Life on the Other Side of Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll
There. I’ve said it. Let the chips fall where they may.
For most of the oughts – the years between 2000 and 2009, when I worked at E!, — I never once uttered a word of derision about Mr. Timberlake. If I mentioned his name at all, it was with respect and admiration. It wasn’t because I was a fan, or even because I wasn’t: it was because any indication that I thought Justin was less than godly could have professionally dire consequences. If Sonia Muckle, Justin’s publicist, got wind of even the most innocuous comment, E! could lose access to Justin, and that would be very, very bad.
The first time I spoke to Sonia was after E! ran a story about Justin performing at the House of Blues following his arena gig in Los Angeles. We called it it an “afterparty.” Sonia was furious.
“It wasn’t an afterparty,” she hissed. “It was an aftershow.”
It was unclear as to what the difference was; it was unclear as to what had made Sonia so angry. But it was irrelevant: all that mattered was from that moment forward, we never again chose a noun or a verb to describe anything Justin-related without first clearing it with Sonia.
Over the years, I became very fond of Sonia. I began to consider her a friend, and as time passed, I found myself more in awe of her than I was afraid. She was brilliant, and, as far as I could tell, Justin’s perfect image was based entirely on Sonia’s superintendence. Which isn’t to say she wasn’t scary: the wrath of Sonia would be visited upon me whenever E! dared to report, say, that Justin and Cameron had broken up. (It didn’t matter that Cameron and Justin’s heartbreaking split was on the cover of every tabloid.)
I met Justin exactly once. It did not go well.
It was during a shoot for the Daily 10, an E! News show distinguished mainly by the host’s mawkish on-air attempts to befriend every celebrity they interviewed. It was my last official shoot for E!, and I wasn’t thrilled about it, mainly because it was taking place during Justin’s annual charity golf tournament in Las Vegas, a city I – a degenerate gambler – devoutly avoid. I went only because Sonia insisted on my presence. (She may have insisted I be there as a favor to me; Sonia was IMPORTANT, and I became important by association.)
The segment was built around E! Television Personality Sal Masakela, who was golfing as part of Justin’s foursome. (Sal was 90 minutes late for the shoot; Good Guy Justin was far less irritated than I was.) It was the perfect shoot for the Daily 10 — Sal and Justin would be getting on famously for the duration of 18 holes. There’d be good-natured ribbing, backslapping and inside jokes. Justin and Sal were pals. E! was Inside Entertainment. No overworked/underpaid producer was going to have to sit in an edit bay for hours, trying to scrape together the buddy-buddy bonhomie that was the essence of every Daily 10 segment: there’d be an abundance of it.
When it came time to do the interview — which was in itself a logistical nightmare involving security, stanchions, and hard-to-find privacy — Sal and Justin relived the highlights of their Fun Afternoon. Then Sal asked about “The Social Network,” which had just wrapped.
I don’t know what came over me; I don’t know why I thought that Justin Timberlake – a professional actor – wouldn’t know the name of the character he’d been portraying during the months-long production of the film. But I did. “In the film, I play Sean…,” Justin said, inexplicably pausing in a way that I mistook for confusion or a lapse in memory. “FANNING!” I yelled helpfully. “His last name is Fanning!”
The room went silent. The cameras stopped running. Justin, who’d been in my vicinity for hours but had never even glanced in my direction, looked at me with both venom and pity while Sal and Sonia hrumphed with contempt. “I play Sean Parker,” Justin said quietly. “He was Sean Fanning’s partner.”
I’m sure I turned several shades of red while simultaneously playing it off like it was no big deal. But it was. In that moment, the years that I’d spent trying to convince Sonia I was worthy of her attention became meaningless. What would qualify merely as an unfortunate gaffe in any other situation was a misstep of epic proportion. I can’t say for sure that my relationship with Sonia fell apart on that day, I can only say that the last thing I ever said to her was “I’ll let you know when the story’s going to air.”
I didn’t like Sonia because of her relationship with Justin or because she wielded so much power in the little tiny world of entertainment news. I didn’t like her because, by way of a press release in the aftermath of the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake Nipple Scandal, she introduced the phrase “Wardrobe Malfunction” to the world. I liked Sonia for Sonia.
Sonia may have iced me out after I left E! because I no longer served any tangible purpose, but I refuse to believe it. I prefer to think it was because of the Vegas Incident. It may be embarrassing, but it’s easier.