Like incurable acne even Jessica Simpson-endorsed Proactiv couldn't heal, Orlando's cultural face in the mid- to late '90s bore the pop blemish of boy bands defining our city for international audiences. In 1995, Backstreet Boys debuted their first official video, which starts out with an Orlando radio icon, XL 106.7's Hildi Brooks (most recently with WMMO), introducing "Orlando's own Backstreet Boys" in a mock on-air segment that prefaces the video for "We've Got It Goin' On." To outsiders, this was Orlando, where Disney's The All-New Mickey Mouse Club met religiously on Thursdays and our high schools pumped out pop icons faster than Zac Efron could bat a lash.
"If you grew up here during that time, yeah, [boy bands] were very much a part of high-school culture," says Dave Plotkin, longtime Orlando Weekly contributor, columnist and former art director who's spent his entire life here exploring (and scrutinizing) our city. "These kids went to high school here. Joey Fatone went to high school here. And you'd see Britney Spears appearing at a mall, or you'd see posters for it. That kind of stuff. That was real."
What's surreal is what happened to these young stars who fell into the grip of weasel impresario Lou Pearlman, whose bulging pockets sang in the background of the biggest boy bands, starting with New Kids on the Block. Plotkin became obsessed with Pearlman, the astonishing local schemer who notoriously took advantage of young talents (resulting in lawsuit after lawsuit after the boy-band bubble burst).
Plotkin says at the time, everybody knew someone who worked for Pearlman. He began taking note of the bizarre rumors he'd hear on campus at University of Central Florida or read about in national press, and then on a whim, Plotkin announced in 2002 in an informal email newsletter, "Cap'n Dave's Weakly Reader," (which he compiled out of sheer personal interest and grew to hundreds of subscribers) that he'd be looking into Pearlman for his next update. That turned the head of then-OW editor Bob Whitby, who responded to request that Plotkin report officially for OW, resulting in the cover story "Lou's next move" (Oct. 17, 2002).
Pearlman eventually was brought to justice, of course, not for exposing himself to Lance Bass (accused of such in 2007), or siphoning an inordinate percentage of profits from his entertainers (every band he's ever worked with has sued him for fraud or misrepresentation), but for exploiting gullible average folks who bought into his similarly nauseating talent agency scheme, conducted at Trans Continental Companies. This landed Pearlman behind bars in 2008 (sentenced to 25 years in prison; his expected release is March 2029), with an estimated $300 million owed to those he ripped off.
In his piece, Plotkin thoroughly investigated TCT (who became defensive about his "negative questioning" and denied him access to certain parts of the office on the flimsy excuse of retaining "trade secrets"). For the story, he spoke directly to Pearlman, who was mind-bogglingly even-keeled, even teasing.
One particular quote from the exchange was omitted from the original story but remained etched in Plotkin's head and is still tearin' up his heart after all these years.
"The answer that he gave that kind of stuck with me was in response to my question 'How long can this last?'" Plotkin says. "Because every person who's young thinks that pop is really relevant to their time and it's just the same fucking tricks. ... But the answer he gave was, 'This won't run out as long as God keeps making little girls.'"