Literature Society: The Hit Charade: Lou Pearlman, Boy Bands and the Biggest Ponzi Scheme in U.S History
If I had not chosen to name my website Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place, Nathan Rabin’s Morbid Fascinations would be a fine alternate title. For this website is largely devoted to my many, many morbid fascinations.
Disgraced boy band Svengali Lou Pearlman ranks high among my morbid fascinations. So when Pearlman’s estate was auctioned on Ebay many years ago, I swooped in, vulture-style, and picked up Pearlman’s Bachelor’s degree from Queens College, his Ph.D from Century University, his blimp license and a 20th Century Republican leader plaque adorned with the visages of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Richard Nixon and signed by Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell.
I unwisely gave away the blimp license as a birthday gift, but I hung onto everything else. They’re all stored in my son’s closet. So you can imagine how surreal it was to discover in the concluding pages of Tyler Gray’s wonderfully dishy 2008 expose The Hit Charade that I could very well be the unwitting owner of a Louis J. Pearlman fake. Incidentally, why is it that all of our most ridiculous, over-the-top cartoon characters, from Rocky J. Squirrel, to Homer J. Simpson, to Donald J. Trump, to Louis J. Pearlman, have the middle initial J?
Towards the end of The Hit Charade, Gray writes,
As the sentencing got underway, Judge Sharp, a silver-and-grey-haired man with a gravelly voice, leaned back in his chair and started off the morning by calling Pearlman to the podium and questioning yet another one of his claims: Lou had stated in a pre-sentencing memo that he had a Ph.D from Century University, which he’d earned online in 1983. “Our office did some checking,” Sharp said, and they could not confirm Pearlman’s degree. In fact, he said, “They weren’t even issuing online diplomas in 1983.”
“It wasn’t online,” Perlman responded. “It was a correspondence course.”
“It says ‘online’ on the report.” Sharp answered.
The fact that the judge had, on Lou’s day of reckoning, found another bogus claim caused a few scoffs and snorts in the audience.
When I read that passage, a surge of exhilaration shot through me. It was one thing to own the diploma of a disgraced boy band Svengali. But owning a genuine, authentic, one hundred percent real Louis. J. Pearlman forgery was another matter altogether.
Even in death, Pearlman still managed to find a way to deceive and confuse me. Of course, I was lucky. Pearlman’s weird deception only made my Century University Ph.D diploma more interesting and more potentially valuable.
But as is generally the case with Pearlman, having more information somehow made everything fuzzier. I discovered, for example, from one of the members of my Facebook group, Society for the Toleration of Nathan Rabin, that Century University is what’s known as a “diploma mill.”
Google “Century University” and the second entry warns visitors that the big man's alma mater is “NOT ACCREDITED by any agency recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation or the US Department of Education.”
This raised more questions than it answered. Was it possible that Century was, in fact, so lax and Trump University-like in their lack of ethics that they’d allow a scoundrel like Pearlman to acquire a Doctorate over the mail? Was I in possession of a real diploma from a fake school or a fake diploma from a fake school?
But the questions do not stop there. Why would a man who made as much money in the music industry as Pearlman feel the need to augment that income by executing one of the largest and most notorious Ponzi schemes in American history? How could Pearlman have pulled off such a brazen scam for so long? How could Pearlman have fooled banks and investors with such sloppy work?
The answer, I suspect, has a lot to do with the way our culture deifies success, money and power. There’s a sense in our country that if someone becomes extraordinarily successful in business, then they must be trustworthy. Trump essentially ran on the platform of “I’m a successful businessman who will run the country like my many successful businesses and we’ll all get paid from my amazing deals” and a horrifyingly large segment of the population was seduced.
Like Trump, Pearlman's lovingly crafted self-mythology was predicated on a Big Lie: that he was a self-made mogul with a big, beautiful fleet of luxury airplanes and blimps who segued smoothly into the music industry with even more success and served as the beloved patriarch of a tight-knit group of performers and executive that were really more of a family.
It’s a lie he told so often, and with such panache that on some level he probably came to believe that it was true. How brazen was Pearlman in his criminal chicanery? When Pearlman went on the lam to avoid imprisonment once his house of cards came tumbling down, he registered at his hotel under the name, “A. Incognito Johnson”, which is only slightly more subtle and convincing than calling yourself Nada Fakename or Guy Ondalam. For the name of the phony accounting firm that aggressively approved all of Pearlman’s schemes, he chose to call it Cohen & Siegel, after the notorious Jewish gangsters Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel. And a picture of a plane adorned with the logo of Pearlman’s Transcontinental Airlines (you can't spell Transcontinental without "con") was in fact just a toy model plane being held aloft in such a tightly composed shot that you couldn’t see the fingers holding up the plane just out of frame.
Before he conquered the world of pop music with first Backstreet Boys and then *NSYNC, Pearlman was a chubby Jewish mama’s boy from Queens who dreamed big about becoming a blimp mogul. On a symbolic level, blimps were perfect for Pearlman: full of hot air and used primarily for hype rather than transportation or more practical matters.
Pearlman’s blimps had an unfortunate habit of crashing but the enterprising young entrepreneur with the Jabba the Hut physique and Trumpian disdain for the truth turned a negative into a positive by scoring millions in insurance settlements every time one of his big boys went down.
But not even a field as sexy and glamorous as blimps could contain Pearlman’s ferocious ambition. According to Pearlman, he first became interested in the boy band business when a group he’d never heard of, New Kids on the Block, ponied up 250,000 dollars in cash to use one of Pearlman’s planes.
Like almost everything Pearlman said, that was probably a lie, but regardless of the inspiration, Pearlman realized that there was a fortune to be made, in merchandising as well as album sales and touring, from a new group that could fill the cultural space left behind by the dissolution of New Kids on the Block.
There will always be a richly compensated place in our culture for people who figure out a way to monetize both the beauty and youth of pretty young men and the lust of teenyboppers and teenaged girls. Pearlman set about creating a band that would fill the absence left by NKTOB: he was looking for the Newer Kids on the Block, as it were, or rather he was looking to create the Kids’ sonic successors.
That’s where Backstreet Boys came in. Pearlman spent millions shaping and molding the Boys into international superstars. Then he essentially created *NSYNC from the same study mold. N’Sync grossed something in the area of 500 million dollars yet were kept on a 35 dollar a day per diem. Finally, they were told that all of their hard work and touring and world-beating had paid off and they’d be receiving a big windfall. As he recounts in his memoir, Lance Bass was excited about finally getting his due until he was handed a check for 25,000 dollars, an amount so insultingly low that Bass tore it up.
As the man-beast behind both Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, Pearlman owned the pop charts for a few years but his time at the apex of the entertainment food chain was short-lived . Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC both sued to get out of their contracts as soon as they could. From an image perspective, meanwhile, it did not reflect well upon Pearlman that after leaving Lou *NSYNC scored the best-selling album of 2000. The album was called No Strings Attached, presumably because an album called Fuck You, Lou Pearlman, You Fat Perverted Fuck wouldn't get carried at Wal-Mart.
*NSYNC and Backstreet boys had personal as well as professional reasons to want to get as far away as from Pealman as humanly possible. Rumors of sexual impropriety involving the many pretty underage boys that surrounded him have dogged Pearlman ever since he made the leap from blimp magnate, or rather "blimp magnate" to boy band Svengali.
Did Pearlman molest, harass or defile the vulnerable, ambitious underage boys whose careers he controlled? Gray treads lightly on this manner, possibly for legal reasons (the book was published in 2008 and Pearlman didn’t die until 2016), instead deferring to a bombshell Vanity Fair article that depicted Pearlman as a predator notorious for “wrestling” with his proteges, gallivanting about clad in nothing but a towel and lasciviously rubbing his protege's abs in a way he claimed “aligned their auras.”
Pearlman’s defense is nearly as embarrassing as James Toback saying that he couldn’t possibly have ejaculated either in front of, or on, the many horrified women that accusing him of sex crimes on account of being impotent for decades. In a similar vein, Pearlman claims he couldn’t possibly have strutted about in only a towel because no towel could possibly be big enough to constrain his enormous girth.
Pearlman was involved with Tammie Hilton, a nurse for a decade, but she wasn’t his girlfriend, and they didn't have a relationship so much as she was his “girlfriend” and they had a “relationship” that was never consummated because of Pearlman’s devout Judaism. I’m not the world’s most knowledgable Jew, but I don’t think Judaism approves of adult men fondling teenagers either, even in the service of something as important as aura-alignment.
Why didn’t Pearlman go straight once hundreds of millions of dollars started flowing in through his boy bands? Why didn’t he use his legal fortune to pay off the money he owed to the victims of his Ponzi scheme? For starters, Pearlman spent money as quick as it came in. Besides, Pearlman’s personality would not allow him to stop.
Fraud wasn’t something that Pearlman did. It’s who he was. It was his identity. He was a con man who succeeded in conning himself along with everyone around him. If he’d treated his acts fairly and stopped while he was ahead he could still be living a very nice life but if he treated people fairly and knew when to quit, he wouldn’t be Lou Pearlman.
The Hit Charade builds to a powerful conclusion where Pearlman, whose life and persona were personified by his insatiable lust for money, power and status, stood powerless in an oversized prison jump suit while a handful of his victims, their voices trembling with emotion, tears streaming down their faces, related the emotional and financial devastation Perlman’s decades-long crime spree had wrought on them and their families.
For decades, Pearlman was protected from the consequences of his actions by power, by money and by the greed of cohorts who stood to benefit tremendously from not asking pointed questions about the swampy morass that was Pearlman’s financial life. But now he stood before the world as he truly was. He was a fraud. He was a liar. He was a con man. He was a thief. He was a criminal who would die in prison, a decidedly undignified death for a man who relished playing the big shot.
The Hit Charade is occasionally hampered by annoying writerly flourishes but it’s ultimately a riveting, page-turning exploration of a man who was larger than life in every conceivable way, including, unfortunately the scope of his crimes and the number of lives that he destroyed.
Want to read more about Pearlman? Then check in on Monday, when Literature Society will cover Pearlman's memoir/business manual Brands, Bands and Billions: My Top Ten Rules for Success in Any Business. It's fucking nuts, and the perfect companion piece to this page-turner.
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