Tyler Gray scored the first jailhouse interview with Lou Pearlman essentially by showing up and signing in, rather than going through the Orange County jail's media process. That reporter's instinct serves Gray well; he's not only a contributor for provocative pop-culture magazine Radar, but the author of a new book, The Hit Charade: Lou Pearlman, Boy Bands and the Biggest Ponzi Scheme in U.S. History. Gray, a former nightlife columnist at the Orlando Sentinel, took to the story not because of the residual glitter of the boy band era, but because the complex web of deceit woven by Pearlman was so provocative, ensnaring scores of "friends" and employees as well as hundreds of innocent investors.
From Pearlman's first failings as an unscrupulous blimp salesman (it was the insurance payouts from multiple crashes that funded his future endeavors) through the investment schemes, modeling agencies, airlines and entertainment ventures, Gray details how this tubby, disingenuous kid from Queens used deception and deflection to live a life he truly did not deserve. Orlando Weekly spoke with Gray about the book.
Orlando Weekly: What drew you to `Pearlman` in the first place? Was it the overall seediness or was there something else that appealed to you as a reporter?
Tyler Gray: First and foremost, it was definitely the seediness and the ugliness of it, the sort of allegory for the music industry. It was also sort of a justification that the whole boy band thing was underlined by something really fake. It felt like that at the time. I tried to dodge it like the plague, and tried not to cover it whenever possible, but you know, inevitably you end up at some thing at Tabu or wherever, and it would be a red velvet rope "songwriters night" thing with sushi and then you notice that everyone is name-dropping boy bands. But also, being out of that scene for four or five years, I realized that it was truly a freaky thing, and that it did have national interest and international implications.
What I thought was interesting about the book was that I assumed it was going to be just about the boy band phenomenon, but it was more about how that stuff was just another chapter in this guy's self-absorbed life. It was all deceit with Pearlman, from day one.
Yeah, from age 8. It started when he was 8 years old! I was unable to find anyone who said that they actually bought lemonade from his lemonade stand that he so famously set up. And the newspaper route that he said he had after that, I talked to the two guys who, in his book `Pearlman's 2002 autobiography/business how-to book, Bands, Brands and Billions: My Top Ten Rules for Making Any Business Go Platinum`, he said he purchased this paper route from. I talked to them and they said they would have remembered getting paid $500 for a paper route, and no, they never sold it to him.
I'm glad you noticed that about the book, though. Publishers want a book that's all about celebrities and famous connections and dishing dirt, but that story's already been told. What hadn't been told was the sweeping breadth and depth of this monumental scam.
What's weird to me is that he just continually lied to people, even when there really wasn't anything to gain by lying. So much of the stuff that he was making up, it was like he just wanted to feel better about himself.
He lied for a long time to Tammie Hilton, this person who was portrayed as his girlfriend in the media. He lied to her when he didn't have to. This was the person who was his champion throughout this whole thing, she was on his side, and here he was telling her, ‘Oh, babe, I just had this great meeting `with prosecutors`, and they took me out to McDonald's; they took me out of jail, bought me hamburgers and told me they were sorry for all this and it was going to go away soon.' You're left with one ally in the whole world, and that's who you're lying to?
How hard was it to get people to talk?
There are many people who just won't. Toward the end, there were more and more people who had their own projects in mind and didn't want to talk to me. None of the major boy band players who are still around would say a word. They'd just shut down on a red carpet or whatever if you even brought up the name Lou Pearlman. They'd just stop and walk away. I had somebody working for me at one point, a bona fide celebrity reporter type, and it just didn't go anywhere. Even people like `New Kids on the Block singer` Jordan Knight, who's so far removed from this. Even he wouldn't say a word.
But there were some people who were just so frustrated that they just had to get it off their chest, that they just had to let people know what this guy was up to.
I compare the Orlando City Council to the town council in The Music Man. The guy comes to town with the big show, convincing people to spend money, and the rubes are just dazzled. But reading your book, it became clear that everybody got swindled by this guy.
Well, I don't know. They were still pretty rube-ish. They were awarding the guy the key to the city and there was plenty afoot. You guys `Orlando Weekly` had reported the shit out of this and the Sentinel even did some stuff, and it was in the air by then.
But how about the FDIC? I know these days we aren't putting a whole lot of faith in our banking and insurance institutions, but somebody called them in the late '80s and told them they were supposed to be selling this EISA `Employee Investment Savings Account, an investment vehicle invented by Trans Continental, falsely purported to be FDIC-insured`. But the guys selling it didn't even know what the EISA was, so they were calling the FDIC for guidance, asking a) if it was legal, and b) what rules apply to it.
The guy at the FDIC looks at it and says, "We can't figure it out, and in fact, I called Mr. Pearlman to ask him and he said it was a 401(k)." So federal officials talked to Lou Pearlman himself, and it still didn't result `in` an investigation. They basically told the sales agents to go back and ask more questions.
I think that's part of the reason why nobody tried to write this book before; it's just so fucking tangled. Nobody wanted to pull the string. It was fun to do, though. There was a ton of documents to go through, but it was fun in the sense that I was able to finally see the whole picture come together, and also to have my curiosity email@example.com
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