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Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake


He's barely old enough to vote. But he's wise enough to ignore gay rumors and welcome gay fans. No lawsuits; no put-downs. That's why Justin Timberlake is one of The Advocate's 10 Coolest Straight People of 2002

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 soeeculation 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.

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