A chip off the old Block 

"Are you like a stylist or publicist or something?" giggles the Britney across from me. She's pigtailed it from Daytona with two friends to attend XL106.7's July Third nightmare of girl sweat and screams, "Red Hot and Boom," and is currently holding court in the bustling lobby of the Altamonte Springs Embassy Suites, where the almost-celebs are lodging.

"No," I drag, lamenting my own lack of celebrity and trying not to make eye contact. "I'm a writer."

As I rustle through my press kits trying to find some teeth for a pending chat with New Kids on the Block grad and current cheese crooner Joey McIntyre, I'm forced to remember that I used to do the same thing as these girls, intruding painfully in the vicinity of Simon LeBon and Debbie Harry. Only then I cared.

"So do you get to, like, meet stars and stuff?" she continues as I shift awkwardly, coughing ironic tar. "Because, um, I think I might want to grow up and be a writer."

Grow up? "Um, there's no money there," I hazard to retort.

Great, now I'm in a bad mood.

Good thing that Joey calls down to request my presence IN HIS ROOM before I can scrape my tape recorder across my throat in a teary rendition of "Hangin' Tough." I might die! No, really!

Upstairs, Joey's sporting a wife beater and Abercrombie long shorts, and looking like a grown-up, lazier version of the poster that you know you had on your wall. He's tooling around in predictable cell-phone madness, but achingly approachable, and painfully cute.

My bad mood is getting better.

"You've done a lot with your profile," I flutter. "Coming out, not being apologetic, and being everywhere. Even down to being one of the 25 most eligible bachelors. How does that feel?"

"I don't know what it means," he pinups. "Is there a crown?"

You're looking at it. Anyway, Joey's just released his second solo record, ridiculously titled "Meet Joe Mac," and is doing his best "take me seriously" mid-career swoop, stopping in town to sandwich himself between the soft rock of Evan and Jaron and the soft cock of LFO. There are worse places to be. Maybe.

"It's gotta be odd being 28 and coming out with what is almost conceived as a veteran effort," I smug, realizing that this line of questioning is horribly complimentary, and still will not remove his shorts.

"Yeah, there's no question," he furrows.

I know the feeling.

"A ton of people just see me as pop because they really don't know my music. And they really don't know me. They just see me as the youngest of the New Kids but they don't know me as my music. If I had a wish, that would be it."

If I had a wish ... Thankfully, we're interrupted by a knock at the door that reveals a suspicious gift bag from new pop try-outs Triple Deep.

"What's Triple Deep?" he asks.

"Another boyband situation," I demure.

"Situation? Like a situation comedy?" he jokes.

Yes. Then, thoroughly abusing my journalistic professionalism, I grab my own cell phone and force Mr. Mac to make a call to my friend Angela, who, she's proud to announce, spent all of her allowance on him during her awkward Georgia pre-pube years. She's on South Beach drinking a margarita when she's confronted with her childhood hero.

"No, it's a good record," he promotes, challenging her assumption that maybe he's gone a little too sweet. To prove he's not, he pulls pop cred and issues his goodbye.

"We'll hang out and do some Ecstacy on the beach."

Oh, dear. When our own conversation shifts to drugs and the fact that, um, most boybands do them, only covertly, he's ready with some more ironic tar for his own image.

"I do it right out in the open!" he honks, cracking a hotel card on the table. Although, later he rescinds all drug references in favor of maybe selling some records. I believe him. I really do.

Let's diss on O-Town, I offer.

"What makes me sick," he grumbles, "is that people look at that shit and think that that's how we did it."

"They're awful," I concur, lying through my teeth.

"Who'd a thunk they'd have a second single?" he continues.

"Ashley's my favorite," I bluff. "He's the cute one ... Weren't you the cute one?"

"I wasn't the sexy one," he sexes. "But I sold the most T-shirts."

More weighty talk of celebrity, boybands and living through it all duly follows. As does a raised-voice slaughter of personal fave and obvious comparison Robbie Williams, who I once interviewed nude ... on the phone.

"He's ridden that horse to death," cheeses Mac, "'I'm an alcoholic, I'm a drug addict, I might be gay!' That's so fuckin' English. Then everybody liked him because he's a real bloke. Fuck it. Fuck all."

I think I finally broke him. With a "well I like you better" smile, and a "yes, I meet stars and stuff" giggle, I slide my own unplayed copy of "Meet Joe Mac" into the realm of his Abercrombie rage for a signing.

"Billy, do you ever shut up?" he sharpies.

Maybe now.

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