Diehard pop fans want nothing more than to feel close to their favorite artists. Twenty years ago this month, ABC and MTV fulfilled that dream with the creation of Making the Band. The reality show is probably best known for its second iteration when Diddy modernized the program with R&B groups like Danity Kane, but in 2000, it was all about boy bands. Lou Pearlman, a manager and con man fresh off successfully creating Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and LFO, decided the next step in the lucrative teen pop business was to give fans what they always wanted: day one access, so that they, too, could feel like they participated in the creation of their beloved groups. And it began with O-Town.
After hand-selecting members in a countrywide search, Pearlman assembled O-Town with Ashley Parker Angel, Erik-Michael Estrada, Trevor Penick, Jacob Underwood, and Dan Miller, who replaced Ikaika Kahoano. The success of the show’s debut season inspired the network to continue the series, documenting the entirety of the band’s existence, including their discovery of Pearlman’s financial crimes and rumors of his alleged sexual abuse. O-Town broke up after only three years (a short run, even for the most flash-in-the-pan boy bands) but left the world with two memorable singles—“Liquid Dreams,” and the ballad “All or Nothing”—and a shockingly prophetic show that would influence future reality TV programming.
To mark the 20th anniversary of Making the Band’s premiere, I called up O-Town’s frontman Ashley Parker Angel to talk about the show. Our conversation below is condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: On Making the Band, O-Town became television stars before you were music stars, and becoming a music star was the entire point. That feels like a really modern way to pursue a pop career. I guess in 2020, it’s social media instead of TV.
ASHLEY PARKER ANGEL: Me and my acting manager, when the audition came through, we thought [Making the Band] was a scripted TV show. We thought it was going to be scripted the same way the Monkees was a scripted show about a band, and then the Monkees obviously used that TV show to launch a legitimate recording career. Having talked to Lou Pearlman once I actually made the band, I’d come to find out that the Monkees were his inspiration. He wanted to make the next iteration of that, and who better to do that than the guy who just created the two biggest superstar boy bands of the day? *NSYNC and Backstreet were just dominating.
At the time, we didn’t have tons of reality TV. The ones that did exist were like Real World or Road Rules. It wasn’t the most popular format. O-Town was essentially two worlds crossing: the world of reality TV shows and the world of boy bands. Those two worlds emerged into Making the Band as an experiment. Nobody knew if it would work. They would even refer to us as lab rats throughout the whole process. The first season was a full 22 episodes, and by the time 20 episodes had aired and it was a hit TV show, we still did not have a record deal.
Because of the success of the TV show, we were able to get the interest of Clive Davis. Cameras flew with us to New York. We signed the deal the week before the finale was going to air. They very quickly edited in the footage of us signing. If you look at what’s happened now with American Idol and The Voice, I think Making the Band really proved that that format could not only be a successful television series, but it can actually launch a legitimate recording group that could have legitimate hit songs on the radio.
And then other people caught wind. Simon Cowell ended up being in one of the early meetings we had with Clive Davis. Very quickly after that, he goes and does Pop Idol. We’d always heard on the record label side that Simon Cowell had been really inspired by what happened with Making the Band and O-Town—so he started Pop Idol, that becomes a huge success, and then, of course, Pop Idol becomes American Idol.
Pop music has a storied history with reality TV—like everything you were saying about American Idol and The Voice, but also One Direction 10 years later. They were made on The X-Factor UK, and they lost. The experiment with boy bands and reality TV has continued.
Right. And it doesn’t always work. Just because you have a TV show doesn’t mean it’s going to translate to actual radio play. ABC tried to launch a show based on Making the Band called Boy Band. Nick Carter was a judge on it. Timbaland was a judge on it. There was a big primetime push. And then nothing. Those guys are not around. I don’t think they were able to mount a successful single.
I actually really liked that show, but I also love boy bands.
I did, too. As I watched it, I was like, “Oh, they’re doing Making the Band but with a new spin, those superstar judges, which is going to add that American Idol element.” But it just didn’t pop.
I was listening to a podcast recently with Paris Hilton and she was talking about The Simple Life, which debuted in 2003. She argued that unlike reality television today, reality TV of the early 2000s wasn’t as manufactured or fabricated. Do you agree with that?
I tend to agree with her comment. Yes, there are things being manipulated behind the curtain when you’re in that world. Yes, good reality TV producers see where the conflict is happening, and they massage your life from behind the scenes to make sure those conflicts occur, but those conflicts are real. They’re capturing real life. Obviously, you can do a lot in editing, but primarily [Making the Band] was a very real situation we were all going through.
We had cameras living with us in the house we were living in as O-Town. We had hidden microphones in the house. In Making the Band, if you had a conversation in the middle of the night, these huge production lights would pop on and some guy, another guy with a boom microphone, and a cameraman would rush in. It didn’t matter what time it was. They would film everything. You couldn’t leave the house without telling them because they wanted a camera crew on you. As it went on, however, even by the third season of Making the Band, there was a lot more soft scripting going on. A lot more of producers saying, “Hey, we need you to have a conversation on camera about this.” They’re really kind of directing it more.
How did O-Town try to differentiate itself from the other boy bands at the time?
Making the Band came about at a time where you had a pretty dense field of pop bands. You had LFO, BBMAK—outside of Backstreet and *NSYNC, you had so many offshoots of bands in that style—of course, 98 Degrees. Without the show, there was a lot of noise in an already crowded room. I think the TV show set us apart because now it’s a window into this life that you would never get from just listening to an album. You’re now living in this world. You get the chance to be a fly on the wall and watch that process in a TV show. It set us apart in a way that would’ve been very difficult had we not had the show. I’m not saying we weren’t talented guys, but we had the benefit of being a part of something manufactured, which allowed there to be a higher degree of talent pulled from all these different cities.
I agree. But also, I think of the pop songs of the era—“Liquid Dreams,” come on, you were the boy band unafraid to get sexual. That separates you.
[Laughs] Thank you! I will add to that, too, we were set to do a fourth season of Making the Band. The TV show was always a hit, even though music changed and started to go more R&B and alternative rock again. The second album didn’t sell what the first album did, but the show was still getting really awesome ratings. So we moved into production for Season 4. At that point, a lot of guys in the band were not as excited to keep living on camera. We had a lot of internal debates about whether or not we should be a TV band or if we should move away from that and try to convince people of the longevity of our career. I, personally, always felt the two were connected. Then things started to change. When we got dropped by our record label, MTV also dropped the show. In the end, [the band] did mutually decide to call it quits for a while and all go our own ways with the idea that maybe we would come back in the future.
For the first two albums, we had this unbelievable hitmaker, Clive Davis, and we had ABC and MTV supporting our careers. Once we kind of lost those things, I could see the writing on the wall.
Not only does that sound like a clean break, but you also have a documentary of the entirety of O-Town in Making the Band. That’s unique to your group—even considering later seasons of Diddy’s revamped Making the Band. I think the only thing that’s comparable might be K-pop boy bands whose social media streaming is archived.
You’re so right; it’s so rare. It’s this little window into your life for three or four years. Who has that? And what a crazy time to have captured: a life-changing moment, and here it is in these well-produced, well-edited snapshots of your life.
At the time, were you cautious about working with Lou Pearlman? The show premiered a year or two after both Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC cut ties with him, so litigation must’ve been going on while you were filming.
There was a really specific 20/20 special that aired that was all about *NSYNC and Backstreet’s legal troubles with Lou. Up until that point, Lou was the most charming businessman you’d ever meet. He was obviously making the careers of young pop stars. He was a fun character to be around. Once it started hitting the mainstream media, and you’re hearing all these legal terms and trouble, that definitely started to throw some salt on the situation. And Lou started getting really pushy about us signing contracts. I’ll never forget the first lawyer we hired to look at our initial contract with Lou and said, verbatim, “In my 30 years of entertainment law, this is the worst contract I’ve ever seen.” That added fuel to the fires of what was already happening with Backstreet and *NSYNC.
Some of that actually ends up spilling out onto Making the Band; some of the storyline gets shared. Things start getting sort of intense because he wants certain things we are not signing. So he cuts off our money supply. There were weird scenarios like that that started to occur. But once Clive Davis came into the picture and we had two managers, we side-stepped a lot of trouble with Lou, whereas Backstreet and *NSYNC were right in it with him. We had a lot of other people around us, caretakers to say, “Hey, by the way, there are some other rumors about Lou. Don’t be alone with him.” Those kinds of things.
I remember at one point we were with Lou in his office, and literally, he said, “Guys, I would love to keep this meeting going, but the FBI are here, so we’re going to have to wrap this meeting up now. Because the FBI are here.” And, no joke, the FBI came in and they investigated the offices while we were there.
What? Where’s that footage?
I know! It’s all come out now. Lou was sharing with me, in private, some of his con man-style tricks. Like, he had pictures of himself in his offices where it looked like there were these 747 airplanes in the back, supposedly he had this airplane company, and he goes, “Look at this picture of me with this airplane on the tarmac. Do you see anything weird about that photo?” And I go, “No, it’s you with your 747 airplane.” And he goes, “That’s a model airplane, hanging from fishing string, held from the right perspective so it looks like a full 747 airplane.” He was using little miniature models, and using little tricks of the eye, to make it look like these little miniature airplanes were real airplanes. He would use pictures like that to convince investors that he had all these companies and airplanes. As an 18-year-old kid, I’m thinking, Wow, this guy’s really smart, but also, Wow, this is so illegal, but he’s bragging to me about it.
I’m surprised he revealed his tricks to you.
It was total Catch Me If You Can, that movie. You’re kind of impressed because it’s this evil genius type of thing, but it’s still lying and fraudulent. Now it’s all coming out after years of being investigated by the FBI. That was when things really started to go South for Lou.
Some of your issues with Lou are documented on Making the Band, but he was also an executive producer and creative consultant. Did he have to approve the storyline? The show doesn’t paint him in the best light, but now it’s well-documented that he was guilty of so much more than what was presented on the show.
I wasn’t there, so this is speculation, but I imagine Lou regretted involving himself on camera and not having complete control of it. Lou didn’t think he did anything wrong. Lou’s giving hope to these young, talented kids that would never have a shot. He’s Mr. Money Bags. He’s coming up with millions of dollars behind the scenes—for rehearsals, styling sessions, and putting demos together to actually get you to the place where you can sign a deal—so he never looked at himself as having done anything wrong. The guy could sell anything to you. He was a master salesman. If you sat in a room with him, he’d have you convinced that he was Mother Theresa. He was very good and very shrewd at business. He was just taking advantage in so many different ways. And yet, he was the Berry Gordy of the Motown era, but it was all in O-Town, this whole new pop phase of music that he ushered in with *NSYNC, Backstreet, Britney, Aaron Carter, O-Town, and LFO. His fingerprint was on all of that, and that was a huge movement in music. It’s too bad that he was as crooked as he was.
How do you view the legacy of Making the Band, 20 years later?
There are always going to be gatekeepers, but I think the barriers of entry started coming down with shows like Making the Band. Now you have an opportunity, on a national level, to hear about an audition and show up for it. Making the Band was a shot for someone who would’ve never had a shot. Shows like American Idol and The Voice have continued to take that concept even further.
Making The Band really was the first of its kind. We proved the platform could work because we actually transformed it into a legitimate music career. For young, hopeful, talented people out there, I’m glad that Making the Band could pave the way, and I’m glad there are even more formats like this for young, talented, hopeful people who’d like a shot at success.