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The boys of O-Town are in fashion heaven

N.Y. Daily News Feature Writer
January 23, 2001

In a midtown hotel suite, the group's stylists have assembled racks of clothes with chic labels ? DKNY, Guess, Miu Miu, Sean John, Polo ? and told the five to choose what they'd like to wear. They have to look good for the dozens of media appearances they will be making to promote today's release of "O-Town," their debut album.

"It's Christmas, and we get to pick all our presents!" shouts Dan Miller, who is especially excited about a box of Adidas shell-top sneakers. "Don't put them on top of each other!" he cries. "They'll get dirty."

Meanwhile, his bandmates haggle over who will get the best pieces. "Jake," asks Trevor Penick, "would you care if I wore this belt?" Penick is holding up a brown leather strap adorned with dangling chains and other hardware.

"Man, I wore that for the video shoot," Jacob Underwood replies, ending all negotiation. To be seen wearing an item associated with another O-Towner is a no-no.

Many Americans got to know the guys ? the others are Ashley Parker Angel and Erik-Michael Estrada ? when they arrived in millions of living rooms as cast members on "Making the Band," the ABC summer series in which five nobodies were plucked from a cattle call and quickly molded into what producers hope will be the next 'N Sync.

A combination of "The Real World," "Survivor" and "Fame," the show documented every waking moment in the nascent group's life, including every flat note, botched dance move and irresponsible act. All the while, Lou Pearlman, the controversial manager who discovered 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys, was flogging the "lab rats" to work harder and get focused.

"It better happen tomorrow," Pearlman barked at the group before one important showcase performance. "You guys better not blow it. I've got it all set up."

With all of America able to see into the process that turns five goofballs into wanna-be heartthrobs, you might think that the nation's teen population would have rejected O-Town (the "O" stands for Orlando, where the band is based) as just another marketing ploy. But the group's first single, "Liquid Dreams," became a Top 10 radio hit, and the album seems poised for similar success.

"Normally, when a group comes out, you only see the finished, polished product," Miller says while getting a haircut. "You see them on award shows when they're all fancy, and in videos when they're all made up. You don't see them in their pajamas. You don't see them when they hit wrong notes. And I think that vulnerability we have, thanks to the show, plays in our favor."

Also working in the group's favor are its connections. During the taping of the first season, Pearlman landed O-Town an audition with Clive Davis, the ousted founder of Arista Records, who was assembling acts for his new label, J Records.

Davis told O-Town he saw "star potential" and, in a storybook ending for "Making the Band's" first season, signed the group. "O-Town" will be J Records' first release and has been given all the usual promotional trappings associated with top talent, including a special-effects-driven video and a major publicity push.

"The idea is that O-Town is a wonderful way to start the label," says J Records senior executive Tom Corson. "They're a very high-profile artist that has been able to deliver a big hit. And mediawise, everybody's in. 'Good Morning America,' 'The Tonight Show' and 'The View.' They're going to be hosting [MTV's] 'TRL.' It's just one of these things that has a lot of momentum."

Of course, not everyone is happy about all the attention devoted to O-Town, especially other high-profile boy bands.

"We despise 'Making the Band,'" Backstreet's Kevin Richardson told the Daily News last fall. He said the show made it seem as if groups such as Backstreet and 'N Sync were nothing more than the puppet-like products of pop Svengali Pearlman.

"Yeah, it's not the way that it happens all the time," Miller says. "But this isn't Backstreet's story. This isn't 'N Sync's story. This is O-Town's story, and this is how Dan, Erik, Jacob, Trevor and Ashley came together. So that's where I think the criticism should stop."

With the pop industry inundated by Backstreet clones, many of O-Town's members keep saying that they'll set themselves apart with their music. But Estrada confesses that some of the band's material leaves him flat.

"I'm an R&B soul singer," says Estrada, who's from the Bronx. He had been studying music in college before joining the group. "I love soul music, and I like having the emotion and soul within me get poured through the speakers. A lot of time, with the music we're involved with, that gets filtered down and overproduced and made into pop."

Estrada says the five hope to remedy that on their next album: They plan to have a bigger role in writing and crafting the songs.

"We look to Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five and we look to the Beatles, who started off singing the simplest melodies and songs and evolved right in front of the world's eyes and continued to entertain and create for people at the highest level," Estrada says. "There are very few people that I try to be like, but that's something that I would love to accomplish."

If the group does go on to major success, we'll be there to see it. "Making the Band" starts its second season in the spring, and audiences will get to see everything from the band's recent split with Pearlman ? something the band says was amicable ? to the O-Towners' proclivity for weeping and group hugs.

"We were thrown into a situation that no one could understand but us," says Angel of the group's striking emotional openness. "Our lives were at stake. We knew this could be our one shot to do what we'd always wanted to do, and we turned to each other for support. The cameras would go away, and we would say, 'Hey, what's going on?'"