any specific industry. It also has a lot to do with
the times and culture. For people in my generation,
it’s been easier to talk about being gay than in
yours.

[Coughs, laughs] My generation?
[Grins] I’m 21. How old are you?

I’m 39, which makes me 18 years older than
you—which makes me old enough to be your father.
Wassup, Daddy! [Laughs] Nah, nah, I’m just
playing with you. But seriously, back when you turned
21, coming out of the closet was not acceptable at
all. It seems like an easier time now to be coming out,
though I would imagine that it’s tough any time
you’re dealing with something big in your life.
Just 21, period, it’s tough. It was for me,
just in terms of living in a world that just doesn’t
always seem fair on so many levels. But in terms of
anyone coming out, including an artist in the music
business, it seems to me that it would stem from insecurity
that someone in their past has inflicted upon them,
something from long before they were in the business.

Do you think the industry and the people who buy records
are more accepting of gay people?

Maybe I’m naive, but I think so. The
world is constantly evolving. There are still racist
and sexist people, but more people are getting smarter.

It’s often said that teen-oriented acts carry
responsibility as role models to their fans. Have
you felt that kind of responsibility toward your
young gay fans?

I’ve felt a responsibility to a
particular group of people. To me, the real role
models of the world are parents. That’s where
I’ve always looked for guidance. I actually
asked my mother once how she would feel if I came to
her and told her that I was gay or if I was different from
the other kids in any other way, and she said, “I
would be completely accepting.”

Why did you ask her that?
No real reason, except I was starting to see how
the world was full of different people, and it made me
wonder what my mom thought. Looking back, it helped me
feel good about the person I was becoming. I know in
my heart, if I can make a decision my parents would feel
good about, I don’t have to worry about
anything else.

It sounds like you have a great relationship with your parents.
Yeah, I’m lucky. I was raised well. To go
back to the idea of me being a role model, I see young
boys coming to concerts with their heads shaved
because I shaved my head, stuff like that. I think
that’s cool. It’s great. But in the end
all I can do is tell kids what I’ve
learned—that you can’t change who you
are. And you shouldn’t change who you are
because of what someone else thinks or says. Be the person
you are. Be proud. That’s what makes you
beautiful. That’s what makes you special.

As a young boy from the South, what kind of exposure did
you have to gay people?

I was raised just outside Memphis, in
Millington, Tenn. There weren’t a lot of gay
people there. But that wasn’t even the big issue
there. This is the city where Martin Luther King was
assassinated. This was a conservative part of the
world. This was the Bible Belt.

What did you think when you first had contact with a gay person?
I’ve been in the business since I was 11
years old, so I had the chance to be exposed to the
world outside Millington from an early point in life.
I didn’t think anything different about gay people
from any other people I met. When you know who you
are, there’s no need to feel weird or
threatened or fearful of people who aren’t exactly
like you. People who are different can be more fun to
be around because you’re learning new things
and becoming smarter about that world. Beyond that, one of
my best friends from when I was 14 was gay.

What did you think when you found out?
I always knew. It just took him a while to get
the courage up to tell me. When he did, I told him
that it didn’t matter. It didn’t change the
fact that he was my friend. I wasn’t thinking
that he wanted to be more than my friend, and he
wasn’t.

It’s
funny, men are taught by TV and other types of media to
exploit women—to look at them as sex objects.
Men are taught to see anything on the opposite side of
themselves as something sexual, and I guess that
includes gay men. It’s crazy. But I think
that’s why there’s sometimes tension
between straight and gay men. We’ve been taught to be
predators, and straight men don’t always know
what to do with the idea of another man as something
to be pursued or exploited sexually.

It’s true. I find that every time I encounter a
straight man who finds out I’m gay, the
first thing he wonders is if I want to do him.

They’re used to seeing a female and
thinking about what it’s like to be in bed with
her. It’s ironic that straight society has such
strong opinions about something they don’t
really know about. I’m not going to say I
understand what it’s like to be a gay male.
That’s not my life experience. I can tell you
what it’s like to be in my shoes. And I can be
compassionate.

There’s been quite a bit of speculation about the
sexual orientation of many of the members of boy
bands, including you from time to time.

I’m sure there’s someone at some
tabloid right now writing that I’m gay and that
the whole thing with Britney was a smoke screen.
That’s the way the media works.

But you’ve been pretty casual about it. Why?
Because I don’t care. There’s also
been talk in the press about how I’ve become
some kind of playboy since Britney and I broke up.
That’s not who I am either. I don’t see
any point of living my life a certain way because of
what the press may print. My life consists of what I do in
the studio, the people I meet, the people I respond
to, my family, my spirituality, and that’s it.
With every male who becomes an icon, the media
speculates whether they’re gay. That’s
ridiculous. If I was gay, that wouldn’t be a
big deal, so why would I hide it?

It seems you’re willing to play with the
perceptions of your sexuality as well. I’m
thinking of the photo shoot you did with Steven Klein
for Arena Homme earlier this year.
What we went for was a sort of Fight
Club–Boogie Nights
vibe. I wanted to
play a Dirk Diggler type of character, placed in a scenario
like the ’70s and ’80s where there was a lot
of excess. In the end, it came out like gay porn meets
Fight Club.

Were you taken aback when you saw the pictures?
Not at all. When Steven and I sat down to talk about the
concept for the shoot, we went for the idea of me
playing a suburban kid who’s thrown into all
this excess; a period of time when things were
wild—an environment of porn and all kinds of
craziness. It was a fun shoot to do and a fun role for
me to play. It was no big deal. When I heard people
speculate about the pictures, I just smirked to myself and
thought it was cool.

What about your cameo as a hairdresser in On the Line?
Lance [Bass, of ’N Sync, who produced and
starred in the movie] wanted me to make a cameo. I
didn’t want to play myself; that’s lame. But I
said, if you let me do the ending credits, I’ll
make up something on the spot. So Chris [Kirkpatrick,
an ’N Sync member] and I decided to play hair and
makeup people. It was an inside joke that people in
Hollywood would get if they had a good sense of humor.

And how did you come to play Elton John in the
“This Train” video?

David LaChapelle, who directed the video, asked
me to do it. Like the Arena shoot and the On
the Line
thing, it was an actor piece for
me—a chance to step outside myself.

You’re playing a young Elton John in the video,
and we see someone who seems overwhelmed by fame,
sexuality, etc. What did you draw on within
yourself to make the role believable?

The craziness of stardom is what I really
related to. As far as who Elton was at the time in
terms of his sexuality, it wasn’t something he talked
about at the time. So David and I decided that everything
should be understated in that regard. Mostly I tapped
into the fact that behind the glasses, he just wanted
to be normal. I related to that.

Let’s talk about the power of music from another
angle. You did the charity single
“What’s Goin’ On” with Bono
last year. What drew you to the project?

Originally, the project was for kids in Africa
who are dying from AIDS illnesses. It was crazy timing
in that we did it two weeks before September 11. MTV
snagged it and used it for that purpose too. It
wasn’t the original intention of the track, but
I think everyone involved was happy to lend their
voices to some positivity during a dark time.

Was that record your first work relating to HIV and AIDS?
No. ’N Sync has a charity called Challenge for
Children. We do a big event every year to raise money
and divide it among all kinds of child-related
charities. That includes HIV-related charities for kids. We
raised $2 million this year.

Can music change the world?
Music can most definitely change the world, either
through making a strong, serious statement in your
songs or by making music that makes people happy.
I’m making music that can take people away from their
troubles for a few minutes. I think there’s value in
that.

What do you think of artists like Eminem who seem to work
in the other direction by imposing harsh lyrics?
People are free to express themselves, and I
don’t have to agree with every record
that’s made. Eminem’s lyrics are harsh, but
they’re designed to shock people and draw
attention. It’s like he’s jumping up and down,
screaming to be noticed without realizing the power of
music. Personally, I don’t take him as
seriously as the rest of the world does. I just don’t
see how you can take him seriously. He’s just so
over-the-top.

But music made by haters can be pretty influential.
You don’t have to take all music
that’s made and hold it close to you. You can
take it for what it’s worth and discard it. I choose
not to hold his music close to me. I choose to discard
it.

You work with a lot of hip-hop artists. What’s
your experience of homophobia—or acceptance
of homosexuality—in the world of rap and hip-hop?
I don’t allow negative people who hate around me
if I can help it. So I’ve mostly seen good,
positive things among the people I’ve worked with
in hip-hop. I don’t even consider the idea of people
being homophobic around me. People who work with me
know ahead of time that I don’t deal with any
kind of negative energy around me.

What is it about your record that an average gay music
fan would find interesting or appealing?

The same thing that I hope heterosexual people,
people of color, all kinds of people will find
interesting: the fact that it comes from the heart.
I’m not posing to attract certain people. I’m
just Justin, doing my thing as best I can—just
like everyone else in the world. Except that in my
world people are cool with each other. Being different is
all good.