Justin Timberlake: Go Ahead, Set Him on Fire
Justin Timberlake and I are standing in our underwear in his hotel suite. He’s wearing white boxers and a wifebeater. I’m wearing plaid boxers and back hair. We met maybe two minutes ago.
«I can’t believe how quickly you got my pants off», I say.
«It’s a gift», he says.
Timberlake’s open suitcase sits next to the window in the bedroom. He is a fastidious packer. In the other room, a buffet has been laid out, with platters of fruit, big cookies, and cans of pop. He’s eaten only cookies, and yet he has a very flat stomach. Broad, smooth shoulders. A couple of tattoos, including a big cross on his upper left arm. A low forehead. Really straight teeth.
He can also do this thing with his eyes that makes them seem more intense, as if he’s squeezing the light into them. Timberlake’s eyes look like that now, he’s so excited. He’s sparked up like a kid, and his spark is infectious. He could propose anything in the world, and I would do it. I’m already not wearing pants. I must obey Justin Timberlake.
«Dude, this is going to be awesome», he says. «Let’s do Bert and Ernie. I think it’ll make for better bonding».
There are four costumes hanging in his bedroom closet. They are very sketchy. Apparently, his assistant bought them, maybe in an alley somewhere, out the back of a cube van. There is Cookie Monster, a strung-out-looking Elmo, and Bert and Ernie. If the police stormed in right now, we’d have a lot of explaining to do, except that we’re in San Diego. And the 2011 edition of Comic-Con is happening across the street.
«You’re Bert, okay?» Timberlake says. «Is that cool?»
«Sure», I hear myself say. «Totally cool». Deep down, I must have always wanted to dress up like Bert with Justin Timberlake in San Diego. It’s weird that it’s finally happening.
The costumes were probably not made in America. They’re almost certainly made of a highly flammable material. They’re slick and shiny. The deflated fuzzy heads we’ve dropped on the floor make it look as though Bert and Ernie have been in a terrible accident. Despite my inability to resist Timberlake’s fetishistic wishes, I’m not sure this is the best idea. People wear much more awesome costumes to Comic-Con: Darth Vader and Captain America and the blue people from Avatar and the Joker in a nurse’s uniform — really serious getups, film-set quality. I fear that we’re going to look like the geeks who aren’t even cool enough to hang out with the geeks, like the outermost rings of Saturn.
Timberlake’s unstoppable, though. «I’ve been planning this for months», he says, so we start getting dressed.
My Bert costume is really riding up into my armpits for some reason. «Ernie’s made for someone with a short body», Timberlake says, gesturing at the striped shirt that’s a little too small to cover his very flat, and apparently overly long, stomach. I think I might try to blow him later.
We quickly discover that the costumes do not come with shoes, nor do they have pockets. He slips on a pair of old-school sneakers and stuffs some money into his sock. «It’s like we’re in Compton», he says. I’m wearing flip-flops. I have to put my money in my underwear.
Then we put on our heads. They have almost architectural hoods inside of them to make sure they keep their shape. We look at each other through the mesh whites of our very wide eyes, over our giant sponge noses and enormous smiles. I would raise my unibrow if I could: The heads actually look surprisingly good. Justin Timberlake does not look anything like Justin Timberlake anymore.
We walk over to the window together. We’re on the twentieth floor. It’s a beautiful view on a beautiful day.
«So that’s it right there?» Timberlake says, pointing at the large, low, long building across the street and some train tracks. That’s it — the San Diego Convention Center. There are rows of doors with big letters above them. Directly across from us is the entrance marked with a big H. A couple of hours ago, Timberlake stood on a stage on the other side of those doors, in Hall H, in front of sixty-five hundred cheering fans. A shy-seeming Amanda Seyfried stood beside him in a little dress. They’re appearing together in a science-fiction movie called In Time that will be released in late October, and they came here, to Comic-Con, to promote it. Before them, Charlize Theron promoted her upcoming movie, and after them, Andy Serkis promoted his. They received loud applause, but they did not receive anything like the ovation that Timberlake received. I am not alone in my love, apparently, which is strange, because you would think the comic-book geeks would hate him, this beautiful, triumphant man who has had and done everything, including Jessica Biel. When Timberlake received his ovation, it was as though the trench-coat kids were cheering the first-string football hero to another certain victory — not just the first-string football hero, but also the valedictorian, the guy voted Most Likely to Succeed, the teacher’s most favorite pet, the class clown, and the prom king. They cheered him because they want him to have more of the things he already has. They cheered him because —
«SNL has been huge for me», Timberlake says.
That’s it, really. They cheered him because he once sang a fake song with Andy Samberg on Saturday Night Live about putting his dick in a box and offering it as a gift. If it weren’t for «Dick in a Box», there’s every possibility that Timberlake wouldn’t be standing in this hotel room dressed like Ernie, beside some guy dressed like Bert, about to walk through the crowded exhibits at Comic-Con, one of the very few men in the world who somehow becomes less conspicuous when he pulls on a huge orange head. That’s how fickle this life is. It can turn in an instant.
We go out into the hall. Timberlake’s bodyguard, a gigantic African-American man named Eric, looks out the open door of his room and just shakes his head. He does not get up to follow us. Not far past Eric’s room, a young couple is already waiting for the elevator. Both of them are very excited to see Bert and Ernie walking down a hotel hallway toward them. I can’t tell if they would be more or less excited if they knew that Justin Timberlake is walking toward them, too.
It’s kind of nice to be greeted so warmly when you walk toward an elevator, to make an instant connection with strangers. Here we are, wearing out-of-the-bag Bert and Ernie costumes, my flip-flops clacking away and a sliver of Timberlake’s wifebeater showing below the bottom of his shirt and his money stuffed into his sock, and this young couple is really delighted to be riding down in the elevator with us. It’s like they’ve forgotten that real people are inside the costumes. We’re not men anymore. We’re joy. We’re fantasy.
Timberlake’s a genius. This really is going to be awesome. It doesn’t matter that our costumes suck; it might even be better that they do. All that matters is that we’re going to be loved.
Fame is a very strange thing.
There’s a train rolling along the tracks, and we have to wait for it to pass before we can walk across to the Convention Center. There are hundreds of people streaming toward the exhibits, and the crowd is building up behind us. Lots of people ask to take our photos, and they stand between us, smiling, thumbs-up. None of them has any idea who they’re really taking their picture with. Timberlake gets visibly nervous the more closed in we get, his legs jittery, his big head swiveling side to side. I’ve asked him to take off his mask at some perfect moment this afternoon, to give some teenage girl the thrill of her young life. «No way, dude», he says. «You have no idea what it’s like». Today is the first time he’s walked this freely around in public, he says, since 2001, maybe 2002, since he began making the remarkable transition from boy-band tenderfoot to solo singer to all-around entertainer to sketchy Ernie guy. «I can sometimes walk around New York if I dress the right way», he says, «but that’s it».
A few weeks before he arrived in San Diego, Timberlake was in New York, dressed the wrong way. He was at the premiere of his movie Bad Teacher, one of three — including Friends with Benefits and In Time — that he had coming out in rapid succession, because acting is what he’s feeling right now. The event was taking place at the Ziegfeld in midtown Manhattan. Timberlake had walked across the street toward the crowd that was waiting behind ropes on the opposite sidewalk. There were mostly women and girls, but there were a few men and boys there, too, because Timberlake is one of those rare performers who can be all things to all people. And that New York crowd, the crowd that was waiting there for him, was going nuts. It was like one of those crowds that you see in old television reels: girls screaming, crying, clutching their chests, straining for autographs or just a touch of an outstretched hand. It was weird to watch, that kind of outpouring for a thirty-year-old guy from Tennessee who packs his suitcase very carefully and enjoys eating cookies. Justin Timberlake is — and has become an oversize success mostly because he is — just a dude.
But he’s also a dude with reach. Today is Thursday. On Monday, he was at the Ziegfeld again, this time for the premiere of Friends with Benefits. On Tuesday, he was on Jimmy Fallon, performing «History of Rap, Part 2», one of those sure-to-be-viral hits for which he seems to have an incomparable knack. Yesterday, he was on Conan. Today, he stood in front of sixty-five hundred cheering fans at Comic-Con. Tomorrow, he’s flying back to Los Angeles, and then on Saturday, he leaves for a European promotional tour, from Russia to Germany to France to England, where more crowds will be screaming for him, in many languages, his name the only constant.
«You’re sure this is the right way?» he asks, the way a man who has only one chance to get something right might ask it. Yes, it’s the right way. The train has finally passed, and the crowd pushes at once toward the Convention Center. We stand out from the middle of it, orange and yellow. People are shouting our names. They’re giving us high-fives and fist bumps. They’re taking more pictures. A little girl, sitting on her mother’s shoulders, can’t take her eyes off us. I’ve never felt anything like this. Earlier, back on the stage in Hall H, Timberlake had been interrupted by a woman in the crowd who’d yelled «I love you!» to him. «I love you, too», he’d said back, and I’d suspected that only one of them had meant it. But now I can see it’s very easy to give love when you’re given love so easily. God, I’m having a great time — one of the best times. We’re not walking across the street so much as we’re being carried across it. Everything seems so effortless. I feel so comfortable, so confident. Why can’t it be like this when I’m not wearing some crappy costume? Maybe he’s right, that I don’t know what it’s like, but this must be a little what it’s like to be Justin Timberlake.
«I keep forgetting, when people ask to take our picture», he says as we finally reach the doors of the Convention Center. «It’s because I’m Ernie. It’s not because I’m me».
But because he’s him, and because he has magic powers, we pass a booth not long after we go inside, and it’s blasting out one of his songs. We stop, and there’s a crowd gathered — it’s a booth promoting The Avengers, and a couple of guys are giving away T-shirts or something, it’s hard to see — and the crowd is cheering over the sounds of «LoveStoned», a song Timberlake recorded back in 2006 and now is listening to over loudspeakers in 2011.
This is how far he’s come: Back in 2003, when he was first taking root as a man of his own, Timberlake played a set at a SARS benefit concert in Toronto. It was a rare misstep. The show’s lineup consisted mostly of old-school rock — headlined by the Rolling Stones, with Rush, AC/DC, and the Guess Who — and the crowd wasn’t having any of «Cry Me a River». Some serious meatheads began chanting «Timberlake’s a fag!» Then the bottles came raining down on his head. And muffins. A bizarre number of muffins. But after he’d finished playing, when he might have been as angry or sad or humiliated as he has ever been, Timberlake spoke to the press and this is what he said: «If I came to see AC/DC, I probably wouldn’t want to see me, either». And now, all these years later, those same meatheads probably love Justin Timberlake just as much as everyone else does. They probably laughed at «Dick in a Box» and went to see him in The Social Network and maybe even bought his tequila (901) or his clothes (William Rast). They probably still catch themselves singing «Cry Me a River» when they’re in the shower.
Now Justin Timberlake is standing in front of The Avengers booth at Comic-Con, shaking his massive head at the idea that his music is still floating through the air and into his tiny orange ears. «I can’t believe they’re playing one of my songs», he says, and he really does sound dumbstruck. He seems genuinely moved by the idea that people might enjoy what he does — maybe because all the love he receives is now from too great a distance for him to really feel it, like that moment when the woman yelled from the crowd and he was up on the stage. She, not he, was the one out of range. But today, this afternoon, thanks to his ridiculous costume, he’s able to feel it again. He’s able to stand in the middle of things once again, without fear, without needing Eric to stand between him and the love. I might feel like more of a celebrity than I’ve ever been, but he’s happily been feeling like less of one. He turns to walk around Comic-Con, the sound of his music fading into the background, as invisible as he’s been in years.
«You’re witnessing one of the most memorable days of my life», he says.
Later, after we go back to his hotel, he becomes Justin Timberlake again: low forehead, really straight teeth. And he finally consents to show me what it’s like. For the first time in a long time, he’s going to use the front door.
This time, Eric comes with us. Eric’s definitely coming with us. We go down the elevator. Just after the doors open, we — well, he — he starts getting sideways glances in the lobby. Then we step outside. It takes exactly three seconds — literally, three seconds — for the afternoon to disappear into night. Flashes start going off. People run in front of traffic, sprinting toward him. A crowd forms quickly, coming at us from all sides. A girl cries.
And nobody’s smiling. Nobody’s happy. This isn’t love. It’s fame, pure and uncut. And Timberlake just keeps walking through it. He never comes close to stopping. He can’t stop. He can never stop. He signs autographs, he looks into the cameras, but not once does he break stride. Eric makes a path for him, and Timberlake follows in his wake. All he can see is Eric’s back and flashing lights. All he can hear is screaming.
The beginning of the end came during the elevator ride back up to the twentieth floor, when we were still Bert and Ernie, each still buzzing for our own reasons. The elevator walls were decorated with murals promoting True Blood; vampires surrounded us, blood trickling down their chins. There were maybe eight other people going up. I took off my head to get some air. Timberlake kept his on. In the corner stood a man dressed like a penguin. He had the head of a penguin, at least, and the body of a man. He looked around the elevator, his beak pointing in one direction and then another.
«This is a very strange scene», the penguin said.
Dude, I thought. You have no idea.
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