It’s February 11th, 2013. Only a month prior, Justin Timberlake had announced his first album release in seven years, a move that sparked shrieks and trembles in the homes and offices of fans worldwide. But on this particular night we learn something new about Timberlake’s plans as he takes the stage at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. Of course, we’d seen the signs with “Suit & Tie” the record’s lead single that seamlessly melded a booming horn-filled section with modern hip-hop. But we weren’t prepared for a slick-haired Timberlake, looking like a long lost member of the Rat Pack, crooning in the spotlight over an 18-piece band. Only then did we, the fans, realize—this is not a one-time epic performance to land his name back on top of the music world. This is a new era of our beloved JT. This era lasted until January 2nd, 2015, the final date of his 20/20 Experience World Tour.
I’ve spent the past 18 months following Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids (his band members, singers, and dancers), and I want to share with you the secrets and stories I’ve collected on my journey.
In these 18 months I’ve travelled to eight cities for 19 different shows, over the course of which I spent one amazing night at 30 Rockefeller Center watching him perform on SNL, agonized in a 10-hour line on a sweaty Manhattan sidewalk, and collected an arsenal of stories, celebrity encounters, and new friends along the way. But this is not my story alone. I’m lucky to have been a part of this sub-culture of JT fandom, where the die-hards call themselves, aptly, the #JTFam.
These die-hards were being reawoken from past love they probably never fully let go of. The majority of the women I’ve met on this tour began their journeys in adolescence following ‘Nsync, but here they met a new Justin. Not the vengeful Justin of “Cry Me a River.” Not the lady-playing smooth talker of “What Goes Around Comes Around.” Here they met a man: married, in love, and respected enough to earn him the few pinches of sass we hear in his verbal repertoire. If the Timberlake camp was looking for loyalty and commitment for the 13-month-stint they were about to embark on, they brought the awakening of his most loyal group of followers, the #JTFam. This is our story.
The Timberbiel Baby Is Very Real
When the last New York City show was announced at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, I knew I’d want to sit at the VIP tables in the back. If any show would deliver the glitz and glam that the VIP experience embodies, it would be this one. John is my waiter, and he keeps a round of fresh Chardonnays at my table. “You guys are in for an amazing show,” he tells me, “There are even a few special guests in the house tonight.”
“Oh yeah? Are they here right now?” I glance around the VIP, but all I see is middle-aged women checking their lipstick and a man in a yarmulke. “Oh yes, I’m taking care of them right now. They’re very close to you actually…you’ll see them.”
As the lights dim, an usher sneaks a group of people through the aisle to the table next to us in the VIP, so as to not be seen by the rest of the crowd. The leader of the pack is JT’s wife, Jessica Biel. She stuns in a gray jumpsuit throughout the show, singing along to every word before she’s scurried back out at the start of “Holy Grail,” the last song before intermission. By the way, we can confirm it for ourselves—the Timberbiel baby is coming.
We had a sneaking suspicion we’d see the likes of Taylor Swift and maybe even Queen Bey and Jay. They had all been spotted at Taylor’s now infamous 25th birthday party in Tribeca the night before. But with the show almost halfway over and the gang absent from the VIP section, we figured the special guests were Jessica and JT’s usual crew of hometown friends. That is until none other than Jay Z himself joins Timberlake on stage for “Holy Grail.” The crowd turns into a freak show, and I see one girl in the audience who is thrashing with the bass line harder than I am: Taylor Swift.
In a closed off section of loge seating directly behind us, her blonde bob knocks into the sisters of HAIM beside her, though her locks are hardly a contender next to Beyonce’s curling Beyhive, another member of the all-star squad who is saving a seat for her hubby when he’s done on stage. Aw, how domestic.
Hanging Out With The Tennessee Kids
I had driven from Montreal to Boston with my best friend Sigourney for two nights of The 20/20 Experience. After the end of the first show, we pour out of the stadium, and struggle to locate our AirBnB with our cell service shot (Canada and all.)
From a skeevy maintenance entrance on the side of the stadium, a dark figure emerges. I’m still seeing spots from the aftermath of the mildly-epileptic laser show JT just delivered, as the figure starts to approach us. I quickly go into fight-or-flight mode when the man shouts, “HEY!”
My heart beats faster with every step he takes toward us. Suddenly a cheshire smile starts to creep up my cheek—It’s one of the Tennessee Kids! And he’s about to give us directions. See? I knew I loved these guys.
“Hey you! It’s our biggest fan!” We hug—my pride filling the majority of the space between us. He asks us if we’re coming to the after party, where the tour opener DJ Freestyle Steve is spinning. While we had no intention of going (we had just begun cooling off from the 2 1/2 hour cardio routine JT just led), we reply with a nonchalant “Oh yeah, probably in a bit.” He invites us to come hang with the crew beforehand, which we not-so-reluctantly accept, after we grab a few things (shoes that don’t make you want to die) from our place. He gives us a hotel room number and we say goodbye for now. I repeat the room number out loud 20 times after I enter it in my phone, just in case this thing spontaneously combusts.
The get-together moves en masse from one hotel room to another. I keep my calm, reminding Sigourney of my one cardinal rule: “Don’t bring up Justin—we’re hanging out with some of the most talented people in the world. We can’t be fan-girling.” Due to the Tennessee Kids being stuck off that realness, this was surprisingly easy to do.
We let the Kids lead the way into the next hotel room, and from inside I hear, “Yo who did you bring in here?” I take a few steps closer to see it’s Aaron Camper, backup singer and newly solo artist (having JT withdrawals? Go listen to Aaron Camper’s ’My Heart’). He spots me, unmistakable in the neon yellow dress I was shaking in all night from the third row. “Oh shit!” he shouts, “It’s the crazy girl and her friend!” I nearly drop to the floor laughing, my status shifting from “Our Biggest Fan” to “The Crazy Girl.” “Oh is that what I’m called now? Mannnn…” As we share our first laugh together, for the first time in this epic run-in, I’m finally feeling comfortable.
The yellow dress that got me noticed, caught on video while shaking Justin’s hand at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.
People often ask me which show was the best of the tour, or which moment was my favorite. After months of deliberation, here it is:
I try to play it cool, hanging with the most talented musicians that I’ve grown to love over the past year, when Aaron calls me out for some old-fashioned ball busting.
“You must be having a few drinks at the show, huh?” I drop my jaw in half-fake surprise.
“No, me? Why would you think that?”
“Well, it’s ‘Cry Me a River’ and you two are going crazy head banging!” The room erupts with laughter, and I laugh along with them, though I’m secretly thinking, ‘Wait, everyone else isn’t doing that?’
“You’d be surprised I’m actually pretty dead sober at most of the shows.”
He barely believes me, “Well, how do you do it, going crazy for that long? You’re moving harder than all of us on stage for the entire show.”
I smile. My mom would be proud.
I answer his question with a question, “Well you tell me — how do you do it for almost 3 hours, night after night, traveling around the world. How do you not get tired?”
His answer is easy, “There’s something about the energy in the arena. When you get on stage, you can feel it in the air, connecting with the audience. It keeps you going.” And I think he knows he answered his own question to me, but I drive the point home “That’s what I’m talking about, man. We throw the energy at you and you throw it right back at us. That’s how I keep going.”
Aforementioned headbanging. Aaron Camper does not lie.
And in that moment, something became very apparent to me. The magic of this tour is more than my own experience. The energy I feel from Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids sparks a fire in me that spreads among each audience member around me. A contagion. Singing, dancing, shouting, writhing, rolling, dipping, and (literally) dripping in sweat. You wouldn’t know who I’m describing here, because it’s a shared experience. Between the dancers and the singers, the band members and the audience, and of course JT himself.
#JTFam: Blood is Thicker Than Water
This tour spawned a few self-sustaining ecosystems, of which the #JTFam is one. The Fam is not simply a group of followers behind Justin Timberlake. It is a subculture and a community, brought together with one purpose, yet now sharing so much more than a love for music.
These are not your One Direction fans. These are not teens and tweens, unsure of what love is, throwing their emotions into music to distract themselves from adolescence. These are women who learned about love to the melodies of ’Nsync, learned how to love in their own lives to the soundtrack of Timberlake’s first two solo albums, and are now established and independent. They don’t have to beg their parents for concert tickets for their birthdays. These women aren’t 13 anymore, and have their own incomes to spend as responsible adults. And with this great power, they’ve all congregated around one mission: to soak up as much of Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids as humanly (and financially) possible.
There are thousands of fans out there, and many refer to themselves as #TNKids and members of the #JTFam. But there is a smaller community of the elite—the true die-hards who meet on a minute-by-minute basis over Twitter to share stories of JT, music, and love for one another. They’ve become life-long friends spread throughout the world who keep in touch on more than the details of JT’s ongoing career, but on their own lives, successes, hardships, and all.
Mauri Belarmino chronicles the impact the tour has made on over 20 members of the JTFam in this tribute video.
These women are known in the community. They’re on a first name basis with one another, even if they’ve never met. You can hear people talking about them at the shows, celebrities in their own right, “Do you see her? That’s Amber from Twitter…yes! The one with the tattoo!” I’ve been lucky enough to have had a few of these experiences myself…
Kristie: The Infamous Two-Time JT “Panty-Slinger”
In Philadelphia this past December, a woman threw a pair of her panties on stage during the show with a note attached, “2nd time is a charm.” I knew this woman! At the exclusive MasterCard Priceless Surprises show at the Hammerstein Ballroom over the summer, she had pulled the same stunt. I finally got to catch up with the infamous two-time “panty-slinger,” Kristie Norkus, where I found out how it all started.
“It was about 15 minutes before he actually came on stage that I remembered I had and extra pair of panties in my bag. The idea honestly just popped into my head. I wasn’t thinking of anything except for ‘Holy hell, I’m going to throw a pair of panties at Justin.’ The next day, Kristie was the talk of the internet.
The first of Kristie’s infamous panty-slinging stunts, caught on video at the MasterCard #PricelessSurprises show at Hammerstein Ballroom.
Kristie met a few other fans on the set of the Target Commercial in Hoboken, New Jersey. “I never really lost contact with them. We just really hit it off and always stayed in touch.” Well over a year later, Kristie has built a world of connections through the #JTFam. “I have met some of the most wonderful people I will ever get to know. I met girls that flew in from France and Germany. The people that I have met mean more to me than I thought would be possible. This tour, this experience, these people, will be forever irreplaceable.”
#BriZBracelets: How a JT-Inspired Hobby Spread Across the Globe
I first found Bri on Twitter when pictures of Kandi bracelets started making their way into my feed. But these weren’t the bracelets I was used to seeing and trading at EDM festivals. Instead of rave-culture inspired taglines, there were JT references like “MY LOVE” and “#JTFAM” written in pony beads. Soon dubbed #BriZBraceletS, these artifacts of the #JTFam subculture were quickly emerging online. I was lucky enough to talk to Bri about how her hobby went global.
It all started when Bri was just a Cali girl trying to save up some money for a JT jacket. “I was unemployed at the time, and all I wanted was a JT jacket. So I just put it out there online—if you want to donate to the JT Help a Bitch Out cause, you can donate.” Soon, members of the #JTFam started sending her money. “It was really weird for me that people were helping like this and I didn’t give them anything in return, so I started sending them these bracelets as a way to say thanks.”
She started giving them away at shows, not just to fans, but to the band members, singers and dancers as well. Soon they became an extremely sought after item. Bri, now a chef in San Diego, started a business venture where she sells her bracelets through Etsy.
Bri’s bracelets are spread across the globe, which she says is perhaps the most mind-boggling part of this whole experience. “I don’t even have a passport but my bracelets are all around the world.” Her tokens of love can be found in Turkey, Germany, the UK, Canada, Austria, Scotland, and more. Just another glimpse into how this family has taken the fans to places we never thought we’d go.
Along the way, she personalized two very special bracelets for Zenya Bashford and Nicole Hurst, both singers for Justin Timberlake. “I made Zenya one with an angel on it to represent her mother who had passed away, and Nicole one with a pink ribbon in honor of her being a breast cancer survivor. That was very special for me to be able to share those with them.”
These special gifts represent the type of appreciation that the JT fandom has for not only the man himself, but for the magical group of people he’s brought together on this tour. Bri’s appreciation for Zenya and Nicole are just one of the gestures that this fandom so fully embodies both in and out of the arena: you take care of us and we take care of you.
10-Year-Old Sal: How JT’s Biggest Little Fan Made Him Cry
I first met Sal and his mother Kim in New York’s Madison Square Garden in February 2014. I wrote about him later that month, when his unmistakable charm and likeness to JT inspired DJ Freestyle Steve to pull him onto the B-stage to show off his moves before the show started. I kept in touch with Kim over Twitter that year, and she told me that she had framed the VH1 piece covering Sal’s big debut. I hoped to see Sal and Kim again at another show, but little did I know, nearly a year later, I’d get to see them again and share their special moment with the whole world.
I stood in the Barclays Center as Justin did his usual five minutes of audience interaction, a much-needed break after the first few punching songs of the show. Justin makes a point of interacting with the crowd at every show, his way of giving back to those who bring so much love and energy to each arena. Everybody wants to get called out during one of these breaks. JT wanders the stage, looking into the first 10 rows for a visual icebreaker at this party he is throwing for 20,000 people. Fans hold signs, “I came all the way from UK for my birthday!” “My 6th 20/20 Experience Show!” “#NotABadThing Making My Selfie Dream Come True!” He acknowledges many, and in the past has taken this time to sing fans happy birthday, helped men propose to their girlfriends, and on one occasion, even had the whole crowd flip the bird in response to a fan’s middle-fingered hello from the second row.
But on this particular night, the 128th show of the tour, a young stud caught Justin’s eyes. “What’s up man!” He tells his camera men over the mic, “You’ve got to get this guy—look at this outfit.”
Sal’s big moment with Justin Timberlake at the Barclays Center.
Young Sal is on the big screen, right where his biggest idol’s silhouette had been. When he spots himself up there, Sal points and screams. “I felt like I was going to die!” Sal tells me a month after the life-changing night. “I felt honored, and excited because he said he liked my outfit.”
Sal gave JT a bow tie, a gesture that elicits tears in both the audience and Mr. Timberlake. The entire crowd shares a booming “Awwww” as we watch a young man’s dream come true, exchanging the gift of live music for a gift of adoration. Rumored soon-to-be dad himself, Timberlake thanks Sal. “Hey man, greatest gift ever. ’Cause a gentleman can never have too many bow-ties…I love you, kiddo.” He pinches his nose to hold himself back losing it in front of the entire arena. “Shit, that got me.”
Only ten years old now, Sal has been a fan since he was only two. His mother Kim tells us, “He heard the song ‘Sexy Back’ when he was still in a car seat! I’d have to drive around the neighborhood playing that song all day, every day!”
It’s no doubt that JT has influenced Sal in a big way. Sal is a competitive dancer, and has garnered national coverage as a part of the Struck Boyz dance crew on America’s Got Talent, where he appeared at age 8. Sal tells me if he meets JT again, “I would ask him to teach me a dance combo from the 20/20 Experience, and I’d ask him to remember me and let me audition for his next tour! Then maybe we could eat and play some basketball.” As a performer, restaurant owner, and minority owner of the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team, I cannot imagine a more perfect day for Justin than dancing, eating, and ballin’ with Sal. And Sal, if you’re reading this, nobody is ever going to forget you, especially the big guy himself!
When I spoke with Kim about what she’d like to tell JT, she highlighted yet another reason he’s so likable with all kinds of crowds, “I would thank him for giving my son and me a memory that we will cherish forever! I’d also like to thank him for being the kind of role model everyone wants for their child. His talent and class are second to none, and it means the world to a parent.”
[Photo: Getty Images]