A childhood crush on a New Kid turned me into a journalist and led me to New York.
I just celebrated my first birthday as a married woman. But instead of enjoying a romantic dinner with my husband, I was at sea with a long-lost crush who re-entered my life last year. My husband knows about him, and gave me his blessing to go with him on the three-day cruise to the Bahamas. He actually met the guy once, at a club on Canal Street six years ago. He's been supportive of this reunion, even when I came home giddy from a night out with him, or when I flew to Portland, Maine, in March for a spring rendezvous.
My husband says he understands that this man was in my life long before the two of us met. He knows we have history. But more than anything, he didn't mind me sailing off into the sunset with the guy because we weren't alone. Far from it. Joe brought four of his buddies along on the cruise. And a bunch of other women. Two thousand of them, all just like me.
The other man is Joe McIntyre, one of the New Kids on the Block. Yes, that pop group from the '80s. The boy band that begat Backstreet, 'N Sync, and the Jonas Brothers. But this is not a story about being a groupie. I am not a slut, a sad sack, or a stalker. And yet, the most obvious word for what I am—"fan"—doesn't seem to cut it. Fan doesn't encompass the way these five men have influenced my career, my ideas of love, and even my move to the United States.
Growing up in Australia, plenty of women had teenage crushes on American celebrities. Most faded. Only in the most extreme case does one ever marry their heartthrob, a la TomKat. While I didn't end up on Oprah, blushing because Joe jumped up and down on a couch over me, I did wind up in America with the love of my life—my husband—and I wonder if my New Kids-related reveries weren't partly responsible for getting me here.
Before New Kids, my friends and I had crushes on boys in higher grades, guys who never gave us the time of day. These five guys from Boston didn't know who we were either, but they appeared on our TV screens professing their love for their fans. They were young enough to still be in school, and if only we lived in America, maybe we'd have a chance with them. The New Kids never gave us the feeling that it was impossible.
They protected me from heartbreak, my infatuation ruling out any entanglements with flesh and blood teenaged boys pulsing with life and scary hormones. (My mother was thrilled, and happy to fuel my New Kids obsession with more T-shirts and posters.) Even after I went through my bad-boy stage, I returned to my teenage vision of my ideal man: a cute, funny, music-loving guy who would adore me, even if he didn't have the fancy footwork or falsetto of my first crush. Poll: What's The Best Song To Let Him Know You Want Him?
Like many love affairs, my rapid infatuation with the New Kids had a crescendo—laying eyes on them for the first time in 1992—and a collapse. By 1994, they had changed. They seemed angry, sullen. They grew facial hair and wore flannel shirts. They released a song calling a woman a "Dirty Dawg." Grunge and gangster rap were in and they struggled to remain relevant. A few months after adopting their new image they called it quits.
I was in college by then, and was no longer avoiding real, messy relationships. My past with the New Kids became a dusty secret shoved in the back of the closet. Occasionally I'd still break out an old photo and lose myself in the memories, or one of their songs would blindside me in the supermarket, stirring a bittersweet feeling of an easier, more innocent time. But even though I'd grown out of the most intense phase of my crush, I believed that if I were to meet Joe, my favorite New Kid, he would recognize me. He would feel my appreciation and love and would realize that I was special. He would know me. The First Man I Ever Loved Was A Celebrity
And then it happened.
I had landed a job at Interview magazine, and one day at work I was checking a NKOTB fan page. Usually it was just an exercise in nostalgia but this day there was actual news. Joe was going to be at a screening of an indie movie in TriBeCa. Sitting in my cubicle in SoHo, I squirmed with excitement. TriBeCa was a short walk from my office! I was now 21 years old and working at a cool New York magazine. And I was about to meet Joe in a situation that didn't require screaming at him from behind a wall of security guards. This was my chance.
Outside the TriBeCa Grill, eight or nine twentysomething women milled about in separate clusters. There was no sign of Joe. But by the time the buzz preceded him around the corner, the crowd had swelled. My heart was pounding. He was as familiar to me as a T-shirt you've worn into the softest comfort, yet this situation was startling new. I had seen him in 1992, but in tears, from the front row at a concert. Now, that 15-year-old inside me was jumping up and down in my skull screeching, "It's him! It's him!"
Finally it was my turn to shake his hand. "Joe, I'm from Australia," I blurted, desperately wanting to set myself apart from the other girls there. "Oh yeah?" he said, not looking up from the CD he was signing. When he did make eye contact, it was brief, flashing me his toothy smile before he moved onto the next girl.
I was still wired, but the disappointment was sharp. That was it? My big moment was entirely unremarkable for Joe. He was charming and polite, but he hadn't recognized me. Even worse was the realization: Of course he didn't. How could he? Why would he?
The shock was like learning there was no Santa. I felt an uneasy mix of happiness and humiliation as I watched him disappear into the building. There was only one thing to do. I went inside the TriBeCa Grill with my new friends, and I ordered a sundae and a beer.
I soon met him again, in my role as a journalist. After a few press events, he began to recognize me, and he knew who I was when we spoke on the phone for a Rolling Stone article I wrote on the New Kids. This was more like it! We were connecting on a level beyond fan and artist. We were professionals crossing paths. This might even lead somewhere—right? You never know.
If this was a real-life crush, I would have realized that a relationship, or even a tryst, was never going to happen. Instead, I latched onto what I thought were "signs." Like the night I ran into Joe at my local Duane Reade, and his bodyguard asked for my number. I went to their hotel suite that night, taking my friend Toni with me for safety and support. We shared a few awkward drinks with the bodyguard, but there was no sign of Joe. We got the hell out of there, and I was immediately taken over by a creepy sensation of going too far. Being in that room made me realize that I was being delusional to think something would ever happen. Time to grow up.
Joe's solo pursuits waxed and waned over the next few years, but I kept my distance (if you call going to see him in Tick, Tick Boom and sing at that nightclub on Canal Street with my husband "distance"). If I did meet him I ducked my head. There was a fine line between Joe recognizing me and thinking I was a crazy-stalker-fan.
After four or five quiet years, the New Kids on the Block reunited in 2008. Most of the guys have kids now. Joe's married. I'm married. I no longer think about chances and predestined moments. And yet—I've been to a handful of their reunion concerts, and on their cruise. Try explaining that as an evolved, intelligent adult.
Today the relationship feels like a familiar friendship, not unlike the way you feel when you reconnect with old classmates via Facebook. We have history, but I can laugh at our past and the way I used to act. I can experience this reunion with a wink and a wry smile.
My husband recently asked me if, now the cruise had come and gone, would my renewed New Kids activity wind down? No, I had to tell him. They're on tour all summer. And God knows what else in the fall. I'll be at their shows, and hoping for a chance to talk to them again as a journalist. Maybe there will come a moment where I finally get to tell Joe what he means to me—how much he's shaped my life. With thousands of screaming fans (and a few big strapping bodyguards) trailing them everywhere they go, it's unlikely I'll get the chance. But I won't let go of the idea just yet. You never know.